Potato Pie.

I’m reading Yuri Trifonov’s third “Moscow novel,” Долгое прощание [The Long Goodbye], and I was brought up short by this passage (“he” is Grisha Rebrov, the rather pathetic boyfriend of the actress protagonist; the action is taking place in 1952):

Потом пошел в кафе «Националь» ужинать. Угнездившись за любимым столиком у окна, он пил кофе, жевал весь вечер один остывший шницель с сухим картофельным «паем», который умели по-настоящему делать только здесь, в «Национале», и выпил раза два по рюмке коньяку: подходили знакомые и угощали.

Then he went to the National cafe to have dinner. Nestled at his favorite table by the window, he drank coffee, spent the whole evening gnawing on a cold schnitzel with dry potato “pai,” which they only knew how to make properly here at the National, and drank a couple of glasses of brandy when acquaintances came by and treated him.

I was baffled by the “potato pai“; the only пай I knew was the standard noun meaning ‘share’ (as in shareholder), which made no sense here. Of course it could be a borrowing of English pie, but that made no sense either: when I googled [картофельный пай] I got a bunch of pages like this, and you can see from that image it’s nothing like a pie — in fact, it looks like a heap of thin French fries. I asked my endlessly patient pal Alexander Anichkin; he wasn’t familiar with it, but asked a friend who said “картофельными паем называют хрустящую тонкую картофельную соломку, термин, как я понимаю, существует в России с дореволюционных времен” [it’s what they call thin crispy potato straws, a term that I believe has existed in Russia since before the Revolution]. So does anybody have any thoughts on what this pai might be?

Probably not of interest to many people, but I’m leaving the link here in case I want to find it again: Alexey Vdovin, who teaches at the School of Philology of HSE University, Moscow, wrote a two-part essay (1, 2) for the Jordan Center about a problem in Russian literary studies:

In Russian philological education, with a few exceptions, there still exists no specialty in Comparative Literature, a fact that greatly affects the methodology of literary scholarship in Russia and its place in the international arena. This is partly a Soviet tradition, the legacy of separating “foreigners” (Romanticists, Victorianists, Germanists, etc.) from “Russianists.” Russianists have more traditionally been allied with historians rather than with specialists in European or American literature. It is no coincidence that not a single international scholarly journal on comparative studies has been published in Russia to this day. The consequences of this situation are felt across the entire field of literary studies in Russia.

Comparative literature could be an excellent tool for mitigating the field’s confinement within its own strictly national borders. For Russianists who seek to go beyond the limits of “national” scholarship and join the global scholarly community, there are essentially two tracks—to publish either in journals on Russian studies, or in journals on comparative studies (or in both). The second track is as yet rather unrealistic for Russian scholars, since it presupposes a methodological “conversion”—the development of a new methodology and a way of thinking about literature quite different from what is customary in the Russian academic context.

The second (and related) problem stems from the fact that literary criticism in Russia—not only scholarship on Russian literature but also, by and large, scholarship on other national literatures as well—tends to think largely in national categories, and is minimally interested in translations of foreign literary theory and comparative studies. […]

The result is a division between knowledge and interpretation which seriously constrains modern literary scholarship in Russia: previously unknown figures, works and events from literary history remain under-conceptualized, and theoretical constructions often do not touch upon new material. Too many researchers do not appear to see and do not want to see that their intellectual antagonists are neither idlers nor malicious tricksters.

The Russian original appears beneath the English version in each part.


  1. “картофельный пай” appears to be the translation of the French “pommes paille”.
    They are indeed thin French fries and you can find them in the Wikipedia page dedicated to French fries, along with “pommes allumettes” and “pommes gaufrettes”.

  2. Based on the description of this food item, I am guessing the word is a gallicism: French “paille” /paj/ seems to fit the form and the meaning perfectly.

  3. D’oh! Of course, and the fact it didn’t occur to me shows how little I’ve been occupying myself with French recently. Thanks to you both!

  4. Very interesting (and new to me). However, яблочный пай is still an apple pie by all appearances.

  5. I should have known or thought of it too! Shame on me. (Anichkin)

  6. January First-of-May says

    However, яблочный пай is still an apple pie by all appearances.

    I agree (though IIRC it’s usually a very small one), and I’m surprised how I didn’t realize that before reading this thread.

  7. Can I ask about the etymology of Пайер, the highest point of the Arctic Urals?

  8. Pospelov (Географические названия мира) says “из ненец. Пэ-Ерв, где пэ ‘камень’, ерв ‘хозяин’, т. е. ‘хозяин гор’.”

  9. David Marjanović says


    I would have sworn it was some bloke named Payer ( ~ Bayer; “Bavarian”), and as luck would have it, there’s this one who would fit amazingly well…

  10. January First-of-May says

    The article for the bloke in question on Russian Wikipedia does attribute the mountain name to him. But no, apparently it’s a complete coincidence and is attested at least as far back as the 1850s.

  11. Обыкновенное чуду

    Дагестанские лепешки с начинкой называются чуду. Под этим коротким именем скрывается чудесное разнообразие. Иные чудушки похожи друг на друга не больше, чем болонка — на волкодава. Объединяет их немногое: все они выпекаются на сухой сковороде и маслом смазываются уже в готовом виде. Почти каждое чуду выигрывает, если в начинку добавить жареный лук и тмин. Также идут на пользу чабрец, мята, ореховая трава или тертые орехи. В сладкие лепешки добавляют немного сахара, в несладкие — перец и соль. А еще традиция велит класть в чуду измельченный курдюк. Впрочем, нынешние хозяйки часто заменяют его топленым маслом, сметаной, парой ложек бульона, а то и вовсе игнорируют — следят за фигурой. В качестве соуса нередко употребляют сладкий льняной урбеч — даже если речь о лепешках с потрохами.

    Подробно на сайте Это Кавказ:

  12. Just looking at those photos makes my mouth water!

  13. I liked the beautiful sprig of purple basil.

  14. As someone who bakes, I admire seeing these women wearing mostly black clothes with not the smallest smudge of flour on them.

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