“Food was an abiding theme of Soviet political history, permeating every nook and cranny of our collective unconscious.”
“Food, as one academic has noted, defined how Russians endured the present, imagined the future, and connected to their past.”
And as it is for von Bremzen’s memoir of food and longing.
“Inevitably, a story about Soviet food is a chronicle of longing, of unrequited desire. So what happens when some of your most intense culinary memories involve foods you hadn’t actually tasted? Memories of imaginings, of received histories; feverish collective yearning produced by seventy years of geopolitical isolation and scarcity …”
She takes the reader from the 1910s and the last days of the czars, the 1930s and her mother’s childhood with Comrade Stalin keeping a watchful eye, the 1940s and the war, to her parents’ first meeting in 1958, when they were both queueing for something (“My parents met in a line, and their romance blossomed in yet another line, which I guess makes me the fruit of the Soviet defitsit (shortage) economy with its ubiquitous queues.” Then comes her birth in 1963, the year of one of the worst crop failures in post-Stalinist history. Then the 1970s, when she and her mother make it to America, and her First Supermarket Experience, in which she felt “entombed in the abundance” and she slowly began to realise that American food wasn’t exactly delicious. The 1980s and their visit to Russia. Then the 1990s, Gorbachev and Yeltsin, and research for her cookbook. The 21st century brings Putin’s Moscow of extravagance: “not for the fainthearted and shallow-pocketed”.
It is, as you can see, quite a read.
Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking is very much the story of von Bremzen and her family. And with food at its centerpiece.
And here I have to admit that I’ve never actually had real Russian food. The closest I’ve had is a kind of faux Russian restaurant, run by Hainanese-Singaporean-style Russian in Singapore. It’s a place called Shashlik and it was opened in the 1980s (and still looks like it belongs in the 1980s). There’s borscht on the menu, but there’s also baked Alaska, so something tells me it’s not exactly Russian. 😛
So whether you’re familiar with Russian food or not, this makes for a delectable read, a delve into Soviet history and its food so loaded with meaning. One telling moment is when she first steps into an American supermarket and realises that food, “now drained of its social power and magic” meant little to her if she couldn’t feel the envy of others, couldn’t parade it in front of those without, and didn’t have to queue for hours to get.
It is a book that reminds me to be grateful that I have never gone without, and that I do live in this land of abundance, with all kinds of treats and goodies from different countries just a short drive away. For instance, I had scrambled eggs and baguette at home for breakfast, take-away kabobs, pita bread and salad for lunch, followed by Taiwanese shaved snow for dessert. All in half a day.
In contrast, Von Bremzen tells of her mother, aged seven, having to join a hundreds-long queue for bread, only to realise that she has lost her kartochki or ration cards, a month’s worth of coupons, irreplaceable. And having to sell her father’s suits for millet instead. A time when those living in the cities foraged for birch buds, clover, tree bark. And a pair of galoshes would buy you five ounces of bread, and a grave cost four and a half pounds of bread and 500 rubles.
Von Bremzen’s writing style is conversational and engaging, her story and her family absorbing, if occasionally a little hard to swallow with its depictions of hunger and harshness.
In case you’re wondering, there is indeed a ‘cooking’ element in this memoir. Von Bremzen and her mother reconstructed “every decade of Soviet history – from the prequel 1910s to the postscript present day – through the prism of food. Together, we’d embark on a yearlong journey unlike any other: eating and cooking our way through decade after decade of Soviet life, using her kitchen and dining room as a time machine and an incubator of memories.” And the last pages of the book feature a recipe for each decade, such as Kulebiaka, or fish, rice and mushrooms in pastry; Chanakhi, a Georgian stew of lambs, herbs and vegetables; and Blini.
Anya von Bremzen is one of the most accomplished food writers of her generation: the winner of three James Beard awards; a contributing editor at Travel + Leisure magazine; and the author of five acclaimed cookbooks, among themThe New Spanish Table, The Greatest Dishes: Around the World in 80 Recipes, and Please to the Table: The Russian Cookbook (coauthored by John Welchman). She also contributes regularly to Food & Wine and Saveur and has written for The New Yorker, Departures, and the Los Angeles Times. She divides her time between New York City and Istanbul.
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