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- October 5, 2013 at 9:39 pm #345851
New book I saw this week at my local library…
Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking: A Memoir of Food and Longing by Anya von Bremzen
The author, Anya von Bremzen
Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking: A Memoir of Food and Longing by Anya von Bremzen
Anya Von Bremzen has built a “delectable” memoir around a cookbook first published by the Soviet government in 1939.
By The Week Staff | September 25, 2013
The Book of Tasty and Healthy Food was a singular work of propaganda, said Sara Wheeler in The New York Times. First published by the Soviet government in 1939, and revised many times, it brimmed with recipes for sumptuous dishes whose ingredients almost never appeared on the nation’s barren shelves. Every Soviet household seemed to have a copy, though, and it was among the few mementos that 10-year-old Anya von Bremzen and her mother brought along when they left Moscow for the U.S. in 1974. Von Bremzen, now an award-winning food writer, has built a “delectable” memoir around a recent quest to cook her way through the book. “Moving artfully between historical long shots and intimate details,” she distills from the project a sweeping portrait of Soviet life.
Von Bremzen “does not spare the reader the harsh realities” of the post-revolution years, said Ellah Allfrey in NPR.org. Her mother, now 79, lived through Stalin’s terror and the Nazi invasion of Moscow, and she shares some grim memories as she cooks alongside her daughter. Yet when Anya recalls 1970s Moscow on these pages, “the city comes alive.” We’re with her as she walks the streets in search of a Sunday family treat, runs a black market in Juicy Fruit gum, and inhales the funky aromas wafting from the kitchen shared by the 18 families in her apartment building. Sketches of close relatives—“her grandfather the spy, her vodka-swilling grandmother”—help fill out her “banquet of anecdote.”
Von Bremzen never loses sight of the comic potential of Slavic food, said Liesl Schillinger in TheDailyBeast.com. She describes one dish as emitting “enticing whiffs of wallpaper glue” and has a field day creating a prose sketch of a 12-tiered dish that ascends from a ground floor of burbot liver to a penthouse of calf’s brains. Of course, such indulgences “were never widely accessible—not in the age of the czars, not under Stalin, and not now.” But generations of Russians used the same cookbook to “savor the aroma of illusory empire,” and now all non-Russians can too.
A James Beard Award-winning writer captures life under the Red socialist banner in this wildly inventive, tragicomic memoir of feasts, famines, and three generations
With startling beauty and sardonic wit, Anya von Bremzen tells an intimate yet epic story of life in that vanished empire known as the USSR—a place where every edible morsel was packed with emotional and political meaning.
Born in 1963, in an era of bread shortages, Anya grew up in a communal Moscow apartment where eighteen families shared one kitchen. She sang odes to Lenin, black-marketeered Juicy Fruit gum at school, watched her father brew moonshine, and, like most Soviet citizens, longed for a taste of the mythical West. It was a life by turns absurd, drab, naively joyous, melancholy—and ultimately intolerable to her anti-Soviet mother, Larisa. When Anya was ten, she and Larisa fled the political repression of Brezhnev-era Russia, arriving in Philadelphia with no winter coats and no right of return.
Now Anya occupies two parallel food universes: one where she writes about four-star restaurants, the other where a taste of humble kolbasa transports her back to her scarlet-blazed socialist past. To bring that past to life, in its full flavor, both bitter and sweet, Anya and Larisa, embark on a journey unlike any other: they decide to eat and cook their way through every decade of the Soviet experience—turning Larisa’s kitchen into a "time machine and an incubator of memories.” Together, mother and daughter re-create meals both modest and sumptuous, featuring a decadent fish pie from the pages of Chekhov, chanakhi (Stalin’s favorite Georgian stew), blini, and more.
Through these meals, Anya tells the gripping story of three Soviet generation — masterfully capturing the strange mix of idealism, cynicism, longing, and terror that defined Soviet life. We meet her grandfather Naum, a glamorous intelligence chief under Stalin, and her grandmother Liza, who made a perilous odyssey to icy, blockaded Leningrad to find Naum during World War II. We meet Anya’s hard-drinking, sarcastic father, Sergei, who cruelly abandons his family shortly after Anya is born; and we are captivated by Larisa, the romantic dreamer who grew up dreading the black public loudspeakers trumpeting the glories of the Five-Year Plan. Their stories unfold against the vast panorama of Soviet history: Lenin’s bloody grain requisitioning, World War II hunger and survival, Stalin’s table manners, Khrushchev’s kitchen debates, Gorbachev’s disastrous anti-alcohol policies. And, ultimately, the collapse of the USSR. And all of it is bound together by Anya’s passionate nostalgia, sly humor, and piercing observations.
Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking is that rare book that stirs our souls and our senses.
Q&A with Anya Von Bremzen
Q. One of your reasons for writing this book was your feeling of leading a double life as a food writer. Can you explain?
A. When I started my career in the early 90s, after emigrating in the 70’s, the Soviet drama of putting food on the table was still fresh. Whenever I ate at a fancy restaurant for my work, I felt pangs of guilt about all my family struggling back in Moscow. Over time Russia became a wealthy country, but I continued to be haunted by a sense that behind everything I ate professionally lay another reality: a shadow of our collective Soviet trauma. Something deeper, more existential, and related to food. This haunting, complicated past, bottled inside of me, finally had to come out.
Q. What surprised you most, writing the book?
A. What I've come to call the “poisoned madeleine” factor. We lived in a state where every edible morsel was politicized and ideologized. And most of our food was produced by the state my mother had reviled and fled. And yet we experience a powerful bittersweet nostalgia for those “poisoned” flavors. The complexity and contradiction of this longing is what I explore in the book. Over pages eating becomes almost a metaphor for ingesting ideology—and for resisting it.
Q. Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking tells your story, but also the story of three generations of your family. How did you research their experiences?
A. My mother has an almost uncanny recall of her emotional life, starting from her earliest childhood—back when she was an alienated sensitive kid in the totalitarian frenzies under Stalin. Her feeling of being a “dissident-born,” always at odds with Soviet society, has been an incredibly powerful trope for this book. My dad, on the other hand, remembers perfectly all the small physical details: what vodka cost in 1959, for example. And my grandparents were great raconteurs. Even after they were long gone their stories lived on.
Q. You describe, to sumptuous effect, Russian literature’s obsession with food. Who are your favorite Russian authors?
A. I love most the satirical strain in Russian literature. As much as I venerate Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, it’s Nikolai Gogol, that gluttonous hypochondriac, who’s my guy. Gogol is amazing—delicious!—on food. His Dead Souls essentially chronicles one grifter’s journey from dinner to dinner through the vast Russian countryside.
Q. You’ve spent time in the new Moscow over the last few years. How would you describe contemporary Russian food culture?
A. The last chapter of the book is ironically titled “Putin’ on the Ritz.” That pretty much sums it up. Foie gras and burrata, sushi flown in from Tokyo—it's all there for comrades with serious rubles. And yet, at the same time, there’s this astonishing wave of Soviet nostalgia! Even oligarchs are pining for the mayonnaise-laden salads and kotleti (Russian burgers) of our shared, vanished socialist childhoods.
Q. How did the work of cooking change over time for Russian women?
A. That’s an arc I lay out in the book. The pioneering Bolsheviks of the 1920s wanted to liberate women from domestic chores—and so both my grandmothers were lousy cooks! But the Bolshevik feminist project failed, and by the next decade, under Stalin, Soviet women got stuck where they remained—carrying the infamous “double-burden” of a job and housework. Still. In a society with so much cultural control, some women of my mother's early 60’s generation found personal self-expression in cooking. Now with the avalanche of chichi prepared food at Russian supermarkets, cooking is strictly a matter of choice.
Q. What was the first dish you remember learning?
A. When I was a kid of five, Mom and I lived on one ruble a day—poverty even by Soviet standards. When we completely ran out money Mom would make fried eggs over stale black bread cubes. I watched her make it so many times I could do it blindfolded. And it's still one of my favorite dishes.
Q. What is your favorite dish to cook with your mother?
A. Each chapter of the book has us obsessing about something different—a new “project.” The sumptuous kulebiaka from the pages of our beloved Chekhov drove us crazy but turned out incredibly. And both Mom and I love the spicy exotic flavors from the ethnic rainbow of former Soviet ethnic republics. Chanakhi, a Georgian lamb stew with tons of herbs (Stalin's favorite dish incidentally) is something we cook a lot.
Most Westerners imagine Stalinist Russia as a food desert: politics dictating taste, failed agricultural policies yielding shortages and famines, muddled distribution systems spawning interminable queues, and black markets supplying forbidden goods. Although this view has plenty of truth, it lacks nuance and humanity, as von Bremzen reveals so eloquently in this memoir. Arriving at age 10 in Philadelphia with her mother and a couple of suitcases, she found herself in a new culinary world that she ultimately embraced. Nevertheless, she pined for some of the great prerevolutionary Russian dishes, such as kulebiaka, the famous salmon pie that so defines classic Russian cooking. Von Bremzen, disdaining czarist Russia as much as the Soviet Union, shows the personal side of Soviet life, recounting the terror of war and secret police as well as the power of human resilience. Thanks to some recipes, American home cooks may summon up for themselves the tastes and smells the author evokes. –Mark Knoblauch
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[IMG]http://img571.imageshack.us/img571/4931/idli.jpg”/>October 6, 2013 at 5:38 am #422045
The black market chewing gum brought back memories. I remember how valuable it was and people would trade whatever they had for it. That and western chocolate bars. I had a Soviet Union candy bar and it was baker's chocolate. Stupid Castro should have let Cuba make tons of sugar because it was in short supply when I was in the USSR. Looking back, I can imagine how tough it was for peo ple. The food we got was really not good, most of the time. Yet, as tourists, we probably got much more than the average person who lived there did.
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