October 2013

Kati Nolfi

nonfiction

Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking: A Memoir of Food and Longing by Anya von Bremzen

To Anya von Bremzen, the story of Soviet food is a story of suffering and unrequited desire, the extremes of excess and deprivation. She recounts Soviet history in Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking using food as an organizing framework. The poetic Russian character (part cliché, part truth), the gallows humor, and the identity struggle of immigration are all part of the story. Subverting the rule of law to cultivate the beauty that is not allowed to exist flourished underground in Soviet times. Of course the title is a sort of joke, the assumption being that Soviet food is bad. However, people wrongly assume that Russian food is still bad and that there is no tradition worth preserving.

There seems to generally be a bias against Eastern European cooking. For instance, From a Polish Country House Kitchen, the new Polish cookbook by Anne Applebaum, is gorgeous and enticing, but it is unexpected because of the country's repressive history. I can only speak to my trip to Moscow and St. Petersburg three years ago, where I ate very well. Good caviar and vodka were cheaply and widely available, blini were indeed delicious, and when we ventured to a restaurant, I had Georgian chicken stew that soothed my wintry ache. You can smoke anywhere. Cigarettes are listed on the coffee shop menu. Grocery stores require that you bag and label your produce. My single apple needed its own plastic bag, and I was chastised for not knowing this. For a non-Russian-speaking tourist in December, it was challenging to navigate but there were many gifts, edible, aesthetic, and otherwise.

"All happy food memories are alike; all unhappy food memories are unhappy after their own fashion," she begins. Von Bremzen, a former pianist, wrote Please to the Table (which I borrowed from my library many years ago), an indispensable reference of Russian cooking, aspects of which are homey, grounding, and fermented. Those trendy probiotics in kvass, kombucha, and yogurt have roots in Soviet lands. Her father left the family when von Bremzen was five, and she grew up in a Moscow apartment with her mother, an anti-Romanov and anti-Bolshevik. For a time they lived in a communal apartment where eighteen families shared a kitchen -- unimaginable. Von Bremzen immigrated to Philadelphia in 1974, and when she tasted bad food, it was just bad, without any political righteousness. There was no suffering for a cause, like in Russia, where one ate stale bread for the motherland. Lots of Americans continue to eat really terrible food. We spend very little on food in this country and don't seem to have culinary education or taste. There's certainly a quickness to assume that certain cuisines are awful, borne of ignorance or xenophobia.

In Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking, von Bremzen and her mother, Larissa, endeavor to cook through Soviet history. They begin with the Silver Age and concoct a pre-Soviet feast, before cooking through the more depressing and leaner times. She writes that food is to Russians what landscape or class was to the English, love to the French, and war to Germans. They read Chekhov, Tolstoy, and Pushkin. There's an ambivalence in the Russian greats writing about food. Von Bremzen lets us know that there are eighty-six kinds of food mentioned in Dead Souls. She says that the literary gluttony usually serves to point out moral failings. It points to a complicated Russian relationship with food. Lev Tolstoy, who famously tried to be a vegetarian and force his family to adapt to the ascetic ways, also wrote of great feasts.

I would have preferred the book to be more memoir and less history, or just more cookery, but, understandably, the history of her country is important context. It is important to know that seven million Russians starved during collectivization and four million starved during World War II. Bread riots started the overthrow of the czar and food shortages ended communism. She writes, "Peter the Great's imperial capital resembled a snow-covered graveyard where emaciated crowds so many soon to be ghosts, lined up for their ration of bread." The ration cards are sobering.

Appended to the end of the book are a few recipes referenced within the memoir. Of those, I made the more realistic and appetizing ones. Not the kulebiaka. For not the first time, I made blini, using a cut potato to oil the pan and rolling the pancake up with store bought jam, not homemade preserves, smoked salmon, or caviar, unfortunately! Predictably wonderful, however. The "Corn bread for Khrushchev" (the man wanted his country to produce cornmeal for human consumption, something the people resisted) was a flop. Made with feta, it tasted bitter and mushy. Von Bremzen provides a good borscht recipe, but I am pleased that she recalls the borscht of her youth as a thin and watery disappointment, since I never liked the soup. I would recommend that one try to find a copy of Please to the Table for a more compelling and wide ranging mix of recipes and history. Von Bremzen shines when she's writing about food, rather than using cuisine to discuss both larger and more personal matters.

Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking: A Memoir of Food and Longing by Anya von Bremzen
Crown
ISBN: 978-0307886811
352 pages