For the past two weeks, I’ve been having Kathleen Gati read me to sleep with Anya von Bremzen’s Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking: A Memoir of Food and Longing. Von Bremzen was born in Moscow in the early 1960s and left in 1974 with her mother, emigrating to New York. Since the day she left, von Bremzen has been chasing memories of her Soviet youth through food. Proust’s madeleine is her touchstone. In this memoir, von Bremzen writes the entire history of her post-Revolution family from the 1910s through the fall of the USSR. Like many food memoirs I read, I wish that this one came with scratch and sniff sections or a gift basket that came with the copy of the book I ordered. (I listened to the book on Scribd and decided that I needed a print edition for my library.) This book is delicious.
I’m sure most people have one image that immediately leaps to mind when the topic of food in the Soviet Union comes up: food lines. The introduction to Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking displaced that image for me. Food lines come later, but von Bremzen begins with a meal she and her mother created for a few other Russian emigres in New York. Some of their dinner guests could remember life before the 1917 Revolution, so it was vitally important that von Bremzen and her mother, Larissa, got their Tsarist dinner just right. They scoured ethnic grocery stores across the city to find the right kids of fish and other hard-to-find ingredients. They did hours of research to find out how pre-Revolution restaurants constructed their multi-layered kulebiaka, fish pies. This meal is our entree into the world of Russian and Soviet cooking. From the heights of the early twentieth century, von Bremzen shows us how communism—especially in its harshest eras—completely changed how an entire nation ate.
After the Revolution, food become fuel. Anything decadent was counterrevolutionary. It wasn’t until the 1930s when food started to become pleasurable again. Anastas Mikoyan, von Bremzen tells us, was tasked by Stalin to bring some happiness back into Soviet lives through good food and drink. By the end of the decade, Mikoyan had traveled all across the United States and Europe and produced The Book of Tasty and Healthy Food. Even though most Soviet citizen couldn’t actually get much of the fancier ingredients in the Kniga (The Book), the book was a signal that food and its pleasures could be enjoyed once more.
Von Bremzen’s parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents weathered the Revolution, the Civil War, the Purges, World War II, Stalin’s last mass deportations, Krushchev’s Thaw, and Brezhnev’s Stagnation. After von Bremzen and her mother left in the early 1970s, her grandparents and father went on enduring, through Gorbachev’s disastrous economic policies that results in another famine (unless one had connections). For me, the most interesting parts of the memoir were the years between 1917 and 1945. I marveled at what von Bremzen’s family survived—sometimes only through pure luck.
Once von Bremzen is able to travel back to Russia, she goes on a quest for what remains of the Soviet food culture. The last third of the memoir covers the post-Soviet era and the rise of Putin and the oligarchy. Unfortunately, von Bremzen is never quite able to recapture the feeling that some of her favorite foods used to elicit. Without the Soviet atmosphere and tension, it’s as though food has gotten blander. Even though she is well aware of Stalin and the politburo‘s crimes, von Bremzen suffers from what Germans call Ostalgie. It’s hard to say what exactly appeals to the author about the life of Homo Sovieticus (a term she uses throughout the book). Perhaps its because von Bremzen left when she was relatively young. She never had to live as an adult in the Soviet Union. Perhaps its because her mother and family were able to give her a fairly idyllic childhood. Now a woman approaching her 50s, von Bremzen cannot have a clear memory of what life was like as the Thaw turned into Stagnation and the Soviet Union trundled towards its demise.
Towards the end of Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking, von Bremzen mentions her James Beard award-winning cookbook, Please to the Table. I paused the audiobook and ordered a copy. Von Bremzen did lose me a little during her existential questing after the old USSR, but I remained enchanted with her long, loving descriptions of Russian food. Now I want to make some of the dishes she described.
Note on the narration: Kathleen Gati reads Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking with a Russian accent. She also infuses the book with genuine emotion as von Bremzen shares her joys and disappointments and longings and sorrows. I’m glad that my first “reading” of this book was the audio version. I would have bungled a lot of the Russian terms and names if I’d just been puzzling them out in my head.