Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking: A Memoir of Food & Longing
by Anya Von Bremzen
B\D\W\Y Broadway Books
Reviewed by Kristen Daily
Renowned food writer Anya Von Bremzen’s Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking is much more than a collection of recipes for authentic borscht and the infamous mayonnaise-smothered Russian salad — salat Olivier — found at buffets around the globe. In this culinary memoir, or “foodoir,” Von Bremzen artfully weaves together the history of her family’s table in the Soviet Union, childhood misadventures in eating, and post-revolutionary Russian history with her and her mother’s attempts to recreate meals for each decade of Soviet history, from the last Czar to Putin’s Russia.
Some of the book’s most striking themes and anecdotes:
• The “poisoned Madeline” effect. Von Bremzen references Proust’s involuntary memory in describing the bittersweet nostalgia of food in the Soviet Union, where almost all food was produced and distributed by the state. Von Bremzen recounts the moral dilemma of eating chocolates served at her private kindergarten, chocolates that were manufactured only for party elites: “I remember my absolute shame and dread for wanting to eat these chocolates, and being afraid that my mother would condemn me. And I would eat it, and then I would just feel terrible….I felt that I was ingesting ideology with the chocolate — the ideology of the party.”
• The tension between the desire to resist and the very real need to eat. This tension comes across as a unique sense of longing, a delicate line between tragedy and comedy. While it is easy to get lost in Von Bremzen’s stories, especially the magical stories of her childhood black market career, the reader must also face the harsh reality of the Soviet Union — ration cards, breadlines, wartime starvation, and food shortages.
• The cramped kitchen of the communal apartment Von Bremzen lived in as a child, a “microcosm of Soviet Society.” Von Bremzen writes, “It’s this long vanished institution where all kinds of people were thrown together…a dissident next to an informer, a Jewish family next to an anti-semitic family. … And everyone came together in the kitchen.”
• Von Bremzen’s masterful management of time. She mixes anecdotes, family history, and flash forwards in her narrative as she and her mother cook their way through Soviet history. “Together we’d embark on a yearlong journey unlike any other,” Von Bremzen writes, “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.” Often in food memoirs, recipes come at the end of a chapter, but Von Bremzen chooses to leave the recipes until the end of her book, allowing her to focus on the narrative, the preparation and savoring of each dish she and her mother cook.
• The food. For their farewell to the czars, Anya and her mother make Kulebiaka, a mix of fish, rice, and wild mushrooms in pastry. A tower of sweet, golden, butter-kissed dough, this recipe is a laborious undertaking. In her recipe, Von Bremzen notes, “sour cream in the yeast dough (Mom’s special touch) adds a lovely tang to the buttery casing.”
I won’t lie: As a vegetarian, recipes with meat do not often tempt me, but Von Bremzen’s delicious descriptions and the heartfelt narrative behind each dish had me salivating.