When I first heard about Anya Von Bremzen’s memoir Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking, I was immediately intrigued due to the fact that my knowledge of Russian cuisine consisted of caviar, borscht, and cabbage, lots and lots of cabbage. But I should have known that it wasn’t going to just be a book on Russian cooking simply by reading the title, Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking. So it doesn’t solely focus on dishes you’d find in Moscow and St. Petersburg, it also includes information and history on the more than 10 independent nations that once were part of the all-mighty Soviet Union.
In today’s world, Von Bremzen is a noted food writer but for the first ten years of her life, she lived in Russia (she was born in 1963, at the height of the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States). As a child, Von Bremzen was intrigued by communism, since children after all are products of their environment and I can only imagine how “strong” the Communist environment was. But she was also curious about the West, especially by the propaganda and other information that would filter in. But her mother was and had always been a staunch anti-Communist even though her own father was a high ranking official in the Soviet navy. When Von Bremzen was 10, her mother finally got her wish and mother and daughter escaped to the United States, not to return to Russia for more than 10 years. Von Bremzen weaves the food parts along with the individual stories of her family members, all the while incorporating them into the range of Soviet history, events most Westerners probably know little to nothing about (Krushchev’s kitchen debates).
The book came about through Von Bremzen and her mother’s desire to “eat and cook their way through every decade of the Soviet experience, starting with the waning days of Czarist Russia to the ultimate collapse of the Soviet Union and the cosmopolitan chic resurgence of Russia. Part I, which focused on the 1910s and 20s, was a bit dry and rough, content wise. It was in this part that Von Bremzen laid on a lot of the Communist ideologies/Soviet Union components and while I certainly knew next to nothing about it (we’re not exactly taught this here in the United States), it was very heavy reading. However, reading everything that the Czar and Russia’s high society once ate for mere “dinners” was amazing. For their “Czarist” dinner, Von Bremzen and her mother make “normal” things like burbot liver, crispy brains in brown butter, and kulebiaka, a type of fish pie.
The second part focuses on the life of Von Bremzen’s mother and includes her family’s background. This was defintitely one of the saddest parts of the book, reading about her mother who even as a child, wanted nothing to do with Communism. She just wanted to leave the Soviet Union for she knew that what was being spouted to the people was nothing more than propaganda. I really enjoyed the historical parts in this section which covered the era of women’s rights in the Soviet Union, pogroms against the Jews (Von Bremzen’s father’s family was Jewish), and the events of World War II (Von Bremzen’s grandmother seemed like a very tough lady, having traveled with her young children hundreds of miles during wartime to be reunited with her husband). The 1950s chapter is entitled “Healthy and Happy” and under the propaganda umbrella, life seemed like it was for the Russian people. I found it slightly comical how high ranking Soviet officials would travel to other countries (namely the United States) to learn how to replicate their own versions of popular items like hot dogs and soda (neither of which probably could ever be legitimately replicated).
I really enjoyed learning about the former Soviet republics most of the world knows so little about. I was reminded of the fact that Stalin wasn’t even Russian, but rather Georgian (the country, not the state) and that a simple Georgian stew would always remain one of his favorite dishes, a tangible reminder of his very humble upbringing. Also the fact that countless exotic fruits and vegetables and other food imports from the “stan” countries (Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan) were what allowed Soviet cuisine to become as diverse as it was.
When Von Bremzen and her mother first return to Russia after their escape years earlier, they arrive when the Soviet Union is on the verge of collapse, when you would go into a supermarket and find absolutely nothing on the shelves. The copious amount of luggage they brought with them was laden with what we in the West would take for granted-toilet paper, nylon stockings, etc.
I was only a small child when the Soviet Union still existed so I never knew of it (through newspapers) when it was anything remotely grand. But in the last 10 some years, it is interesting to see how Russia itself has grown financially, going from a country of paupers who couldn’t afford or find toilet paper, to one where designer stores line the streets of Moscow and where hundred dollar meals are the norm. Russia made a full 360 going from czars to Communism to ultimately returning to a Czarist lifestyle (well, at least for some). Von Bremzen writes all about this in the final chapter entitled Twenty First Century-Putin on the Ritz.
The fact that food and Russia rarely mix in the nonfiction culinary world is reason enough to try out this book. It’s something entirely different and something entirely educational and interesting.