Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 5, 2014

Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking, by Anya von Bremzen #BookReview

Mastering the Art of Soviet CookingAs soon as I saw the cheeky title of this book, I was interested.  Alluding to the bible of serious cooks the world over, Mastering the Art of French Cooking: v. 1 & 2 and Soviet food in the same title?  The author had to have a sense of humour, a professional knowledge of domestic cuisine, and an encyclopaedic experience of Soviet life, I thought.  Well, Anya von Bremzen has all three qualities and this is a most interesting book to read.

It’s not a cookery book, though there are some (not very enticing) recipes in the back of the book.  Von Bremzen, a Russian émigré, makes her living as a food writer in the US, a career she took up almost by accident when she successfully pitched the idea of a Russian cookbook Please to the Table.  But in this memoir she traces the tragi-comic history of food over the course of the last century in what used to be the USSR.  Though she has a light touch, it can be sobering reading, but her search for a ‘Madeleine Moment’ is mostly droll and irreverent, a characteristic of Russian humour that we noticed on our trip to Russia in 2012.

CulinariaBefore we left for Moscow, The Spouse and I decided to brace ourselves for a fortnight of cabbage, potatoes and beets with a Russian themed dinner party, and so I bought Culinaria by Marion Trutter.   It was from this book that I learned something that had never occurred to me: that when the Bolsheviks obliterated the aristocracy in 1917, they obliterated its cuisine too.  Food, that most basic of elements in any lifestyle, and one of the key identifying elements of home, family and celebration, was transformed: there had been two cuisines in Russia, one for the rich and the other for the peasants (about 80% of the population).  But after 1917, there was only one.  

However, as von Bremzen soon shows, that one cuisine went through many different phases.  She divides the memoir into decades which unpack the ways in which Soviet ideology influenced what was on the table.  Lenin ate ‘humbly’.  Food had to be ‘utilitarian fuel, pure and simple’ and the communal kitchen of communal apartments soon put paid to any culinary ambitions the new Soviet citizen might had otherwise had.  Stalin’s disastrous agrarian policies, however, brought famine, and hunger was almost universal in World War II when [as in Britain] civilian rations were much less than for the military because the survival of the nation was at stake.   But in the post-war, Cold War era, food became a vehicle for propaganda:  Stalin sent one of his minions to the US to find out about their food culture, (mayonnaise, anyone?) and the ironic era of The Book of Tasty and Healthy Food was born.  This book – in a parallel universe not recognisable to Anya and her family – featured a bountiful national Soviet cuisine when as we know,  because of shortages the ingredients for any meal could only be had by queuing – which became one of the defining features of Soviet everyday life.

Shifts in ideology are inspected through the prism of Von Bremzen’s own family life.  By some standards, she had a privileged life, because her grandfather Naum was a high-ranking intelligence officer, who was eventually able to move the family out of Moscow (which was starving) during the war.   Her exotic mother Larisa somehow manages to retain an anti-Soviet stance throughout her life without being packed off to the gulags and is able to create interesting meals despite the shortages.  But the drabness of Soviet life finally provoked emigration and – leaving behind her drunken husband Sergei – Larisa takes Anya to America and begins a new life there, observing perestroika and glasnost at a distance that is informed by her Moscow family’s ‘insider’ cynical perspective.

So there’s plenty of sardonic humour.  Here is Von Bremzen’s take on the Soviet mating ritual:

For all the Thaw talk of sincerity, Soviet Russian wasn’t suited for goodwill or intimacy or, God knows, unselfconscious lyrical prattle. As our friend Sasha Genis the cultural critic wrote, the State had hijacked all the fine, meaningful words.  Friendship, homeland, happiness, love, future, consciousness, work – these could only be bracketed with ironic quotation marks.

“Young lady, how about we go build Communism together” went a popular pickup line in the metro.  Girls found it hysterical.

Here’s how the coyly convoluted Soviet mating ritual went.  Igor meets Lida at a student dorm or party. They smoke on a windowsill.  Igor needles Lida admiringly, she needles back coquettishly.  Walking Lida home, Igor flaunts his knowledge of Hemingway, maybe mentions that he just happens to have some sought-after tickets to the Italian film festival at the Udarnik Cinema.  He lingers on her apartment landing.  With studied nonchalance he mutters something about her telefonchik (ironic diminutive for phone number).  After several weeks/months of mingy carnation offerings, aimless ambling along windswept boulevards, and heated groping in cat-piss-infested apartment lobbies, a consummation takes place.  In some bushes crawling with ants if breezes are warm.

Lida gets knocked up.  If Igor is decent, they go to the ZAGS, the office that registers deaths and marriages.  Their happily-ever after involves moving into her or his family “dwelling space” which is overcrowded with a father who drinks, a mother who yells, a domineering war widow grandmother, and a pesky Young Pioneer brother.  The Young Pioneer likes to spy on newlyweds having sex.  From there, married life only gets jollier. (p. 132-3)

There is an hilarious mock conversation between Nikita Khrushchev and Richard Nixon in the televised Kitchen Debate:

NK and RN relock horns at GE’s streamlined kitchen in the prefab tract house nicknamed “Splitnik” (for the walkway put in for the show).  Behold the sleek washing machine!  The gleaming Frigidaire! The box of SOS soap pads!

NK (lying): You Americans think the Russian people will be astonished to see these things.  The fact is, all our new houses have this kind of equipment.

RN (lying): We do not claim to astonish the Russian people. (p. 141)

It is easy to be triumphalist about the fall of Soviet communism: it was an economic and human disaster, and Stalin was a monster.  But in sharing the split consciousness of the émigré experience, Von Bremzen exposes a nostalgia for some aspects of that absurd and often melancholy life, which goes some way to explaining the occasional media report that we see about Russian nostalgia for ‘Soviet Times’.
It is, as I said, a very interesting book indeed.
Author: Anya von Bremen
Title: Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking, a Memoir of Food and Longing
Publisher: Transworld (Random House) 2013
ISBN: 9780857520241
Source: Review copy courtesy of Penguin New Zealand

Availability

Fishpond: Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking: A Memoir of Food and Longing


Responses

  1. What a great review, Lisa, the review itself I mean. The book sounds interesting, too, different. I think I might put it on my wish list.

    • Thanks, Becky, it’s kind of you to say so. Makes my day:)

  2. This does sound fun Lisa I had heard of it already was just think other day I read all these translations but never do anything connect with cooking the world

    • Hi Stu, funny you should say that, because as I was reading it, I kept remembering bits and pieces from Russian books I’d found via your blog which enhanced my reading of this one. (The Funeral Party, The Concert Ticket, The New Moscow Philosophy).


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