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

by Anya von Bremzen 

Crown: 2013

Svetlana Boym is a professor of Slavic and Comparative Literature at Harvard and has a scholarly book that is entirely about the phenomenon of collective Soviet memory. In The Future of Nostalgia, Boym writes that, ten years after the collapse of the USSR, it was common to find “a new longing for the imaginary ahistorical past, the age of stability and normalcy. This mass nostalgia is a kind of nationwide midlife crisis; many are longing for the time of their childhood and youth, projecting personal affective memories onto the larger historical picture and partaking collectively in a selective forgetting.” It reminds me of Numbers 11:5, when the Israelites complain to Moses that they would rather be back in Egypt where they had “fish at no cost…cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic…”

In Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking, Anya von Bremzen calls this the “poisoned Madeleine” syndrome. Von Bremzen is aware of the problematic nature of Soviet nostalgia. For example, she recalls being ten years old and homesick in Philadelphia after their recent emigration from Moscow: “…I’d mentally preserve and pickle the tastes of my Soviet socialist past in an imaginary three-liter jar of memory…there was, however, an ideological cloud darkening my nostalgia exercise. The Friendship Cheese, the kolbasa, the chocolates – all were produced by the reviled Party-state we’d fled…” In America, von Bremzen and her mother try desperately to find something similar to “sosiski” (some type of sausage) and fail, yet von Bremzen is aware that there isn’t anything all that special, gastronomically speaking, about these sosiski. Why the longing for an ersatz hot dog? The women were happy when they did get them, because “…besides sosiski with canned peas and kotleti (minced meat patties) with kasha, cabbage-intensive soups, mayo-laden salads, and watery fruit compote for dessert – there wasn’t all that much to eat.” As von Bremzen was a small child during those years, all she remembered was the happiness that accompanied those, as it was a celebration to get any food at all. It’s this kind of perceptiveness that keeps Mastering the Art from becoming either too cynical or mawkish.

It’s an unexpectedly delightful book. Unexpected, because it is a memoir that focuses on two subjects that are usually pretty depressing: Soviet history, and Soviet food. That von Bremzen takes on these topics with wit, good humor, sympathy, and sharp insight is admirable, and makes it one of the most enjoyable and interesting books I’ve read in a while.

Von Bremzen and her mother emigrated from Moscow to Philadelphia in 1973. Forty years later, the two of them, both avid foodies and von Bremzen a known food writer, decided to embark on a project to re-create twentieth century Soviet history through food. Through this premise, von Bremzen relates her first-hand account of growing up in the USSR as well the stories from her own family’s rich history throughout various phases of Russian history.  Her writing is compelling and a perfect blend of personal detail and national history. It is alternately funny and a bit heartbreaking, and von Bremzen is clear-eyed about nostalgia and the reality of what she now – as an adult – knows about the Soviet rulers.

The premise of a food memoir about the USSR embodies the idea of laughing because one can’t cry anymore. Even when there was food, as there always seemed to be for the elites, it doesn’t sound appetizing. For the very beginning of the twentieth century, the last days of the czarist regime, the two throw a dinner party at which they serve dense, elaborate traditional Russian dishes such as kulebiaka and a layered cream dessert. Between giving a brief, fresh overview of the last days of the Romanovs and the Bolshevik Revolution, von Bremzen lets us in on what true kulebiaka really is. Not the delicately rich “salmon en croute” that she once found at a French restaurant, the kulebiaka they have in mind and attempt to create is one described in a short story by Gogol: a yeast-dough fish pie that involves mushrooms, buckwheat, crispy calves brains in butter, sturgeon spine jelly, and thin blini. Want something simpler? There’s always a big bowl of herring soup. Von Bremzen also attempts to make a favorite dessert of the imperial family, Guriev kasha, which involves layering semolina kasha “in a pan or skillet…with homemade candied nuts, and berries, and plenty of penki, the rich, faintly burnished skins that form on cream when it’s baked. Getting a hint of the labor required? For one panful of kasha, you need at least fifteen penki…chained to the oven door, drenched in sweat, I was ready to assault palaces, smash Faberge eggs…I cursed the Romanovs! I cheered the Russian Revolution!”

Of course, given the general themes of this blog, I was wondering throughout the first few chapters if von Bremzen, a Soviet émigré from the 1970’s, was Jewish or had Jewish family. I didn’t have to wait too long. In the second chapter, von Bremzen recalls visiting her great-grandparents in Odessa, where she encounters her family’s gefilte fish that is a far cry from the Manischewitz jarred variety. This kind involves stuffing a whole fish, which is then simmered until the bones are almost dissolved (alongside the head which is also stuffed and poached). She touches on Soviet anti-semitism throughout the book, and on her feelings of confusion and alienation when she and her mother came to America, completely unaware of the necessity of a menorah or the problem of having a home Christmas tree (since in the USSR, people could – in theory – remain as Jews as long as they didn’t practice any ritual. Again, this was theory. Usually the absence of ritual practice didn’t stop the state from targeting Jews).

While Von Bremzen’s maternal side was Jewish, her father’s mother came from Turkestan. Though that side wasn’t Jewish, they were also targeted by the state (a theme emerges during the Stalin years…everyone was targeted by the State) because Von Bremzen’s great-grandmother was part of a movement to rid women of their Muslim-enforced, horse-hair knee-length veils. For this she was taken to the prison camps.

Her description of mid-century Turkestan is part of what I think is one of the particularly interesting (for me) facets of Mastering the Art, which is Von Bremzen’s discussion of the vast ethnic variation that was part of the USSR, and how it contributed to much of the recent and continuing bloody political struggle. She does it all, of course, through the prism of food, remembering the “showcase markets” that the USSR would sometimes put on to highlight the specialties of the various regions, from Lithuania to Uzebekistan to Georgia to Soviet Koreans. Von Bremzen’s interest and delight in all the different cultures is apparent. She has created the best type of book – not only is it fully informative and fun to read on its own, but it inspires a curiosity to read more about her topics and do some further research.

And, as I mentioned before, this inspiration also comes from her good balance of playful and poignant. For example, one of her “poisoned madeleines” is Soviet-issue mayonnaise, which she describes as being much more sour and tangy than the sweet American Hellman’s. The condiment gets so much attention not just because it seems ubiquitous in recipes but also because “Our Brezhnevian days, so ‘abundant,’ ‘friendly,’ and ‘happy’ were accompanied by a chronic and calamitous shortage of…packaging and receptacles…nothing matched the reuse value of the mayonnaise jar…where would Soviet medicine be without this all-important receptacle? ‘Comrades women, bring your pregnancy test samples in mayonnaise jars previously scalded with boiling water,’ instructed signs at gynecological clinics…”. In fact, Soviet medicine was far from comic. Von Bremzen was regularly instructed at school that syphilis was caused by Wrigley’s juicy-fruit gum, Coca-Cola, and church communion cups. Soviet doctors tell Von Bremzen that her scleroderma is probably fatal, despite their attempts to cure it with penicillin and Odessa mud. When the von Bremzen’s arrive in the US, they are reassured that childhood scleroderma is harmless.

She cheerfully relates how “the DIY food movement of late perestroika would awe modern-day San Franciscans.” Understandably, she seems to enjoy this resourcefulness more than her recollections of  her father during the Gorbachev-era prohibition. He would either make his own hooch by distilling wood varnish, or drink the ethyl alcohol he could get at his job, which was in the embalming maintenance department for Lenin’s tomb (I told you. It’s a fascinating book).

All of these glimpses into Soviet history are, for me, riveting. I like to think of myself as fairly well educated about Jewish history, yet do I know really anything about the nuances between Stalin’s Russia before and after the war, or how things changed after Stalin’s death, or the chaos of Yeltsin’s time?

Besides her own “poisoned madeleines,” Von Bremzen recognizes other aspects of complicated Soviet nostalgia, the kind Boym describes in The Future of Nostalgia. Her mother and grandparents nearly starved during the universal food shortages of Stalin’s time, yet the young von Bremzen couldn’t understand why her mother wasn’t enthused when it was time for the class field trips to Lenin’s tomb.

“A couple of words about Mature Socialism. My grandparents had idealistically embraced the regime, whereas the urban intelligentsia of my parents’ Thaw generation of the sixties rejected it with equal fervor. We, the kids…experienced a different relation with Rodina (homeland). As the first Soviet generation to grow up without ruptures and traumas – no purges, no war, no cathartic de-Stalinization with its idealizing of sincerity – we belonged to an age when even cats on the street recognized the State’s epic utopian project as farce.” I don’t know about that “no trauma” part. The “last straw” for her mother to finally put in the application to emigrate was because the store was out of all meat except udder and whale blubber, which her mother carried home in her bare hands because she forgot the newspaper to wrap it in.

But Von Bremzen keeps that in perspective, too. At the end of the book are all the recipes for each decade, and for the 1940’s, “cooking just didn’t seem right. Instead of a recipe I offer a photo of a ration card book. Place of issue: Leningrad…By December 1941 the rations had fallen to…barely four ounces of something sticky and damp, adulterated with sawdust and cattle fodder and cellulose…those twenty small daily bites were often the difference between survival and death. An image like this calls for a moment of silence.”

On this blog there have been quite a few discussions about “Holocaust fiction,” and there will probably be more (though a voice inside my head says: that sort of assurance is not the way to attract more readers). It is far from my intentions to be instigating any sort of comparison between Jewish experiences under the Nazis versus in Soviet Russia; both were unimaginably horrible. Both need to be discussed and learned about through all sorts of media, including books. But here are far more books of the Holocaust fiction variety than there are of the Soviet Jewry variety. I’m not necessarily saying stop writing about the Holocaust; I’m saying it’s strange that we don’t have more fiction about the millions of Jews in Soviet Russia. It’s also disconcerting that there was such a large population of Jews in Russia throughout the twentieth century – terrible as their lives may have been – but knowledge of that history and their experiences is such a vague area in American Jewish education. Perhaps it’s time for some “refusenik fiction.”  Von Bremzen has set the bar high with Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking.

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One Response to Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking: A Memoir of Food and Longing

  1. Pingback: Welcome One & All to December’s Jewish Book Carnival. Step Right This Way. | THE BEST CHAPTER

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