Book 5; Continent: Asia, Europe, North America

Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking: A Memoir of Food and Longing by Anya Von Bremzen

  • 339 pages (recipes begin at page 298)
  • Some food for thought while Putin chews through one-time Soviet lands

This book caught my eye as Vladimir Putin began to make his noise about absorbing Crimea. Although food is a theme in Von Bremzen’s book, recipes don’t appear until the end, and skipping that section doesn’t diminish the book’s quality as a memoir. Mostly, the author talks about the politics and culture inside her Soviet lifestyle: in Moscow, in smaller communities and in different parts of the USSR. Food serves as a metaphor for the larger cultural themes.

Von Bremzen’s great-grandmother was a proto-feminist of sorts, taking in a niece and making some political noise in Lenin’s era. A generation later, her grandfather, Naum, worked in Soviet intelligence under Stalin, Brezhnev and Kruschev. The author and her cousin liked to try on his many medals. Her artistic mother felt stifled in the Soviet culture and fantasized about the outside world—Western places that seemed modern, prosperous and tolerant in comparison to her own apartment complex with its communal kitchen. Meanwhile, her alcoholic father worked the socialist system, having employment on paper only. These and other family characters illustrate a cultural breadth and and depth across generations.

Young Anya had many flavors associated with her childhood. Among them, Juicyfruit gum, a black market product she sold to her classmates. She also shared it secretly with a shopkeeper for a little extra privilege at the local shop, a common way to get a better cut of meat or nicer loaf of bread when in line. The other children at her school were the more privileged within Soviet society, children of politicians (her grandfather’s connections gained her admission). The school lunches served to them each day were more sophisticated and expensive than she could find back at her mother’s flat. Who serves caviar to grade-schoolers? Russians, apparently, if the grade-schoolers are the children of high-ranking government officials. Eating these decadent lunches seemed disloyal to her anti-Soviet mother. According to the author, “a complicated, even tortured, relationship with food has long been a feature of [Soviet] national character,” so perhaps she was not so unusual.

Evidence of this complicated relationship on a larger scale, Von Bremzen also tracks the evolution of Soviet Classic The Book of Tasty and Healthy Food. In 1939, the Bolshevik internationalist rhetoric celebrated the various differences among the regions of the country. By 1952, however, recipes from ethnic minorities had disappeared, as well as any reference to American delicacies introduced back in the 1930s, like ketchup. By 1953, all the quotes from notorious foodie Stalin had been removed in the wake of shifting political winds. Part of the magic of this book, however, was not in tracking its changes, but rather in fantasizing about all its sumptuous offerings. Oysters! Champagne! Fully laden tables of meats and rich foods! The images bore no resemblance to the staples Anya, her family and her neighbors could get for their state-issued coupon books: sausages, black bread, canned foods.

The author and her mother left the Soviet Union as dissidents in 1974, settling in New York. Naturally, the Russian community there closely observed the events in the USSR. The 1980s marks the beginning of my own recollections of the Cold War, and grim Soviet humor referred to this time as the “three-coffin decade” (do you remember which three secretary generals didn’t make it out of the 1980s? I’ll spot you Yuri Andropov). Like most Americans, I embraced the tolerant image of Mikhail Gorbachev given us by the Western press. I didn’t realize until reading this book how disliked he was in Russia, viewed as a bit of a weenie for flip-flopping on his policies.

Von Bremzen talks some about Vladimir Putin and how he is perceived. She recalls him as outspoken, even brash, early in his political career. It’s the sort of thing that plays well in Russian politics, especially in a culture that remembers Gorbachev’s wishy-washiness. She could not have known what would transpire this winter, but perhaps she would have predicted it, if asked.

Photo Credit: David Mark, http://pixabay.com/en/users/tpsdave/

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