Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking: A Memoir of Food and Longing
Anya Von Bremzen is a very well-published food writer, a regular contributor to Travel + Leisure, and author of the cookbook Please to Table. Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking is not a cookbook – it is an evocative memoir of growing up in Soviet Russia. She also discusses her frustrations and her fascinations with the brightly colored boxes of American food, paralyzed by the multiplicity of choices after emigrating to the United States. I was drawn to this book for the love of food writing, and of course by the playful cover illustration that captured my fancy.
The food is Soviet Russia was affected very much by who was in power at the time, so Anya’s memoir runs in order of Lenin (during the Russian famine), Stalin (in which locals spent hours in food lines for soured vegetables), and then Kruschev (so much corn, wayyyyy too much corn and too little of everything else).
But for Soviets who were privileged officials known as nomenklatura, who could actually survive the purges and the whims of the Russian leaders, food was somewhat more accessible. In fact, Anya’s mother, a stanch anti-Soviet, swallowed her pride to convince her father to send Anya to a prestigious boarding school for officers’ children.
On the way to the kindergarten I wept uncontrollably, fearful of fences and ghosts (though secretly please, I admit, with the lyrical icicles that my tragic tears formed on my cheeks).
Inside, everything reeked of prosperity and just-baked pirozhki. On a panoramic veranda facing the haunted woods, nomenklatura offspring snoozed al fresco, bundled like piglets in goose-feather sleeping bags. I had arrived during Dead Hour, Soviet for afternoon nap.
“Wake up, Future Communists!” the teacher cried, clapping her hands. She grinned slyly. “It’s fish-fat time!” A towering nanny named Zoya Petrovna approached me with a vast spoon of black caviar in her hand. It was my first encounter with sevruga eggs. They smelled metallic and fishy, like a rusty doorknob.
“Open wide … a spoonful for Lenin,” the elephantine caretaker implored, pushing the spoon at my locked lips. “For Rodina – for the Party!” she wheedled, her voice rising, fish eggs glistening right under my nose. I started to gag.
“You little bedbug!” she bellowed. “Don’t you dare throw up! Or I’ll make you eat every drop of your puke!” Between the two I chose caviar. But it didn’t seem like much of an improvement on vomit.