To begin: Anya von Bremzen's new book Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking: A Memoir of Food and Longing is not a cookbook, nor is it a one dimensional Julia Child joke. It is rather a memoir disguised as a cookbook and a joke about a cookbook. It's also a thousand other things, multi-dimensional and laden with irony and intelligence, history and humor. I couldn't put it down.
Of course, I may be one of von Bremzen's ideal readers: a food writer and former Soviet Studies major who once read The 900 Days, Harrison E. Salisbury's account of the siege of Leningrad, which has almost as many pages as days, just for fun.
Okay, fun is maybe the wrong word for a book about the siege of Leningrad. Fun is also not the word you might expect to describe a memoir of growing up amid Soviet hunger, but that's what this book is -- and a lot of fun at that.
Von Bremzen is the author of five cookbooks, countless magazine and newspaper pieces, and the recipient of three James Beard awards. She's also a profoundly gifted writer, able to lace information with observation, observation with wit. She sifts the history of the Soviet Union she left as a ten-year-old with the history of her family, viewing much of that through the lens of food.
It's an obvious conceit for a food writer, but a terribly necessary one from the standpoint of history. Despots often rule by famine, either intentionally or through incompetence, and the vast acreage of Russia offered an enormous opportunity for this. There was enormous opportunity for extravagance too, with the reverse engineering of riches that usually accompanies despotism and abject want. Von Bremzen catalogs the bread lines and ration cards, but she also describes family feasts and keyhole glimpses of secret riches. In one hilarious part towards the end of the book, a former Kremlin chef recreates a massive feast for a Russian TV show, with von Bremzen right there in the studio, undergoing an absurdist Proustian flashback.
Von Bremzen adjusts her story around that of her mother, Larisa, with whom she left Moscow in 1973, near whom she now lives in New York City, and with whom she's been embarking on a culinary history project: cooking the food of their native country, era by era, for posterity or irony or maybe for the book. Or maybe all of it. Von Bremzen's outspoken (a bad word; maybe it sounds better in Russian) mother doesn't so much make cameo appearances as pull the narrative forward as one would a daydreaming child, along frozen streets and into impossibly crowded communal kitchens, commenting in whichever language the scene demands. Larisa is a fantastic character. If she didn't already exist in real life, someone, maybe Bulgakov, would have invented her.
One of the best things about this book is that it feels rather like a novel, richly populated and filled with deft dialogue, yet it's also crammed full of history. Imagine Robert Caro crossed with a Chekhov play, if it were funny. Von Bremzen provides the backstory of the rise and fall of the USSR, pausing to give lots of numbers and names and dates (there's a section for sources in the back), while she tells the story of her family and the food that runs as a current through it all. There's sometimes not that much food. Instead there are swaths of pages detailing the particulars of Soviet rule rather than details of what was in or not in the refrigerator. (Or, before the late appearance of refrigerators, outside the window. It was pretty cold in winter in Moscow anyway.)
This is not a criticism: quite the opposite. Too many food memoirs stock the larder with too much food, forcing the trope in an effort to appeal to their imagined Bon Appétit-reading audience. Or worse, the narrative pauses, mid-story, to allow for a recipe. Happily, von Bremzen does neither, letting the food come when it comes, and putting her recipes -- all ten of them -- at the end of the book, along with the sources and acknowledgments, which is kind of what they are anyway.
We learn that von Bremzen's father was, for a time, one of the scientists in charge of monitoring Lenin's condition. His embalmed condition, that is, an entombed state that went on for decades. We learn that, during the banal catastrophe of collectivization, people would add ground glass to their neighbors' food as a method of acquiring apartments. We hear of von Bremzen's alcoholic uncle, who broke every bone in his body in a fall, only to survive, engender beautiful daughters, and continue to drink aperitifs of shoe polish. (This is barely a hint. Go read the book.)
When the food does appear, it's as part of the history or embedded in the story. Describing her mother, von Bremzen writes, "When a romantic mood struck her, she'd add cabbage and call the soup pot-au-feu, explaining how she'd read about this dish in Goethe."
More about the food. The first dish that Von Bremzen details, both in the narrative and in the recipes at the end, is kulebiaka, an utterly decadent "farewell-to-the-czars" creation, in which fish and rice and mushrooms and blinchiki (tiny blini) and some other things are all layered and then baked into a yeasted pastry. This might sound familiar to readers of The New Yorker, as Bill Buford recently wrote about Daniel Boulud's time-consuming recreation of the same dish. Von Bremzen's recipe is, thankfully, an abbreviated version, as most of us sadly do not have access to dried sturgeon spine. The account von Bremzen gives of recreating the dish with her mother in contemporary New York is hilarious, a wonderful examination of what we go through for tradition, as well as a perfect way to kick off the intricasies of the book. It also sounds incredibly delicious, although maybe not enough to head to the kitchen, with or without Russian relatives.
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The dish that appears the most in the book like a recurrent motif, bound by mayonnaise, is salat Olivier, the "sine qua non of socialist celebrations." A salad of cooked vegetables, eggs and sometimes available sausage or chicken, this was basically an excuse for large quantities of Soviet-era Hellman's. Because every culture has its casserole.
If you make one dish from this book, it should probably be the last one given: the blini that also comprised the last feast of the author's retrospective. Not only because making blini is pretty easy, but also because they're amazingly delicious -- and can be eaten as happily with jam as with fish and sour cream. That meal was "an ironic wake for the USSR," and one that von Bremzen and her mother made while reading Chekhov in the kitchen. Maybe when you make your own blini, read this book instead.
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