September 26, 2013

A cook’s tour of Communism

By Anya von Bremzen
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In 1974, at the age of 10, Anya von Bremzen immigrated to Philadelphia with her mother, leaving behind a nation forever underfed: the USSR. Her first trip to an American supermarket should’ve been like stepping into heaven. Young Anya, however, hates the place. Back home in Moscow, obtaining food meant standing in a queue for hours, but it was often an adventure. In contrast, the supermarket—devoid of drama—offers a homogeneity and mindless ease that Anya finds unsettling. She’s further disturbed by the merchandise: “charcoal-black cookies filled with something white and synthetic” shock the future foodie. “Would anyone eat such a thing?” Anya wonders.

It’s a deliciously ironic anecdote—one of many in von Bremzen’s splendid new memoir, Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking. In this multifaceted narrative, von Bremzen—the award-winning author of five cookbooks—presents an overview of Soviet cuisine and the ways in which it was shaped by history and politics. She writes with warmth, humor and expertise about the culinary traditions of her native country, shrewdly demonstrating that the tastes of the nation often reflected the agenda of the Communist Party, and that—for better and all too often for worse—cuisine equals culture.

On this cook’s tour of Communism, von Bremzen traces the Party’s arc, revisits the deprivations of World War Two, and offers a behind-the-Iron-Curtain look at the Cold War and gradual crackup of the Soviet federation. She moves fluidly from era to era, seasoning the narrative with food-related tidbits (no joke: Stalin-era kids ate a candy called Happy Childhood). Mixed into this intriguing culinary account is the author’s own history—the dramatic story of her family’s survival under an oppressive regime. Parts of the narrative are presented through the eyes of her headstrong mother, Larisa. A child during WWII, Larisa matures into a ferociously anti-Soviet adult with the courage required to singlehandedly raise her daughter in the West.

It’s Larisa who suggests to her daughter, now an adult, that they honor their past by preparing old Soviet recipes, one for each decade of the Party’s rule. In the kitchen of her small Queens apartment, they cook up kotleti, Russia’s answer to the hamburger, and chanakhi, a spicy lamb stew, and the process proves powerfully cathartic, eliciting bittersweet memories—“fragments of horror and happiness.” The recipes comprise the final chapter of this fascinating memoir.

Von Bremzen is a gifted storyteller who writes with an easy elegance. In Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking, she achieves a perfect balance between her narrative’s varied ingredients. The result: a feast for readers.

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