The U.S.S.R. was the world's largest country, with one-sixth of the Earth's land mass. It was so big it encompassed 11 time zones. Anya von Bremzen, a three-time James Beard award-winner, tells its history — and hers — in "Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking/ A Memoir of Food & Longing" (Broadway Books, $15). She examines the past through the lens of the Soviet meal over 10 decades, pairing each with a single recipe that depicts those years, from the decade before the formation of the Soviet Union in 1922 through its collapse in 1991.
Her masterful storytelling makes this a compelling tale —at times heartbreaking, at times comic — as she reminds us that Soviet people were not so different from everyone else. She will be in town this week to talk about her book.
Q: What do you want readers to come away with?
A: I think that there is almost a cliché of food memoirs, which are always very glowing, and food is invoking this idyllic past. This is a different kind of memoir that brings together history, culture and society in a country that had a 20th-century experience that was often tragic and epic. This book is intended to show the human side of the Soviet experience.
Q: What was it like to arrive in the U.S.?
A: We came in '74 as Jewish refugees with two tiny suitcases and no right of return. From living in central Moscow that was teeming with people, we landed in suburban Philadelphia, which was quite a culture shock.
I had dreamt about the West, being from a generation that was very obsessed by everything Western, because it was so inaccessible, and I was quite crushed to encounter an American supermarket with all this obscene abundance. It knocked that desire out of me because it was more rewarding to dream about something than to actually encounter it in the flesh. Like what do you do with 20 kinds of salami and 12 brands of toilet paper? How do you choose and what's the point of it? Also back in the '70s, American food didn't taste so good. The bread was Wonder Bread; it was squishy. Everything was packaged. It's not like it is today. So, in a way, all that abundance of choices was kind of meaningless because it all tasted the same.
Q: You write about what you call your mother's "compulsory hospitality syndrome." What is that?
A: She is someone who just has to cook for people. Part of it is her personality. She's 81 now, and she gives dinner parties for 14 people at the drop of a hat. Part of this is also cultural because food in the Soviet days was scarce. Food was a way of expressing hospitality, projecting desire for a better life. It expressed status. We had no cars, no good clothing, shabby apartments. But making a special meal was something that expressed all those deep feelings of humanity.
Q: How was food used to control people?
A: The revolution was about bread for the workers. That was one of the slogans. And then when the revolution did happen, procuring grain from the peasants was the main concern. When Stalin came into power at the end of the '20s, again it was all about grain and the collectivization of peasants. Everything that we ate as Soviet citizens was produced, packaged and sold by the state. So it established a very immediate connection. The state fed you, so in a way it was all political.
Q: Which came first in the book, the narrative or the recipes?
A: It was symbiosis, one shaped the other. For the first chapter, we decided to cook this elaborate fish pie because it represented the excess of the czarist era. For the 1920s chapter, there is a recipe for gefilte fish because that's when I talk about the Jewish identity. That's when the ethnic and national policies of the Soviet Union were taking shape. Gefilte fish is something very personal to me and for my family being Jews. So it is a personal selection.
Then in the '50s chapter, we did a Stalin's death-day meal. Historically that's what happened. For the '70s, something like the salat Olivier was so popular at that time, you could have no gathering without it. It seemed natural to include it in the menu.
Q: How did your research process work?
A: The book spans 10 decades of the Soviet experience, from 1910 to 2010, so obviously a lot of it I couldn't remember because I wasn't born then. It was a mixture of family stories, some of it coming from my grandparents, and it was backed up by historic research. Some part of it is family lore, especially from my grandfather who was a spy during World War II and we knew the stories. I started researching and it was amazing how everything just kind of came together. But from the '30s chapter, my mother was the protagonist, so it's about her childhood and her youth and again the family stories there.
The book has sort of three levels: It's a social history, it's a personal history — a family memoir — and it's also like a cooking chronicle of me and my mom here in New York. Trying to braid all these elements together was at times very challenging. The history was really fascinating, but I didn't really want to pull the reader away too much from the personal stories. So I would ask myself, "What turns pages for the reader? What propels the narrative forward?" And it's always, ultimately, the personal story.
Q: Was there a cookbook that Soviets turned to?
A: The "Book of Tasty and Healthy Cuisine" was a totalitarian kitchen bible. It came out in 1939, when the Soviet food industry was developing. The book is very ideologized. In the original editions, especially, there were quotations from Stalin, all this political text about how everyone in the capitalist West was starving, and how the Soviet Union is so blessed, which is very ironic. It also was designed to promote the products of the Soviet food industry. So on the one hand you have recipes for cooking things from scratch. On the other hand, all the pictures are of cans and jars and prepared foods. It's urging the Soviet housewife to go out and buy all these semi-prepared foods, which ironically weren't always available anyway.
Q: Was there a Russian cuisine?
A: There was a very rich cuisine that relied on river fish, on wild mushrooms, on the traditional Russian stove, which is this earthenware glazed stove. That was kind of destroyed with the revolution because the more upper-class cuisine was dismissed as bourgeois. And there weren't ingredients anyway. Peasant cuisine and lifestyle was destroyed by collectivization. And they also tried to switch everyone onto this more industrial prepared food, starting in the '30s.
Now there are attempts to revive it. But 70 years have passed. What has replaced the excitement of Russian cuisine is all the presence of the regional cuisines, like Georgian or Azeri or Uzbek, which is more spicy, more lively. And it's still very popular, like Georgian cuisine. It's like for us the equivalent of Italian or Mexican food.
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