Thursday, March 13, 2014

A review of Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking: A Memoir of Food and Longing



Last night, I finished a delightful book written by esteemed food and travel writer Anya Von Bremzen. I had never heard of Von Bremzen before I picked up her book, Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking, even though she is a well-known food writer who has published books and written articles for many well known food magazines.  And as I read her memoir, Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking, I didn't know who she was.  It wasn't until I reached the end of her book that I realized that the story I'd just finished about her "weird" past had led to her becoming a James Beard award willing food writer.

I didn't read Von Bremzen's book for food, though, even though the title mentions Soviet cooking.  I read it because I remember the Soviet Union and even lived in Armenia for a couple of years after the Soviet Union fell in 1991.  I moved to Armenia in 1995, just a few years after the mighty Soviet Union collapsed into oblivion.  When I was growing up, the Soviet Union was this big threat.  The people were mysterious, living behind the "Iron Curtain".  We had no Internet in those days, so my curiosity was piqued.  Once I lived in Armenia and saw remnants of Soviet life up close, I was even more curious.

A couple of months ago, I stumbled across Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking and thought it sounded fascinating.  I had been wanting to read the perspective of someone who had lived grown up in the Soviet Union.  Anya Von Bremzen was born there in 1963, in an era of bread shortages.  She grew up in a communal apartment building where eighteen families shared one kitchen.  Her mother, Larisa, was not a fan of communism and discouraged her daughter from learning the songs about Lenin that were taught in school.  Anya had attended a special kindergarten for privileged kids, where they were fed caviar like some kids are given cod liver oil.  Her mother told her not to talk about the "special food" she got at the school.

In 1974, Anya and her mother left the Soviet Union under the guise of "reconnecting" with Israel.  Since they were Jewish, it was allowed.  Anya also had a childhood form of scleroderma, a disease that is deadly in adults.  That was given as a reason for their departure, though it turned out Anya's scleroderma was "harmless".  Via Rome, Anya and her mother moved to Queens, New York, where Anya polished her piano skills and eventually earned a master of arts in piano performance from Julliard.  Anya's father, Sergei, stayed behind in Russia and eventually sent Larisa a letter asking for divorce.  He turned out to be an interesting character-- Anya writes about how he eventually lost all of his teeth, but rather than missing them, he found life without his teeth "liberating".

Interspersed within Anya's life story and tales about the food she missed from the Soviet Union.  She includes fascinating tidbits about the Soviet machine when it was still powerful and innovative.  One of my favorite tales in this book was the one Von Bremzen wrote about Anastas Mikoyan, an Armenian Soviet statesman, who was one of Josef Stalin's top performers.  Miokoyan eventually became the People's Commissar for Food.  In 1935, he and his wife were sent on a goodwill trip to America to travel around tasting American food, visiting factories and production plants, farms, and slaughterhouses.  Mikoyan tried popcorn, Coca-Cola, hamburgers, ice cream, and hot dogs and he brought new ideas back to the Soviet Union.  In fact, Mikoyan's cutlets, basically his version of the hamburger, were still enjoyed when I lived in Armenia.  Ice cream was Mikoyan's biggest love and he was responsible for popularizing it in the Soviet Union.

Anya Von Bremzen writes about her first reactions to American food.  She writes of how grossed out she was by cold Pop Tarts, her mother not having learned that many people prefer them toasted, and super soft, spongy white bread.  I imagine her reaction to American food was much like my initial reaction to Armenian and Russian food.  I had trouble with borscht, dolma, and eggplant, all of which my host family served me during my first weeks in country.  My very first taste of lamb (which was actually probably mutton) was in Armenia.  I didn't react well to it.

I also enjoyed reading about Anya's family.  She writes extensively of three generations and the history of how she came to be.  She includes stories of food and drink and how they impacted her family relationships.  I was particularly interested in how the foods she missed from her homeland delighted her when she went back to the Soviet Union years later to visit her family.  Despite her extensive training in music at one of the world's most prestigious schools, Anya turned her fascination with food into a dream career.  At the end of the book, she even includes some beloved Soviet recipes.  

Though I can't say that everything Anya writes about was appetizing to me, as someone who has lived abroad and missed home, I could definitely relate to how much she missed Soviet food.  I felt the same way when I lived in Armenia and missed American food.  Much to my shame, I even remember spending $7 on a bag of Chip's Deluxe cookies weeks after my arrival.  I would definitely not do that today, but I'm much worldlier now than I was in 1995.

I learned a lot reading this book.  It's not just about food and family; it's also about history, politics, and geography.  Since I have been to three of the former fifteen Soviet republics, I could relate to Anya's book on a personal level.  For me especially, this book was pretty fascinating… especially as Anya describes how she felt on the day the Soviet Union fell apart.  She was in Abkhazia, an autonomous area in Georgia, when Mikhail Gorbachev came on television to tell his countrymen that the Soviet Union no longer existed.  How weird that must have been.

If you are interested in reading about the Soviet Union and what it's like to be from a place that no longer exists the way you once knew it, I would highly recommend Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking.  I found it a true delight and even learned a few new Russian words.




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