On a walk in the woods, my dear, thoughtful neighbor recommended Anya von Bremzen’s Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking. A friend of hers, who was not really a reader, raved about the book, and my neighbor was pleased to confirm that the tip was right on. With my curiosity piqued by a piece of reading advice from a person who doesn’t easily yield to the pleasure of spending long hours with books, I rushed to the library and checked out von Bremzen’s book. Over the week-end, I couldn’t put Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking down until I flipped its very last page. It was like meeting someone new and immediately clicking with that person, wanting to find out everything about him or her, and being in awe with every single detail. Or running into a friend whom I hadn’t seen for ages and quickly recognizing how much I enjoyed their presence, cancelling my mid-afternoon obligations in the blink of an eye, and sitting down for an engrossing conversation over a delicious cup of tea and freshly baked Italian plum cake. Does this sound like an indulgence? Well, it really is the best possible kind I could think of.
Anya von Bremzen’s Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking is a groundbreaking book. I agree with Sara Wheeler that von Bremzen has raised the foodoir, a genre mixing food writing with autobiography, to a higher level. (For Wheeler’s review in The New York Times see here). There are many fine moments in von Bremzen’s gripping account of how social and cultural politics shaped the experience of food in the Soviet era, in general, and the history of her Jewish family, in particular. The book begins in Tsarist Russia, covers the Revolution, the Two World Wars of the last century, Stalin’s purges, Khrushchev’s Thaw, Gorbachev’s Perestroika, and ends with von Bremzen’s visit to Putin’s Moscow. I delighted in von Bremzen’s explanation of how nuances in word choice disclosed information about the specifics of Soviet life. Thus, Russians didn’t say kupit (to buy) but rather dostat (to obtain with difficulty), when referring to goods purchased at the store after the customary long wait in line (p. 200). Equally fascinating is her account of the significance of mundane objects, such as avosca, a portable container that Russians took along shopping in order to transport home food items like fish or meat because shortage in wrapping paper didn’t allow for such goods to be properly packaged (p. 184). Finally, I appreciated von Bremzen’s discussion of how the different editions of The Book of Tasty and Healthy Food showed the changes in Soviet social politics and ideology over the years (pp. 123-4).
But why didn’t Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking make the bestseller lists, while similar books, such as Edmund de Waal’s Hare with Amber Eyes, did? De Waal’s book doesn’t discuss cuisine. However, like von Bremzen’s, it tells the story of a Jewish Ukrainian family over the same time period, and is equally rich in historical and cultural detail. I wonder whether it could be that the majority of readers find it hard to sort through the beginning of von Bremzen’s book. Perhaps introducing the Moscow fountain Druzhba Narodov (1939) in the opening chapter and using it as an image to bring into focus many of the book’s themes would have made it easier on readers to follow von Bremzen’s brilliant historical and personal account. As the book stands now, von Bremzen writes about the fountain only in the penultimate chapter, in order to explain what sparked off her interest in the cuisine of the numerous Soviet republics (pp. 244-5). In her own description, each female figure in Druzhba Narodov represents one of the republics in the Soviet Union and wears that republic’s ethnic attire (pp. 244-5). Von Bremzen states that “friendship of nations” (Druzhba Narodov) was “one of the most powerful propaganda mantras of the Soviet regime” (245). Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking reads as an account of the high human cost which ordinary Soviet citizens had to pay in order for the illusion of this friendship to be maintained and the union to remain intact. Its author vividly details the humiliation, deprivation and suffering routinely endured by those who didn’t belong to the communist elite. Her story-telling skills are at their best when she unravels her own family history within the bigger framework of political events.
Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking is also a personal quest into that piece in Anya von Bremzen’s immigrant identity which is rooted in her Russian origins. There are three components to this piece that stand out to me: firstly, her mother tongue Russian, which allows for a whole range of variation on her name (Annushka, Anyuta, Anyutochka, Nyura, just to name a few, p. 152), expressing affection and care on the part of the person addressing her. Secondly, von Bremzen’s relationship with her mother, whose depth and intimacy is also captured in the Russian diminutive forms of Anya’s name. Finally, the sarcastic humor to which Soviet citizens resorted in order to get by in their bleak everyday existence. Anya von Bremzen, herself, uses jokes and black humor when she describes the endless atrocities which the Soviet regime committed to maintain the myth of “the friendship of nations.” I would like to end with one of her jokes: “‘Why are you emigrating?” “Coz I’m sick of celebrations,’ says the Jew. ‘Bought toilet paper — celebration; bought kolbasa — more celebrating'” (p. 5). Anya von Bremzen says that in the US no one celebrates buying food items. What a boring life!