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

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

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by Anya Von Bremzen

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A James Beard Award-winning writer captures life under the Red socialist banner in this wildly inventive, tragicomic memoir of feasts, famines, and three generations  
     Born in 1963, in an era of bread shortages, Anya grew up in a communal Moscow apartment where eighteen families shared one kitchen. She

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A James Beard Award-winning writer captures life under the Red socialist banner in this wildly inventive, tragicomic memoir of feasts, famines, and three generations  
     Born in 1963, in an era of bread shortages, Anya grew up in a communal Moscow apartment where eighteen families shared one kitchen. She sang odes to Lenin, black-marketeered Juicy Fruit gum at school, watched her father brew moonshine, and, like most Soviet citizens, longed for a taste of the mythical West. It was a life by turns absurd, naively joyous, and melancholy—and ultimately intolerable to her anti-Soviet mother, Larisa. When Anya was ten, she and Larisa fled the political repression of Brezhnev-era Russia, arriving in Philadelphia with no winter coats and no right of return.
     Now Anya occupies two parallel food universes: one where she writes about four-star restaurants, the other where a taste of humble kolbasa transports her back to her scarlet-blazed socialist past. To bring that past to life, Anya and her mother decide to eat and cook their way through every decade of the Soviet experience. Through these meals, and through the tales of three generations of her family, Anya tells the intimate yet epic story of life in the USSR. Wildly inventive and slyly witty, Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking is that rare book that stirs our souls and our senses.

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Editorial Reviews

That culinary author Anya Von Bremzen (Please to the Table; Fiesta!) never seemed destined to become a triple James Beard Award winner is a radical understatement. Born in 1963 in Soviet Moscow, she grew up in an era of bread shortages and long ration lines. In their communal apartment building, she and her parents shared a kitchen with seventeen other families. As the situation grew ever more intolerable, she and her mother fled to Philadelphia with only the barest of necessities. Since that day, Anya has resided in two parallel mental realms; one as a preteen in the declining U.S.S.R. and the other as an aspiring food writer. Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking successfully transports us to the cuisines and cultures of both worlds and bridges their differences with a recognition of their shared humanity.

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Chapter One

1910s: The Last Days of the Czars

My mother is expecting guests.

In just a few hours in this sweltering July heat wave, eight people will show up for an extravagant ­czarist-­era dinner at her small Queens apartment. But her kitchen resembles a building site. Pots tower and teeter in the sink; the food processor and blender drone on in unison. In a shiny bowl on Mom’s green ­faux-­granite counter, a porous blob of yeast dough seems weirdly alive. I’m pretty sure it’s breathing. Unfazed, Mother simultaneously blends, sautés, keeps an eye on Chris Matthews on MSNBC, and chatters away on her cordless phone. At this moment she suggests a plump ­modern-­day elf, multitasking away in her orange Indian housedress.

Ever since I can remember, my mother has cooked like this, phone tucked under her chin. Of course, back in Brezhnev’s Moscow in the seventies when I was a kid, the idea of an “extravagant czarist dinner” would have provoked sardonic laughter. And the cord of our antediluvian black Soviet telefon was so traitorously twisted, I once tripped on it while carrying a platter of Mom’s lamb pilaf to the low ­three-­legged table in the cluttered space where my parents did their living, sleeping, and entertaining.

Right now, as one of Mom’s ancient émigré friends fills her ear with cultural gossip, that pilaf episode returns to me in cinematic slow motion. Masses of yellow rice cascade onto our Armenian carpet. Biddy, my ­two-­month-­old puppy, greedily laps up every grain, her eyes and tongue swelling shockingly in an instant allergic reaction to lamb fat. I howl, fearing for Biddy’s life. My father berates Mom for her phone habits.

Mom managed to rescue the disaster with her usual flair, dotty and determined. By the time guests ­arrived—­with an extra four ­non-­sober ­comrades—­she’d conjured up a tasty fantasia from two pounds of the proletarian wurst called sosiski. These she’d cut into ­petal-­like shapes, splayed in a skillet, and fried up with eggs. Her creation landed at table under provocative ­blood-­red squiggles of ketchup, that decadent capitalist condiment. For dessert: Mom’s equally spontaneous apple cake. ­“Guest-­at-­the-­doorstep apple charlotte,” she dubbed it.

Guests! They never stopped crowding Mom’s doorstep, whether at our apartment in the center of Moscow or at the boxy immigrant dwelling in Philadelphia where she and I landed in 1974. Guests overrun her current home in New York, squatting for weeks, eating her out of the house, borrowing money and books. Every so often I Google “compulsive hospitality syndrome.” But there’s no cure. Not for Mom the old Russian adage “An uninvited guest is worse than an invading Tatar.” Her parents’ house was just like this, her sister’s even more so.

Tonight’s dinner, however, is different. It will mark our archival adieu to classic Russian cuisine. For such an important occasion Mom has agreed to keep the invitees to just eight after I slyly quoted a line from a Roman scholar and satirist: “The number of dinner guests should be more than the Graces and less than the Muses.” Mom’s ­quasi-­religious respect for culture trumps even her passion for guests. Who is she to disagree with the ancients?

And so, on this diabolically torrid late afternoon in Queens, the two of us are sweating over a decadent feast set in the imagined ­1910s—­Russia’s Silver Age, artistically speaking. The evening will mark our hail and farewell to a grandiose decade of Moscow gastronomy. To a food culture that flourished at the start of the twentieth century and disappeared abruptly when the 1917 revolution transformed Russian cuisine and culture into Soviet cuisine and ­culture—­the only version we knew.

Mom and I have not taken the occasion lightly.

The horseradish and lemon vodkas that I’ve been steeping for days are chilling in their ­cut-­crystal carafes. The caviar glistens. We’ve even gone to the absurd trouble of brewing our own kvass, a folkloric beverage from fermented black bread ­that’s these days mostly just ­mass-­produced fizz. Who knows? Besides communing with our ancestral stomachs, this might be our last chance on this culinary journey to eat ­really well.

“The burbot ­liver—­what to do about the burbot liver?” Mom laments, finally off the phone.

Noticing how poignantly scratched her knuckles are from assorted gratings, I reply, for the umpteenth time, that burbot, noble member of the freshwater cod family so fetishized by ­pre-­revolutionary Russian gourmands, is nowhere to be had in Jackson Heights, Queens. Frustrated sighing. As always, my pragmatism interferes with Mom’s dreaming and scheming. And let’s not even mention viziga, the desiccated dorsal cord of a sturgeon. Burbot liver was the czarist foie gras, viziga its shark’s fin. Chances of finding either in any zip code hereabouts? Not ­slim—­none.

But still, we’ve made progress.

Several ­test ­runs for crispy brains in brown butter have yielded smashing results. And despite the state of Mom’s kitchen, and the homey, crepuscular clutter of her ­book-­laden apartment, her dining table is a thing of great beauty. Crystal goblets preen on the floral, ­antique-­looking tablecloth. Pale blue hydrangeas in an art nouveau pitcher I found at a flea market in Buenos Aires bestow a subtle ­fin-­de-­siècle opulence.

I unpack the cargo of plastic containers and bottles I’ve lugged over from my house two blocks away. Since Mom’s galley kitchen is far too small for two cooks, much smaller than an aristocrat’s broom closet, I’ve already brewed the kvass and prepared the trimmings for an anachronistic chilled fish and greens soup called botvinya. I was also designated steeper of vodkas and executer of Guriev kasha, a dessert loaded with deep historical meaning and a whole pound of ­home-­candied nuts. Mom has taken charge of the main course and the array of zakuski, or appetizers.

A look at the clock and she gasps. “The kulebiaka dough! Check it!”

I check it. Still rising, still bubbling. I give it a bang to ­deflate—­and the tang of fermenting yeast tickles my nostrils, evoking a fleeting collective memory. Or a memory of a received memory. I pinch off a piece of dough and hand it to Mom to assess. She gives me a shrug as if to say, “You’re the cookbook writer.”

But I’m glad I let her take charge of the kulebiaka. This extravagant Russian fish pie, this history lesson in a pastry case, will be the pièce de résistance of our banquet tonight.

“The kulebiaka must make your mouth water, it must lie before you, naked, shameless, a temptation. You wink at it, you cut off a sizeable slice, and you let your fingers just play over it. . . . You eat it, the butter drips from it like tears, and the filling is fat, juicy, rich with eggs, giblets, onions . . .”

So waxed Anton Pavlovich Chekhov in his little fiction “The Siren,” which Mom and I have been salivating over during our preparations, just as we first did back in our unglorious socialist pasts. It ­wasn’t only us ­Soviet-­born who fixated on food. Chekhov’s satiric encomium to outsize Slavic appetite is a lover’s rapturous fantasy. Sometimes it seems that for ­nineteenth-­century Russian writers, food was what landscape (or maybe class?) was for the ­En­glish. Or war for the Germans, love for the ­French—­a subject encompassing the great themes of comedy, tragedy, ecstasy, and doom. Or perhaps, as the contemporary author Tatyana Tolstaya suggests, the “orgiastic gorging” of Russian authors was a compensation for literary taboos on eroticism. One must note, too, alas, Russian writers’ peculiarly Russian propensity for moralizing. Rosy hams, amber fish broths, blini as plump as “the shoulder of a merchant’s daughter” (Chekhov again), such literary deliciousness often serves an ulterior agenda of exposing gluttons as spiritually bankrupt ­philistines—­or lethargic losers such as the alpha glutton Oblomov. Is this a moral trap? I keep asking myself. Are we enticed to salivate at these lines so we’ll end up feeling guilty?

But it’s hard not to salivate. Chekhov, Pushkin, ­Tolstoy—­they all devote some of their most fetching pages to the gastronomical. As for Mom’s beloved Nikolai Gogol, the author of Dead Souls anointed the stomach the ­body’s “most noble” organ. Besotted with eating both on and off the ­page—­sour cherry dumplings from his Ukrainian childhood, pastas from his sojourns in ­Rome—­scrawny Gogol could polish off a gargantuan dinner and start right in again. While traveling he sometimes even churned his own butter. “The belly is the belle of his stories, the nose is their beau,” declared Nabokov. In 1852, just short of his ­forty-­third birthday, in the throes of religious mania and gastrointestinal torments, Nikolai Vasilievich committed a slow suicide rich in Gogolian irony: he refused to eat. Yes, a complicated, even tortured, relationship with food has long been a hallmark of our national character.

According to one scholarly count, no less than ­eighty-­six kinds of edibles appear in Dead Souls, Gogol’s chronicle of a grifter’s circuit from dinner to dinner in the vast Russian countryside. Despairing over not being able to scale the heights of the novel’s first volume, poor wretched Gogol burned most of the second. What survives includes the most famous literary ode to ­kulebiaka—­replete with a virtual recipe.

“Make a ­four-­cornered kulebiaka,” instructs Petukh, a spiritually bankrupt glutton who made it through the flames. And then:

“In one corner put the cheeks and dried spine of a sturgeon, in another put some buckwheat, and some mushrooms and onion, and some soft fish roe, and brains, and something else as well. . . . As for the underneath . . . see that it’s baked so that it’s quite . . . well not done to the point of crumbling but so that it will melt in the mouth like snow and not make any crunching sound.

Petukh smacked his lips as he spoke.”

Generations of Russians have smacked their own lips at this passage. Historians, though, suspect that this chimerical ­“four-­cornered” kulebiaka might have been a Gogolian fiction. So what then of the genuine article, which is normally oblong and layered?

To telescope quickly: kulebiaka descends from the archaic Slavic pirog (filled pie). Humbly born, they say, in the 1600s, it had by its ­turn-­of-­the-­twentieth-­century heyday evolved into a regal ­golden-­brown case fancifully decorated with ­cut-­out designs. Concealed within: aromatic layers of fish and viziga, a cornucopia of ­forest-­picked mushrooms, and ­butter-­splashed buckwheat or rice, all the tiers separated by thin crepes called ­blinchiki—­to soak up the juices.

Mom and I argued over every other dish on our menu. But on this we agreed: without kulebiaka, there could be no proper Silver Age Moscow repast.

When my mother, Larisa (Lara, Larochka) ­Frumkina—­Frumkin in ­En­glish—­was growing up in the 1930s high Stalinist Moscow, the idea of a decadent ­czarist-­era banquet constituted exactly what it would in the Brezhnevian seventies: laughable blue cheese from the moon. So­siski were Mom’s favorite food. I was hooked on them too, though Mom claims that the sosiski of my childhood ­couldn’t hold a candle to the juicy Stalinist article. Why do these proletarian franks remain the madeleine of every Homo sovieticus? Because besides sosiski with canned peas and kotleti (minced meat patties) with kasha, ­cabbage-­intensive soups, ­mayo-­laden salads, and watery fruit kompot for ­dessert—­there ­wasn’t all that much to eat in the Land of the Soviets.

Unless, of course, you were privileged. In our joyous classless society, this ­all-­important matter of privilege has nagged at me since my early childhood.

I first ­glimpsed—­or rather ­heard—­the world of privileged food consumption during my first three years of life, at the grotesque communal Moscow apartment into which I was born in 1963. The apartment sat so close to the Kremlin, we could practically hear the midnight chimes of the giant clock on the Spassky Tower. There was another sound too, keeping us up: the roaring BLARGHHH of our neighbor Misha puking his guts out. Misha, you see, was a food store manager with a proprietary attitude ­toward the socialist food supply, likely a black market millionaire who shared our communal lair only for fear that flaunting his wealth would attract the unwanted attention of the ­anti-­embezzlement authorities. Misha and Musya, his blond, ­big-­bosomed wife, lived out a Mature Socialist version of bygone decadence. Night after night they dined out at Moscow’s few proper restaurants (accessible to party bigwigs, foreigners, and comrades with illegal rubles), dropping the equivalent of Mom’s monthly salary on meals that Misha ­couldn’t even keep in his stomach.

When the pair stayed home, they ate unspeakable ­delicacies— batter-­fried chicken tenders, for ­instance—­prepared for them by the loving hands of Musya’s mom, Baba Mila, she a blubbery former peasant with one eye, ­four—­or was it ­six?—­gold front teeth, and a healthy contempt for the nonprivileged.

“So, making kotleti today,” Mila would say in the kitchen we all shared, fixing her monocular gaze on the misshapen patties in Mom’s chipped aluminum skillet. “Muuuuusya!” she’d holler to her daughter. “Larisa’s making kotleti!”

“Good appetite, Larochka!” (Musya was fond of my mom.)

“Muuusya! Would you eat kotleti?”

“Me? Never!”

“Aha! You see?” And Mila would wag a swollen finger at Mom.

One day my tiny underfed mom ­couldn’t restrain herself. Back from work, tired and ravenous, she pilfered a chicken nugget from a tray Mila had left in the kitchen. The next day I watched as, ­red-­faced and ­teary-­eyed, she knocked on Misha’s door to confess her theft.

“The chicken?” cackled Mila, and I still recall being struck by how her ­twenty-­four-­karat mouth glinted in the dim hall light. “Help yourself ­anytime—­we dump that shit anyway.”

And so it was that about once a week we got to eat shit destined for the economic criminal’s garbage. To us, it tasted pretty ambrosial.

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Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking: A Memoir of Food and Longing 4.4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 5 reviews.
InspirationalAngel531 More than 1 year ago
Author: Anya Von Bremzen Publisher: Crown Publishing Published: 9-17-2013 Pages: 354 ISBN: 0307886816 E-Book ASIN: B00COALX7M Genre: Cooking, Food & Wine, History, Russia I have a love of food, sometimes good sometimes bad. To be honest Russian food is not one I have explored much in my lifetime and after reading and trying some of the recipes in Mastering The Art of Russian Cooking I wish I had tried it much earlier. Even though I was expecting more of a cookbook with short stories to go with them I was surprised how much I enjoyed reading her family history and their trials and tribulations they had to make it through. The inner struggle within the family bring her story a bit more closer to my heart because every family has its squabbles on how things should be done by the individuals and sometimes compromise is hard to come by. Yet like most of us the love between family members carry the day. The recipes may be few but they do provide a wide variety into Russian cuisine and I am grateful for Anya Von Bremzen for her wonderful autobiography and the different recipes she used to represent the decades of her family history. My family especially enjoyed the Blini and the Palov, but did not embrace the Salat Olivier. The problem may be that no one in my family is overly fond of pickles, so I may try this recipe again with less pickles, dill and cucumbers. The sauce is absolutely delicious. This is a very good book that showcases the history of one woman's family and is extremely well written so that everyone can understand and enjoy it without feeling they are sitting in history class discussing a dry textbook. Check it out for yourself.
ARS1953 More than 1 year ago
Being half Russian I too am fascinated by Russian and Soviet history. A little bit cookbook, a lot memoir, the author gives a detailed and well researched look into her family history, and adds her own personal experiences to the mix. The book is organized by decades of the 20th century, mixing history with family history. I really enjoyed the book and reading the recipes she includes, tho I don't know if I will try any of them!
BeautifulWaters More than 1 year ago
I will preface this by saying I am fascinated by all things Russia, that's what led me to pick up this book. I wasn't so much interested in the recipes and didn't try them.  The memoir itself however gave me the taste of Russia that I was looking for. The author shares with us her view of her homeland. It wasn't always the grim horrifying place that history  portrays it as. Through the authors young eyes you can see the thrill of being a young pioneer/ burgeoning entrepreneur exploiting the generosity of foriegn diplomats. Later in life the author returns to her motherland and completes the story for us. This is a beautiful, real life story that is very well told. Thank you Anya for sharing your story with us.  
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
lrshorses More than 1 year ago
Excellent portrayal of everyday life for the average citizen in the Soviet Union. Provides an excellent counterpoint to the political maneuverings that are the only thing most foreigners know about. I had heard of rationing, food lines,communal apartments, etc., but didn't really understand how those things affected the dynamic of everyday life. An interesting revelation from this book was Stalin's engineering of Soviet cuisine. I was fascinated and disturbed to know that most of the Russian food I eat today (I live in Russia) was chosen by Stalin and/or his food commissar for a particular reason. For instance, the reason everyone in Russia (including me) drinks champagne on New Year's is Stalin's decision to promote Soviet champagne production in order to convey how "good" socialist life could be for the average citizen. Highly recommend, excellent read. PS The appendix has recipes so that you can taste the food you are reading about!