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

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Crown; First Edition edition (September 17, 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0307886816
  • ISBN-13: 978-0307886811
  • Product Dimensions: 9.3 x 6.4 x 1.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (121 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #12,025 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews Review

Q&A with Anya Von Bremzen

Anya Von Bremzen

Q. One of your reasons for writing this book was your feeling of leading a double life as a food writer. Can you explain?

A. When I started my career in the early 90s, after emigrating in the 70’s, the Soviet drama of putting food on the table was still fresh. Whenever I ate at a fancy restaurant for my work, I felt pangs of guilt about all my family struggling back in Moscow. Over time Russia became a wealthy country, but I continued to be haunted by a sense that behind everything I ate professionally lay another reality: a shadow of our collective Soviet trauma. Something deeper, more existential, and related to food. This haunting, complicated past, bottled inside of me, finally had to come out.

Q. What surprised you most, writing the book?

A. What I've come to call the “poisoned madeleine” factor. We lived in a state where every edible morsel was politicized and ideologized. And most of our food was produced by the state my mother had reviled and fled. And yet we experience a powerful bittersweet nostalgia for those “poisoned” flavors. The complexity and contradiction of this longing is what I explore in the book. Over pages eating becomes almost a metaphor for ingesting ideology—and for resisting it.

Q. Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking tells your story, but also the story of three generations of your family. How did you research their experiences?

A. My mother has an almost uncanny recall of her emotional life, starting from her earliest childhood—back when she was an alienated sensitive kid in the totalitarian frenzies under Stalin. Her feeling of being a “dissident-born,” always at odds with Soviet society, has been an incredibly powerful trope for this book. My dad, on the other hand, remembers perfectly all the small physical details: what vodka cost in 1959, for example. And my grandparents were great raconteurs. Even after they were long gone their stories lived on.

Q. You describe, to sumptuous effect, Russian literature’s obsession with food. Who are your favorite Russian authors?

A. I love most the satirical strain in Russian literature. As much as I venerate Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, it’s Nikolai Gogol, that gluttonous hypochondriac, who’s my guy. Gogol is amazing—delicious!—on food. His Dead Souls essentially chronicles one grifter’s journey from dinner to dinner through the vast Russian countryside.

Q. You’ve spent time in the new Moscow over the last few years. How would you describe contemporary Russian food culture?

A. The last chapter of the book is ironically titled “Putin’ on the Ritz.” That pretty much sums it up. Foie gras and burrata, sushi flown in from Tokyo—it's all there for comrades with serious rubles. And yet, at the same time, there’s this astonishing wave of Soviet nostalgia! Even oligarchs are pining for the mayonnaise-laden salads and kotleti (Russian burgers) of our shared, vanished socialist childhoods.

Q. How did the work of cooking change over time for Russian women?

A. That’s an arc I lay out in the book. The pioneering Bolsheviks of the 1920s wanted to liberate women from domestic chores—and so both my grandmothers were lousy cooks! But the Bolshevik feminist project failed, and by the next decade, under Stalin, Soviet women got stuck where they remained—carrying the infamous “double-burden” of a job and housework. Still. In a society with so much cultural control, some women of my mother's early 60’s generation found personal self-expression in cooking. Now with the avalanche of chichi prepared food at Russian supermarkets, cooking is strictly a matter of choice.

Q. What was the first dish you remember learning?

A. When I was a kid of five, Mom and I lived on one ruble a day—poverty even by Soviet standards. When we completely ran out money Mom would make fried eggs over stale black bread cubes. I watched her make it so many times I could do it blindfolded. And it's still one of my favorite dishes.

Q. What is your favorite dish to cook with your mother?

A. Each chapter of the book has us obsessing about something different—a new “project.” The sumptuous kulebiaka from the pages of our beloved Chekhov drove us crazy but turned out incredibly. And both Mom and I love the spicy exotic flavors from the ethnic rainbow of former Soviet ethnic republics. Chanakhi, a Georgian lamb stew with tons of herbs (Stalin's favorite dish incidentally) is something we cook a lot.

From Booklist

Most Westerners imagine Stalinist Russia as a food desert: politics dictating taste, failed agricultural policies yielding shortages and famines, muddled distribution systems spawning interminable queues, and black markets supplying forbidden goods. Although this view has plenty of truth, it lacks nuance and humanity, as von Bremzen reveals so eloquently in this memoir. Arriving at age 10 in Philadelphia with her mother and a couple of suitcases, she found herself in a new culinary world that she ultimately embraced. Nevertheless, she pined for some of the great prerevolutionary Russian dishes, such as kulebiaka, the famous salmon pie that so defines classic Russian cooking. Von Bremzen, disdaining czarist Russia as much as the Soviet Union, shows the personal side of Soviet life, recounting the terror of war and secret police as well as the power of human resilience. Thanks to some recipes, American home cooks may summon up for themselves the tastes and smells the author evokes. --Mark Knoblauch

More About the Author

Anya von Bremzen is one of the most accomplished food writers of her generation: the winner of three James Beard awards; a contributing editor at Travel + Leisure magazine; and the author of five acclaimed cookbooks, among them The New Spanish Table, The Greatest Dishes: Around the World in 80 Recipes, and Please to the Table: The Russian Cookbook (coauthored by John Welchman). Her latest book is Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking: a Memoir of Food and Longing (Crown, September 17, 2013)

Customer Reviews

This book was a Christmas gift for my daughter, who is learing to love to cook.
Maggie Britton
Von Bremzen's book tells the story of her family, and how they made their lives in Moscow under the Soviet regime.
And I categorize the book as social history, more than memoir or food writing--it's fascinating.
M. Maxwell

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

30 of 32 people found the following review helpful By takingadayoff TOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on July 3, 2013
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
Not strictly a memoir, and certainly not a cookbook, Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking is an original. Anya Von Bremzen has told the history of the Soviet Union through the story of her grandparents, her mother, and herself, with a special emphasis on food.

It may sound like a goulash with too many ingredients, but the result is wonderful. In addition to enjoying an entertaining memoir about a memorable bunch of people, I learned a lot about what it was like to live in Moscow during the Soviet years. In all the books I've read about various aspects of the Soviet Union, I'd never come across Salat Olivier, a sort of potato-y Waldorf Salad. According to Von Bremzen, it's the salad that appears at every holiday and special occasion. It's taken for granted and it isn't the sort of thing people mention in letters or diaries or histories. But you'll learn about it here. She also tells us about the canned fatty pork called tushonka that America sent the Soviet Union during World War II, and was a much-loved picnic staple thereafter. Further research reveals that America initially sent Spam, but the Russians rejected it and demanded tushonka. If you search for an image of tushonka, be warned -- it makes Spam look downright gorgeous by comparison.

Von Bremzen and her mother came to the United States in 1974 when Von Bremzen was eleven years old. She was old enough to retain vivid memories of the Soviet Union and young enough to be able to completely adapt to life in the United States. Further travels in the Soviet Union and post-Soviet Union gave her even more points of view to round out the book.

In addition to knowing her onions about food, Von Bremzen has an unusual story to tell, and is a terrific writer. I even enjoyed the bibliography!
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16 of 18 people found the following review helpful By Naomi Manygoats on July 2, 2013
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
I ordered this book expecting a Russian cookbook, since I have another excellent cookbook by the author. However, I was NOT at all disappointed once I began reading the book. This is a magical memoir of what it was like to live in Soviet Russia, and very eye-opening to my western eyes. The author and her mother decide to recreate Russian meals from each decade in modern Russian history, and this tells of the food, and memories of Russia in a way I cannot even begin to describe. If you love to read about food, live, and history, you will enjoy this book immensly. It makes me realize how very much we have here to be grateful for. The stories of new immigrants in their first American supermarket were pretty funny, how one couple loved the lunch meat with little kitties on the lable for example.
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful By Citizen John TOP 100 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on September 23, 2013
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
The book made me understand how much we all lost in the process of gaining world-class consumer power. The simple recipes that could produce Russian crepes made me sad that nobody has time for that anymore. The diversity of cuisine throughout the Soviet regions was fantastic. Nothing was wasted and mayonnaise was practically a staple. It's odd to think we'd miss it, but the food reminds us of how life once was for so many.
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14 of 17 people found the following review helpful By NyiNya TOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on July 23, 2013
Format: Hardcover Vine Customer Review of Free Product ( What's this? )
Anya von Bremzen wrote the best Russian cookbook I've ever encountered. Her "Please to the Table" is loaded with easy to follow recipes, literary references and information about Russian history and Russian life. She's taken that one step further with this memoir. The result is a book that's informative and fun to read.

Von Bremzen grew up during the coldest days of the Cold War, when the Cuban Missile Crisis had us in a nuclear p-ing contest with Nikita Krushchev, Russia's 'five year plans' were hopelessly mired in incompetence, the communist dream degenerated into a morass of black market dealings and Animal Farm corruption. Home for the author was a damp and crumbling Soviet-era apartment building, shoddily built and smelling of mold and wet cement, with a communal kitchen where she and her mother cooked up whatever was available at the state-run shops...which wasn't much. In that environment, Von Bremzen develops a love of food and a love of the process.

Anya's mother, Larisa, is a gifted cook and does her best to transform the gray and lifeless soviet-era basics. Her real gift for cooking is displayed only on those rare occasions when she makes a lucky score at the shops or the black market and rounds up the necessary ingredients for a traditional dish. These occasional feasts stand out like icebergs in the drab daily fare. Like all Russians, she knows how to shop the black market, how to finagle and finesse. But it's a hard way to live, and the shortages and second-rate lifestyle weigh heavily on mother and daughter.

Daily life was a slog. Buying a pair of shoes was a week's worth of effort. Grocery shopping could be almost Kafka-esque in its labyrinthian complexity and frustration.
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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful By Wilhelmina Gawdy VINE VOICE on September 22, 2013
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"Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking: A Memoir of Food and Longing" by Anya Von Bremzen is an eye opening view of life inside the USSR before and during the Cold War. The world of the Soviets was always a closed door to me growing up. Nothing to see there, keep moving. All I knew of the Soviets was they wanted to bomb us before we bombed them and had spies foiling the antics of Rocky and Bullwinkle. Soviet life was portrayed to me as unhappy, dismal, and dreary. There must have been 15 families living in a studio apartment from what they told me about the Soviet citizen's daily life and they are grateful if they get a bowl of Borscht once a day after standing in line for 10 hours waiting for bread then finding it was actually a line for toilet paper. Not that it mattered because they always ran out of whatever it was.

While much of the truth may not be much rosier, from Anya's tale of 3 generations of her family inside the USSR to a new life in the United State I was able to see the truth about life behind the Iron Curtain. To make sense of what it actually was like to live there and then to immigrate to the United States was totally new information for me.

Anya's writing style flows easily and is brilliant. The mix of food, memories, and history was superbly well done. No, it is not a cookbook. Although there are a few recipes in the back of the book I am tempted to make. Memoirs like this make world history much more interesting. My curiosity about the USSR as well as modern Russia has been stirred so I'll be looking into those topics further.
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