Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking: A Memoir of Food and Longing
By Anya von Bremzen
Crown Publishing, 2013
For generations of Soviet women, mastering the art of cooking required a considerable imagination along with a set of practical skills and physical vigor. It was an act of balancing between visions evoked by the cherished, magical Book of Tasty and Healthy Food, with its colorful, mouthwatering illustrations and epic tales of Soviet abundance, and the drab, absurd, often harsh reality of Soviet byt (everyday life), much of which was consumed by efforts to procure edibles that were neither tasty nor healthy, if at all available. Part personal memoir, part cultural history, Anya von Bremzen’s Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking vividly captures this “unruly collision of collectivist myths and personal antimyths” in a family saga spanning three generations and seven decades of Soviet history, and nothing better reflects the contradictory nature of this experience than the peculiar blend of idealism and cynicism, of the longing and terror with which the author tells her story.
Born in 1963, Anya von Bremzen grew up in a communal Moscow apartment where eighteen families shared one kitchen, hanging padlocks on soup pots to combat stealing of meat. Her grandfather, a former head of Naval intelligence, was an idealistic communist and a member of nomenklatura (the Communist elite), but her romantic mother, Larisa, grew up a dissident determined to shield her daughter from “Soviet contamination.” For a time, the child found herself torn between the conflicting loyalties to her mother and to her motherland, which form the background of her early food memories. She fondly remembers their ruble-a-day diet comprised of discolored cabbage, “not too rotten” potatoes, not-all-broken eggs, and a multicolored chunk of beef sold as “goulash” meat, all transformed by her mother Larisa into “the most delicious and eloquent expression of pauperism.” But despite her mother’s inborn dissidence, five-year-old Anya was eventually sent to an elite boarding kindergarten for the offspring of the Central Committee (thanks to her grandad’s Party connections) to protect her from the dysentery and pneumonia which threatened the children of common citizens. There, she gagged on black caviar served to the Central Committee offspring instead of the common fish oil, and, along with bulimic symptoms, developed her case of Soviet split-consciousness: forbidden by her mother to learn songs about Lenin, she memorized them “by accident,” singing them into her pillow at home for fear of disappointing her parent. Back at the kindergarten, she couldn’t bring herself to sing the despised hymns, humming her mother’s favorite melodies instead. But it was during kindergarten mealtimes that young Anya felt the conflict most acutely:
My struggles worsened with each new politically indigestible, delicious morsel I desperately wanted to eat but knew would horrify Mother. I threw up. I contemplated going on hunger strike, like a Tatar dissident she’d told me about.
And she did—albeit quietly: despite the allure of Party elite delicacies—veal escalopes sauced with porcini mushrooms, fine pasta lavished with imported cheese, cod liver pate—a week’s worth of provisions were dumped behind the nearby radiator in this childish act of semi-conscious protest. Only the sweets escaped the same fate: “In our happy classless society,” von Bremzen notes in one of her customarily acute observations, “candies were the most brutally clear signifiers of status.” The ones distributed at Anya’s kindergarten were neither the “sticky proletarian toffees called Iris-Kis-Kis” which “tormented the fillings of the masses,” nor the higher status, hard-to-get chocolates like Little Bears in the North. Instead, she writes,
Our kindergarten sweets were off this scale altogether. Like most Moscow candies, they were manufactured by the Red October Chocolate Factory…. Only recently have I learned that Red October produced two versions of the sweets: one for the People, the other for the Party. Nomenklatura chocolates had the same names—Squirrel, Red Poppy, Hail to October—and wrappers that looked the same as those on their proletarian doubles. But they possessed a vastly superior flavor thanks to exalted ingredients. As a kindergartener I had no idea about any of this. I did know that our candies, hefty in weight and wrapped smartly in classy matte paper, exuded power and privilege. Unable to eat—or toss—something so status-laden, let alone imagine sharing it with my friends outside the fence, I stashed the sweets inside my underwear bag.
And half a decade later, we find school-aged Anya skillfully navigating the world of Mature Socialism, thriving as a black marketer of foreign candies and gum, and earning herself both social prestige (“the most crucial Mature Socialist commodity”) and enough money to satisfy her appetite for Soviet delicacies without compromising loyalty to her anti-Soviet mother. Living near the embassy-row, she made friends with children of foreign diplomats, which left her with such prestigious imported goods as M&Ms and Wrigley’s Juicy Fruit gum. Amid the collective yearning for a taste, or even a smell, of the mythical zagranitsa (literally, “beyond the border”), it is not surprising that profits from selling Juicy Fruit (millimeter by millimeter measured with a ruler and cut with a penknife) in a girl’s school bathroom were sufficient to open the doors of Moscow’s exclusive restaurants and gourmet food stores to a mere schoolgirl. “Even a chewed-up blob of Juicy Fruit had some value,” von Bremzen cheerfully informs us, “as long as you didn’t masticate more than five times, leaving some of that floral Wrigley magic for the next masticator to savor.”
But Anya’s burgeoning black market career ended when, during the political repressions of Brezhnev-era Russia, her mother’s inborn antipathy towards all things Soviet reached its peak, and she decided to make their zagranitsa dream a reality. When Anya was 10—and misdiagnosed with a fatal condition—mother and daughter were permitted to leave the country (with no right of return, of course). Yet, unlike her mother, Anya von Bremzen never stopped looking back, and her recollections of their first American food shopping adventures suggest what this book is—and isn’t—about. It is not so much about food and cooking as it is about the personal and national experience into which patterns of food production, preparation, and consumption are embedded:
I hated the Pathmark of Northeast Philadelphia. It was the graveyard of my own zagranitsa dream, possessed of a fittingly funerary chill and an otherworldly fluorescence. Shuffling the aisles, I felt entombed in the abundance of food, now drained of its social power and magic. Who really wanted the eleven-cent bag of bananas if you couldn’t parade it down Kalinin Prospect inside your transparent avoska after standing in a four-hour line, basking in envious stares? What happened when you replaced the heroic Soviet verb dostat’ (to obtain with difficulty) with the banal kupit’ (to buy), a term barely used back in the USSR? Shopping at Pathmark was acquisitioning robbed of thrills, drama, ritual.
Today, Anya Von Bremzen, an award-winning author of five cookbooks and a contributing editor at Travel + Leisure magazine, confesses to the “constant feeling of inhabiting two parallel food universes: one where degustation menus at places like Per Se or Noma are routine; the other where a simple banana—a once-a-year treat back in the USSR—still holds an almost talismanic sway over my psyche.” In many ways, she is still that “Homo sovieticus” whose relationship with food is “a chronicle of longing, of unrequited desire.” Only this time, it is not food itself that is hard to attain, but the full flavor of the past, derived from innumerable ingredients scattered through contending personal and collective memories and historical facts. It is to bring this bitter-sweet flavor to life that Anya von Bremzen and her mother Larisa “embark on a yearlong journey unlike any other: eating and cooking [their] way through decade after decade of Soviet life,” turning Larisa’s Queens kitchen and dining room into “a time machine and an incubator of memories.”
Their culinary journey begins in the first decade of the twentieth century—and the last years of the czarist Russia—with kulebiaka as a centerpiece. This Russian pie of humble origin, von Bremzen informs us, has 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 buckweat or rice, all the tiers separated by thin crepes called blinchiki—to soak up the juices.” Although immediately after seizing power, the Bolsheviks set out—and largely succeeded—at erasing all traces of the decadent czarist-era food culture, with its multi-layered kulebiakas, suckling pigs, and fruit steeped in champagne sauce, Russian literature from Gogol to Chekhov abounds in delicious passages devoted to these lost treasures that inspire Anna and her mother as they venture to reconstruct the decadent feast before moving on to the Soviet diet.
The seven decades of Soviet food culture that follow are rich in myths of socialist abundance expertly fed to the people, and scarce in actual food supplies. Beginning with the revolution of 1917, which erupted under the banners demanding bread because the country was headed toward starvation as a result of Russia’s disastrous entrance into World War I, every generation of Homo sovieticus tasted some form of food rationing. From mid-1918 through early 1921, when the country was engulfed by civil war, “even revolutionary bigwigs at the city’s Smolny canteen subsisted on vile herring soup and gluey millet.” Lenin resolved to solve the problem of food shortages in the cities with “food dictatorship” and a “crusade for bread,” with armed forces marching to the countryside and confiscating grain from the new class enemy, the so-called kulaks—peasants who owned their own land or livestock (hence their name, “the tight-fisted ones”). Those suspected of resistance or of hiding their “surplus” were mercilessly executed, usually publicly hanged to instill terror in others. “It goes without saying that the concept of cuisine went out the window in those ferocious times,” von Bremzen writes, but shortages and violence were not the only reason. There was food, to be sure, at the Kremlin canteen, but there were no professional cooks, because most pre-revolutionary chefs had been fired as “czarist cadres.”
In these early years, the Bolsheviks not only confiscated private property from various “class enemies,” but launched an attack on the very idea of privacy. This gave birth to the grotesque phenomenon of kommunalka, communal apartments that housed multiple families sharing bathrooms and kitchens. What makes von Bremzen’s book particularly delightful is that some of her truest cultural observations are also the funniest, evoking both the ugly absurdity of Soviet life and the peculiar Soviet-era dark humor that saved many a comrade from insanity. Take, for example, this description of the various functions of the kitchen in her grandmother’s communal apartment:
AGORA: Glorious news of overfulfilled Five-Year Plans blasts from the transistor radio suspended above the stove. Neighbors discuss grave political issues.… MARKETPLACE: “Nataaaasha … Saaasha … Trade me an onion for half a cup of buckwheat?” BATHHOUSE: Over a kitchen sink women furtively rub black bread into their hair. Furtively, because while bread is believed to promote hair growth, it is also a sacred socialist treasure. Its misuse could be interpreted by other neighbors as unpatriotic. LEGAL CHAMBER: Comrades’ Court tries neighbors for offenses, including but not limited to neglecting to turn off the kitchen lights. A more serious crime: stealing soup meat from the pots of your neighbors.… LAUNDRY ROOM: As you enter the kitchen on a cold dark winter morning, half-frozen stockings swaying from clotheslines flagellate you in the face. Some neighbors get angry. The tall blond Vitalik grabs scissors and goes snip-snip-snip. If stockings were imported, a fistfight ensues. The communal apartment kitchen turns into an EXECUTION SQUARE.
At the same time, public canteens (most of them filthy and infested with rats) were promoted as the new hearth, and for a while, the New Soviet Woman was urged to break free from the degrading domestic toil and kitchen slavery and join the larger workforce in building the radiant socialist future. But, von Bremzen shows, while the new ideology and official policies expanded rights for women and ethnic minorities, ostensibly solving “the woman question” and “the Jewish question,” the peasants (who made up roughly 80 percent of the population) continued to be viewed as the backward and avaricious enemy of the city proletariat responsible for shortages of grain supply to the cities. Stalin’s solution to the “peasant problem” was ruthless collectivization during which millions of peasants were stripped of their land, killed or imprisoned. Those who survived were forced into large collective farms run by the state. In formerly fertile Ukraine, “peasants resisted this ‘second serfdom’ by force, destroying their livestock on a catastrophic scale. By 1931 more than twelve million peasants had fled to the towns. 1933 the country’s breadbasket, the fertile Ukraine, would plunge into man-made famine—one of the great tragedies of the twentieth century.” An estimated 7 million died in this famine, almost half of them in the Ukraine.
The second half of the thirties passed under the mantra “Life has gotten better, life has gotten more cheerful”—at least for those who managed to escape mass arrests, show trials, and executions. One of the signs of this was the mass-produced Sovetskoye Shampanskoe (Soviet Champagne), a formerly bourgeois drink now enjoyed by the hard-working Soviet common man. The Book of Tasty and Healthy Food, published first in 1939, also asserted the arrival of a radiant future: it contained “fantastical photos … of tables crowded with silver and crystal, of platters of beef decorated with tomato rosettes, of boxes of chocolates and wedges of frilly cake posed amid elaborate tea sets…. They conjured up skatert samobranka, an enchanted tablecloth from a Russian folk fairy tale that covered itself with food at the snap of a finger.”
One of the most interesting sections of the book details this transformation of the Soviet food culture under the legendary Anastas Mikoyan, People’s Commissar for Food under Stalin. Most Russians would agree with von Bremzen’s claim that “if writers were ‘engineers of the human soul’ (per Comrade Stalin), then Mikoyan was the engineer of the Soviet palate and gullet.” And yet few know that many staples of today’s Russian cuisine were brought by Mikoyan from the United States, where he travelled on Stalin’s orders to study American food industry. Thus, for example, the patriotic kotleti (ground meat patties) turn out to be nothing but “an ersatz burger that mislaid its bun” (burgers being widely derided by Russians as a sign of American lack of culture):
Morozhennoye [ice cream]—our national pride? The hard-as-rock plombir with its seductive cream rosette I licked at thirty below zero? The Eskimos on a stick from Mom’s childhood outings? Yup, all the result of Yankee technology, imported by Mikoyan.… As for sosiski and kolbasa, those other ur-Soviet food icons … they were German sausages that, in Mikoyan’s words, ‘changed their citizenship.’
Famines and feasts in the first Soviet decades; in depicting World War II and one of its most gruesome chapters—the 900-day Leningrad blockade, during which one third of the city’s population died from hunger; Khrushchev’s Thaw, Brezhnev’s Stagnation era, Perestroika—von Bremzen expertly puts to use her knowledge and nostalgia, capturing each of these episodes of Soviet experience “through the prism of food.” Each corresponding meal in her mother’s Queens apartment, scrupulously studied and painstakingly recreated, becomes what von Bremzen calls a “poisoned madeleine,” opening the floodgates of nostalgia only to see the surge of warm personal memories sucked into a chilly whirlpool of history. Each meal is also an occasion for an intimate story of love, hope, and betrayal, of courage and fear. We delight in the enduring union of her grandfather Naum, a dazzling intelligence officer under Stalin, and her grandmother Liza, who risks her life travelling to blockaded Leningrad in search of her husband during World War II. We follow the largely separate stories of her father Sergei, a heavy drinker who worked at the Mausoleum Research Lab and quickly grew bored with family life, and her devoted, idolized mother Larisa, an incorrigible romantic whose passion for culture and cooking made bearable both the drab Soviet existence and the hardships of immigration. These intimate stories, including Anya’s own, are presented as pieces of a vast puzzle of Soviet history, and, embedded into a larger cultural and historical narrative, they are the soul of this book.
Rich with penetrating observations, cultural notes and historical facts, Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking offers plenty of food for thought (as it were). But if that’s not all you are looking for, in the last chapter of the book Anya von Bremzen includes detailed recipes for the highlights of her culinary journey through time, from decadent pre-revolutionary kulebiaka to her dad’s “uber-borsch,” all accompanied by cultural notes and adapted for American kitchens. With this, your experience of Soviet food, unlike that of Homo sovieticus, doesn’t have to be one of perpetual longing and unrequited desire.
Evelina Mendelevich teaches Russian at Brooklyn College. She holds a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from the CUNY Graduate Center. Her current book project examines the relationship between reading, writing and living in the works of Fyodor Dostoevsky and Henry James.