August 04, 2013
Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking by Anya Von Bremzen
A memoir of food and longing, that's the sub-title of this book. And I think it's a very apt one. But it's also a book of history. I think I learned more about Russia from this book than I did in the few classes I took in college.
Anya grew up in Russia. But her mother, discontent with the way things were, finally left for the United States, and took Anya with her. Now, years later, Anya reflects on her time and of her parents and grandparents lives in Russia as well. Anya and her mother decide to cook through the dishes of Russia by decade. Starting with the decadent 1910's all the way up through the new millennium. Sadly, most of these decades are marked with hunger and shortage and encouraged a creative use of ingredients. But these are the same dishes that have Anya longing for the past.
Anya had a lot of complicated relationships. Probably the most important person in her life was her mother. They appeared to be constant companions and her mother is a very strong person. It was amazing how she was able to raise a child on so little and be brave enough to go to a new country on her own. Her father was a little less stellar and seemed to have a form of depression or drug addiction. And the way she made it sound was if that was a very common thing for men in Russia. Her grandfather was also an unusual type, being in the military he had a very strong pride in his country and some advantages that probably helped in their survival (or hindered it at times).
I had originally thought this book would be mostly about food. And it had some food included. Anya and her mother did a lot of cooking and reminiscing over food they ate while living in Russia. But I'd actually classify this book more of a history. It told of the different leaders and the living conditions under each. It also went into a little of how the military worked and the difference between classes of citizens despite the communist state. And of course there were the personal stories of Anya's life. The pace was decent, although when describing the politics it could drag a little bit sometimes. The little bit of the food that was described I have to say didn't sound very appetizing to me. Lots of mayonnaise, although it sounds as if Russian mayo is different than American. She did include some recipes, one for each decade, at the back of the book.
While I would have liked just a little more food, I thought this an informative memoir. It certainly opened up a bit of Russia from the perspective of someone who lived during some volatile times.
Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking