“Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking – A Memoir of Food and Longing,” by Anya Von Bremzen, 2013
This is not really a cookbook, although there are some classic Soviet recipes at the back. It is more a social history that focuses on food. It is filled with conventional anti-Soviet clichés most U.S. readers are used to – some true, some not. Von Bremzen’s ‘boho’ mother was very anti-Soviet and her hostility is one side of the book. In a visit back to Moscow in 2011 on “Victory Day,” she complains about ‘tanks and banks’ in ‘Putinland.’ There is no parallel reference to the more numerous tanks or bigger banks of the U.S. Both author and mother seem to be apolitical people at bottom.
But the other side is the author’s very real social nostalgia growing up in the Brezhnev 1960s and 1970s as a ‘sad-eyed bulimic’ young girl, even attending an elite school just outside Stalin’s old dacha in the Kuntsevo Woods. It is a look into how mostly urban people in Moscow lived during the workers’ state period. Given Anya’s grandfather was a functionary in naval intelligence, they probably lived a bit better than most. She and her mother emigrated from the USSR to the U.S. in 1974.
Food is central to Anya, though she was brought up on piano lessons, Rachmaninoff, Tolstoy and Pushkin. Von Bremzen writes about the various editions of ‘The Book of Tasty and Healthy Food,’ the enduring Soviet cookbook and their “Joy of Cooking,” initiated by Anastas Mikoyan. She comments on the joyous 6th International Youth Festival during the ‘thaw’ under Khrushchev as well as her beloved Moscow Central Market, a former farmer’s market, now a high-end bourgeois mall. The book covers Red October Chocolate and the rest of the products produced by the USSR’s food industry, some of which still exist.
After leaving the USSR, she and her mother invite ex-Soviet friends over to their apartment in Philadelphia for special events in which they try to recreate a typical Soviet meal for each decade, pre-revolutionary to glasnost. This forms the food structure of the book.
Food, of course, is central to human and daily life, and its production is key to how a society functions. In the USSR, because of the vast number of ethnicities and nationalities, the variety of possible foods was huge. Besides Russian staples there was wine from the Caucasus; Sovetskoye champagne; Moldavian kebabs and feta strudel; central Asian quail pilaf; Kalmyk tea; Ukrainian borscht and sausage; a Georgian stew called chanakhi and a creamy walnut-sauced chicken called satvisi,; Armenian dolmas; Abkhazian apples and corn mush; Lithuanian sakotis cake; Koland melons; Korean kimchi (chim-che); Azerbaijani sturgeon salad; Byelorussian herbal vodka; Crimean fruit; Dangestan brandies; Baltic herring rolls.
But at the same time, because consumer goods were low on the bureaucrats’ priority list, food was limited or of low quality, so a black market and informal ‘bhat’ relations formed to provide what the state would not. With the looming end of the USSR under Gorbachev, food almost disappeared in cities as normal supply channels collapsed. When Anya and her mother immigrated to the U.S., their ‘First Supermarket Experience’ in the U.S. was epic, given the choices. But they also found U.S. food to be plentiful but tasteless or bland. Russian black bread made ‘Wonder Bread” seem pathetic. Tangy Sovok mayonnaise showed ‘Hellmans’ to be substandard. Soviet sosiski were more flavorful than American ‘hot dogs.’
Von Bremzen tells some valuable family stories and retails some facts:
|The cloth strait jacket - heavy, hot , hard to see and move, hard to wear.|
* On March 8, International Women’s Day, 1927 in Tashkent, 10,000 Uzbek women threw off their veils (a massive shroud of heavy horsehair) and burned them. One of Von Bremzen’s Communist feminist relatives was there. After that Muslim traditionalists raped and murdered some of these women for this act of rebellion.
* Mikoyan (who she calls the ‘Red Aunt Jemima’) went to the U.S. and brought back the idea of the hamburger but without the bun, which became the ubiquitous Soviet kotleta. He also introduced the ‘Eskimo pie’ to the USSR. And then there was kornfleks and even ketchup.
* The ruling nomenklatura had plenty of high-quality food, their own cooks, supply chains and farms. According to evidence, Stalin became quite the gluttonous gourmand. Though how that compares with the diets of today’s U.S. or Russian billionaire oligarchs is unsaid.
* Russia turned away from Islam because Islam forbade alcohol, including the culturally significant vodka. In 988 the king of the Rus adopted the Byzantine Eastern Orthodox Church, which allowed booze.
* The limitations of communal living in the cities were not so much in the ‘communal’ as in the tiny spaces that people had. They slept on aluminum cots (raskladushka) in hallways, in kitchens, in closets and had no privacy. It took years before Khrushchev and later Brezhnev began building identical apartment blocks that had a bit more room, but these were not in the central city areas.
* The old Bolsheviks were quite abstentious in their food habits. Lenin was against the working class drinking alcohol. Wiser heads prevailed and the alcohol tax monopoly was reintroduced in the 1920s.
* Von Bremzen’s grandfather in naval intelligence confirmed the evidence that Stalin ignoring multiple warnings of a surprise German attack in 1941. This led to 750,000 casualties, 3 million Soviet soldiers captured and Nazi armies at the gates of Leningrad and Moscow. This ‘mistake’ almost ended the USSR.
* Recycling was common in the land of the Soviets.
* She retails the Sovok traditions of drinking vodka, which she calls ‘co-bottling’ – done in 3s, never alone, with a zakuska (appetizer) of sorts.
* She asserts that ‘multi-culturalism’ - actually the right to self-determination for each nationality written into the USSR’s constitution - ultimately blew up the Soyuz (Union). Historically, no national votes took place, only a meeting between Yeltsin and 2 other republic leaders.
This book suggests that had if Soviets had paid more attention to the consumer sector instead of the military sector – i.e. music, clothes and especially living spaces and food - they might have maintained support among the working-class and rural farm populations. According to Von Bremzen, standing queues (stoyat) are where people socialized, and quite plainly their discussions were not complimentary to the food regime.
Von Bremzen includes recipes for: Salat Olivier, potato salad with pickles; Kulbiaka, pastry filled with fish, rice and mushrooms; Chanakhi, stew of lamb, herbs and vegetables; Super Borshch, soup with beef, mushrooms, apples and beans; Blini, pancakes with the trimmings.
Other reviews on the USSR: Travel series on St. Petersburg/ Leninsburg/ Leningrad. Books: “How the Beatles Rocked the Kremlin,” “Reinventing Collapse,” “Soviet Fates and Lost Alternatives,” “Secondhand Time,” “Russia and the Long Transition from Capitalism to Socialism,” “Soviet Women.” Event: “Slavs and Tatars.”
P.S. – Vegetarianism was frowned upon in the USSR. A ‘vegetarian society’ was established in 1901 with influence from people like Leo Tolstoy, but in 1929 it was outlawed. The Great Soviet Encyclopedia called vegetarianism a ‘false idea’ with ‘no followers’ in the USSR.’ The word itself disappeared from Russian dictionaries. At that time, vegetarianism meant more than just not eating meat – it was pacifist and semi-political too, so it was seen as threatening.
And I bought it at May Day’s excellent used/cutout book section!
The Kulture Kommissar
February 20, 2019