Food and famine

Soviet emigré Anya von Bremzen’s memoir looks at her childhood – and a century of Russian history – through the lens of food.

Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking by Anya von Bremzen
Photo by: Courtesy
As I toted this book around with me over the past few weeks, I got a lot of confused questions. “Soviet cooking?” people would ask. “That’s what you want to learn?” But Anya von Bremzen’s Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking is not a cookbook. It is, as subtitled, “A memoir of food and longing,” a story of the central role of hunger in Soviet life, and one young Jewish woman’s adjustment to a world of plenty in America.

Memoir may not be the most accurate word, however, as von Bremzen takes on the daunting task of covering 100 years of Soviet history through the prism of food. To aid her in this goal, she enlists her mother to cook a meal along with her – each to match a different century (except for the 1940s, when instead of a recipe, they offered the reproduction of a ration card – “Cooking just didn’t seem right.”) This framing device works well in many chapters, as they end with the meal prepared in a kitchen in Queens in 2013. Other times it falls by the wayside, discarded when unnecessary to enclose the chapter.

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