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 credit: Courtesy)
Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking by Anya von Bremzen
(photo credit: 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.
Von Bremzen, the author of five acclaimed cookbooks and the winner of three James Beard awards, is a delightfully colorful storyteller, who recounts even the stories she wasn’t present for with exacting detail.
She seamlessly weaves in paragraphs on Soviet history with stories from the childhoods of her parents and grandparents, alongside flash-forwards to other periods of her life. Her wry sense of humor comes through in the most unexpected places.
In a chapter on the 1920s and the age of Lenin, von Bremzen tells of the outsized influence the Soviet leader had on Russian culture throughout her childhood. Her father, she writes, had a job at Lenin’s Mausoleum – where the former leader’s mummified body is displayed to this day – toiling “to keep Lenin looking his immortal best.”
“Dad and those of his rank of course were never allowed near the ‘object’ itself,” she writes. “That required top security clearance.
Mere mortal researchers practiced on ‘biological structures’ – cadavers embalmed in the exact same glycerin and potassium acetate solution as the star of the show. There were 26 practice stiffs in all, each with its own name. Dad’s was ‘Kostya,’ a criminal dead from asphyxiation and unclaimed by relatives.
“On Dad’s first day, his new colleagues watched cackling as he nearly fainted at a display of severed heads. It was a pretty gruesome, over-the-top place, the lab. Embalmed limbs and fetuses bobbed in the basement bathtubs. But my father quickly got used to the work.”
VON BREMZEN grew up in Moscow, where scarcity was a way of life and bread lines were common. Even after spending hours waiting on line for a ration of food, she recalls, the reward was barely worth it.
“Coarse and damp was the bread waiting at the end of the line,” wrote von Bremzen. “Not just damp, but often oozing weird greening gunk: the flour had been stretched out with dried peas.” At a local store her mother shopped at, “a discolored cabbage there set you back eight kopeks; likewise a kilo of carrots.
The potatoes were equally cheap and unwholesome.”
But the young von Bremzen knew no other way of life, and to her, much of the “defitsit” culture was a game.
“In our own five-meter home kitchen, I assigned myself the task of inspecting the goulash and alerting Mom to its blemishes,” she recalls of herself as a young girl. “The multicolored universe of imperfections contained in a single chunk of beef was endlessly fascinating to me. If the beef had been frozen, refrozen and thawed again, the crosscuts offered an eye-pleasing contrast of bloody purple and gray. Sinew and fat practically shimmered with an ivory palette. The bluish spots on beef that had sat around for too long acquired a metallic glow; if the light hit them right you could see an actual rainbow.”
But in 1974, taking advantage of the Soviet state’s loosening of emigration quotas for Jews, von Bremzen and her mother, Larisa, left Moscow for Philadelphia.
The culture shock was enormous, transitioning from a life of bartering already chewed pieces of gum in the school playground to the plenty of consumer capitalism in America. Von Bremzen mentions people who “knelt and wept at the sight of 42 varieties of salami.” But she was not as enamored with her new way of life: “Shuffling the aisles, I felt entombed in the abundance of food, now drained of its social power and magic… Shopping at Pathmark was acquisitioning robbed of thrills, drama, ritual.”
Life in their new world took some adjusting to – for them and their fellow refugees.
“The Jewish Family Services office where we collected our meager refugee stipend resounded with food stories,” wrote von Bremzen. “The stories constituted an archive of socialists’ misadventures with imperialist abundance. Monya and Raya complained about the flavor of American butter – after smearing floor wax on bread. The Goldbergs loved the delicious lunch meat cans with cute pictures of kitties, not suspecting the kitties were the intended consumers. Vovchik, the Odessa lothario, slept with his first American shiksa [non-Jewish woman] and stormed out indignant when she offered him Triscuits. Dessicated cardboard squares! Why not a steaming bowl of borscht?” THOUGH VON Bremzen’s Jewishness is the reason she was granted a visa to leave the Soviet Union, it was never a large part of her childhood. She relates most to her religious background in the chapter on the 1920s, when she describes – in flash-forward – a visit to some distant relatives, where she saw for the first time “true Jewish food”: gefilte fish.
“One Tamara filleted the fish, the other chopped the flesh with a flat-bladed knife, complaining about her withered arm.
Dora grated onions, theatrically wiping away tears. Reduced to a coarse oily paste and blended with onions, carrots and bread, the fish was stuffed back into the skin and sewn up with thick twine as red as the cooks’ hair.”
But the encounter was not a pleasant one for the young von Bremzen.
“Suffocating from fish fumes, August heat, and the onslaught of entreaties and questions, I mumbled some excuse and ran out, gasping for air,” she wrote. “For some time afterward, with a mixture of curiosity and alienation, I kept wondering about the taste of that fish. Then, back in Moscow, it dawned on me: On that August day in Odessa, I had run away from my Jewishness.”
Though von Bremzen felt guilt about it later – preparing the traditional Jewish dish with her mother in their Queens apartment as a tribute to her great-grandmother Maria – she knew the decision to abandon Jewishness in the Soviet state was a common one.
“I suppose you can’t blame a late-Soviet big-city kid from fleeing the primal shock of gefilte fish,” she wrote. “As thoroughly gentrified Moscow Jews, we didn’t know from Seders or matzo balls. Jewishness was simply the loaded pyaty punkt (Entry 5) in the Soviet internal passport… Yes, we were intensely aware of our difference as Jews – and ignorant of the religious and cultural backstory. Of course we ate pork fat. We loved it.”
The tales of von Bremzen’s life both in and out of the Soviet state are infinitely engaging. As an adult she returned many times to the region, recounting how she passed out for two days from alcohol poisoning the day the Soviet Union fell. Then, in 2011, she found herself in Moscow filming a TV show with an ex-Kremlin chef, who had in his possession crockery pilfered from “the dacha” – used by Stalin himself.
Though she flits around the decades and zooms out to Soviet national history and in to personal recollections, von Bremzen’s tale is nevertheless an captivating saga that will interest historians, foodies and – above all – those who love a good story.