Friday, January 10, 2014

Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking: A Memoir of Food and Longing by Anya von Bremzen

Born in Moscow's Birthing House No. 4 in 1963, Anya von Bremzen grew up like many Soviet children who longed for more and better food to eat. From an early age, she stood for her family in lines for bread, fish, meat, or whatever was being offered at official Soviet stores. Her family was also known to deal in the black market to get something on the table. She immigrated to America with her mother in 1974 and grew up to write cookbooks and appear on cooking television shows. She tells her story in Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking: A Memoir of Food and Longing.

In her book, Von Bremzen also describes the lives of her ancestors, profiles important Communist figures (Lenin, Stalin, Khrushchev, Brehznev), and illustrates everyday life in Russia and the Soviet Union decade by decade through the twentieth century. Food, its scarcity, and official cookbooks play central roles in the story. The cookbooks are particularly interesting, as they were important vehicles of Soviet propaganda. A 1954 edition of The Book and Tasty and Healthy Food, from which all Stalin quotations had been purged, states "Capitalist states condemn working citizens to constant under-eating … and often to hungry death." (page 124 of this memoir) In truth, Soviet farming was failing to meet its citizens needs.

Von Bremzen's chapter about touring the Soviet Union as it broke apart is particularly interesting. The compassion of strangers helped her immensely.

While I am not left with a longing to sample many of the Soviet foods - too many strange fish - I do feel I know more about what was eaten by the privileged and the unfortunate. Readers who are intrigued by the food can read the stories and recipes in the appendix, most of which do sound appetizing.

Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking was included on several book lists for 2013 and can be found in many libraries.

Von Bremzen, Anya. Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking: A Memoir of Food and Longing. Crown Publishers, 2013. 338p. ISBN 9780307886811.

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