'Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking': a taste of history

I was thrilled that my review copy of "Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking: A Memoir of Food and Longing," appeared a few days before my October St. Petersburg trip. I finished it on the plane.

The book is built on the experiences of three generations of food writer Anya Von Bremzen's family, all of whom seem to be raconteurs. The stories tell how people faced life in Soviet times and found solace, mostly in terms of what they ate, wanted to eat, didn't want to eat or couldn't get to eat. There are insights aplenty for any traveler, food specialist or not, into a vast country most of us don't know very well.

Should you be stunned your first days in Russia at blank, even dour, expressions in place of greeting smiles, Ms. Von Bremzen explains how Russians, long accustomed to having the rug pulled out from under them politically and otherwise, view "smiley" Americans skeptically. Her father warned her that she was showing signs of becoming "smiley" herself after a few years in the United States. Lacking the grin reflex, however, is no barrier to seeing humor. I wasn't expecting how bitterly funny the book is: novelist Martin Cruz Smith, in a Wall Street Journal feature last month, cited Ms. Von Bremzen as one of Russia's best humorists. This in a context in which each generation in the family lost loved ones to Siberian prison camps. The author's mother survived the siege of St. Petersburg in World War II. All suffered freakish food privations that fuel the tales that Ms. Von Bremzen, a child of Moscow, interprets with wit and irony.

Her grandmother taught her to drink vodka: "Drinking solo was sacrilege numero uno. Drinking without a zakuska (food chaser) was another taboo. Finally, silence, was a despised drinker no-no." (You must keep shooting the breeze.) Cucumber pickles, herring, caviars, sharp crunchy sauerkraut, garlicky sausage -- the limitless repertoire of little extra savory Russian dishes seems to have been created expressly to accompany vodka."

She traces the meaning of iconic foods: Russian "Provensal"-brand mayonnaise, is a tangier, looser spread than Hellmann's, and is the defining ingredient in the Salat Olivier, a diced-potato salad that is beloved today. As important to Soviet Russians as the mayo itself were the jars. Packaging materials were absent in Soviet years. You were likely to have your butcher thrust a bloody cut of meat into your bare hands if you'd forgotten to bring a newspaper to enclose it in. Empty mayo jars were essential -- for planting spring onions, for storing moonshine, for trips to the doctor, where you were always expected to bring a urine sample from home.

The proud Russian beet receives its due in the author's delicious Beet Caviar with Walnuts and Prunes, and also in her father's borsch -- no "T" in the Russian version.

"The entire USSR pretty much lived on kotleti," she says, "cheap, delicious fried patties ... of beef, pork fish chicken, even of minced carrots or beets." These appear as "Mom's Russian Hamburgers," and may be served with buckwheat kasha, another "nostalgic Russian accompaniment."

She skewers Soviet leaders: Khrushchev fell so in love with corn that he traveled to an Iowa farm and pressed for universal corn planting when he got home. The campaign backfired. Russian people are stoic, but they hold two things sacred, the author says -- their bread and their vodka. For messing with traditional wheat and rye, Khrushchev was ridiculed. Ordinary Russians didn't want to grow corn or eat it. They gave him the nickname, Kukuruznik, "Corn Man." Gorbachov tripped up when he curtailed vodka in a move to boost the nation's productivity, a decision that helped to speed him out the door of history.

A selection of recipes illustrates each decade from the Czars to the present. There are no recipes for the 1940s, however. In its place is an image of a ration card from Leningrad, where the terrible siege lasted 900 days and claimed a million lives. By the end of that siege, rations were down to 125 grams a day for citizens -- barely 4 ounces of food -- and 250 grams for industrial workers. "An image like this calls for a moment of silence," Ms. Von Bremzen writes.

Mother and daughter fled Brezhnev-era Russia in 1974 for the United States, where Anya intended to be a concert pianist. Sidelined by an injury, she became captivated by food, made a book proposal and went on to win three James Beard awards for food writing.

Virginia Phillips: phillips.virginia.r@gmail.com.


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