Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking: A Memoir of Food and Longing
By Anya Von Bremzen
(Crown, 338 pages, $26)
One of the most popular novelistic forms is the sweeping, multi-generational family saga that encompasses great events as they are seen through the eyes of a colorful cast of fictional characters. For Russia, think Tolstoy’s War and Peace; for France, Hugo’s Les Miserables; for Italy, Di Lampedusa’s The Leopard; for England, The Forsyte Saga; for America, Gone With the Wind. The only problem with such works is that the characters are sometimes a little too colorful—overdrawn caricatures of symbolic types meant to embody a whole class, race, nationality, personality type, or political point of view. Even when we enjoy reading about them, we can’t quite accept them as real people. When was the last time you met a real—as opposed to a wannabe—Jean Valjean, Natasha, or, for that matter, Scarlett O’Hara or Rhet Butler?
Historical fiction is a great way to whet the appetite for a period, but to truly understand it and its people there is no substitute for a well-written family memoir, provided that the family members are interesting in their own right, and the author and family sufficiently immersed in and affected by the great events unfolding around them. When all these parts fall into place, art, truth, history, and humanity merge and the thoughtful reader is in for a real treat.
Soviet émigrée Anya Von Bremzen’s Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking is such a book. Don’t be misled by the title; while food is central to much of the action as a century of Russo-Soviet history unfolds around several generations of Von Bremzen’s remarkable kinsmen and women—including secret agents, thwarted thespians, a few Yiddishe Mamas, and one boozy embalmer—it serves as kind of tragicomic metaphor for life itself.
“All happy food memories are alike; all unhappy food memories are unhappy after their own fashion,” Von Bremzen declares in a mock-solemn paraphrase of Tolstoy in the opening pages of her self-described “memoir of food and longing.” Of course, like so much Tolstoy had to say when he strayed from brilliant character analysis into not-so-brilliant pontificating, his sweeping generalization about family life wasn’t really true.
There are at least as many different kinds of happy families as there are miserable ones, and the same thing applies to meals. Indeed, the most strikingly happy food moments in most people’s lives involve something special or unique, anything from a serendipitous encounter with the perfect peach at a roadside farmer’s stand to a stunning, twelve-course Mandarin banquet where the conversation, lubricated by multiple toasts, is almost as intricate and refined as the food itself.
By contrast, bad food is simply bad food, regardless of form or shape.
To this day, I still shudder at the recollection of a Kremlin banquet I chewed my way through in the summer of 1974 as an aide accompanying President Nixon on his last state visit to the Soviet Union. The setting was splendid enough, an 18th-century Rococo addition to the Kremlin compound, but the only really good thing about the food was the menu, printed in gold letters on elegant silken ribbons. The fare itself was an endless succession of heavy courses—fish, fowl, game and God-knows-what-else designed to impress guests with Soviet abundance, all washed down with a sea of cloyingly sweet Ukrainian champagne.
Vulgar as it was, I still might have been impressed by this Potemkin Village show of conspicuous consumption if I hadn’t taken an unescorted walk around Moscow earlier and noticed at least one food store catering to ordinary Muscovites. Its lone window display was entirely devoted to canned cabbage. It occurred to me at the time that Soviet television, which was beginning to experiment with game shows, could probably have scored a big hit with a program called “Bowling for Turnips.” So much for the Good Life in the Worker’s Paradise.
Most of the food for most of the Russian people during most of the century that Von Bremzen is concerned with—from pre-World War I Czarist Russia through the rise and dismantling of the Soviet Union to Mr. Putin’s chauvinist police state—has been mediocre at best, grossly ostentatious for the privileged, and crude and often scarce for everyone else. It takes a rare talent to write a good book about bad food; fortunately, Von Bremzen has it. Consider this early culinary snapshot, and what it tells us about communist centralized planning in general:
Strikes in Petrograd in 1919 protested the taste (or lack thereof) of the new Soviet diet. Even revolutionary bigwigs at the city’s Smolny canteen subsisted on vile herring soup and gluey millet. At the Kremlin…the situation was so awful that the famously ascetic Lenin—Mr. Stale Bread and Weak Tea, who ate mostly at home—ordered several investigations into why the Kremylyovka (Kremlin Canteen) served such inedible stuff.
The answer was simple enough: “the cooks couldn’t actually cook. Most pre-revolutionary chefs, waiters, and other food types had been fired as part of the massive reorganization of labor,” while their replacements had been hired from other professions to avoid using “czarist cadres.”
From early days, food also played an important part in Soviet political mythology:
All Soviet children knew of Lenin’s fondness for apple cake. Even more, we knew how child-Lenin once secretly gobbled up the apple peels after his mom baked such a cake. But the future leader owned up to his crime. He bravely confessed it to his mother!
Evidently someone in the propaganda branch had read Parson Weems’ apocryphal tale of young George Washington and the cherry tree and decided to adapt it to the great proletarian struggle.
Food is never very far from drink—especially in Russia—and Von Bremzen has also mastered the art of writing about it, not to mention the art of knocking it back. She may have inherited this particular gift from her father, a rather Micawberish, boozy descendant of the German-Russian Baltic aristocracy that played such a large role in modernizing Czarist Russia. Under the communists, Papa Von Bremzen found himself in another sort of pioneering elite, working in a small gray mansion near the Moscow Zoo.
Most passersby, his daughter tells us, “had no clue that this was the Ministry of Health’s Mausoleum Research Lab, where the best and brightest of science—some 150 people in many departments—toiled to keep Lenin looking his immortal best under the bulletproof glass of his sarcophagus.” They also managed to produce a tempting range of flavored high voltage moonshine on government time, using pilfered lab alcohol.
Perhaps the saddest pages in a book laden with—but not overwhelmed by—sorrows, are in the addendum following the memoir narrative. It lists 10 Russo-Soviet recipes, one for each decade of the time covered by the family chronicle. The only one that really measures up is “Kulebiaka,” the famous pre-revolutionary delicacy of pastry-wrapped salmon with rice, wild mushrooms, and various embellishments. This is a weighty, laborious but delicious dish with roots in the ostentatious, slightly decadent world of new money and old aristocracy that thrived before World War I: delicious, but tedious to prepare—and dangerous to eat—on a regular basis
Gefilte Fish for the 1920s is an appropriate if not very appetizing choice. Stalin had not yet purged the many earnest, dedicated Russian Jews who had provided much of the brain and brawn power for the early Bolsheviks. The recipe is a sound one, but the dish itself is not really very interesting except for its symbolic value. With the 1930s come “Kotleti,” ground meat (or something) patties that became a Soviet standard after that wily old Soviet survival artist, Anastas Mikoyan, was sent by Stalin to the U.S. to study our successful agriculture and food processing. He brought back hamburgers (kotleti), ketchup, and other American “delicacies” that became Soviet staples, although scarcity soon stripped the hamburgers of their buns, sometimes even of their meat.
Come the grim 1940s, and a country ravaged by paranoid mass purges and then a war brought on because Stalin actually was duped into believing he had a trustworthy understanding with fellow sociopath Adolf Hitler. Von Bremzen doesn’t even offer a recipe: It’s the age when millions literally starve to death and she offers rationing cards (“Kartochki”) as her entry for the decade. Stalin, an ethnic Georgian, preferred the spicier, generally more appealing food of his homeland to weighty Russian fare. As food got less scarce in the 1950s, even ordinary Russians would be able to afford the occasional piece of fresh lamb (probably stringy) and vegetable ingredients that would be edible in a stew, in this case “Chanakhi,” a Georgian concoction of lamb, herbs, and vegetables.
The ’60s were dominated by that blustery, blundering but sincerely penitent former Stalin stooge, Nikita Khrushchev, formerly boss of the corn producing Ukraine; hence we’re offered a recipe for cornbread that is good enough…but sad testimony to the limits of what people had to eat and what passed for a treat in grim times. “Salat Olivier” creeps back in during the relatively stable, affluent 1970s though, while Von Bremsen doesn’t seem to realize it, this jumped-up, heavily mayonnaised potato salad was merely a resuscitated version of the “Salade Russe” that had been around on aristocratic Russian and European menus since the mid-19th century.
The author’s recipe for her father’s 1980s “Uber-Borshch”, which goes way beyond beets, is more of a tribute to papa’s ingenuity than a specimen of what most ordinary Russians were consuming at the time. Similarly, the Central Asian lamb “Palov” included for the 1990s is a rather crude, unsubtle adaptation of a Central Asian pilau that, while fairly tasty, would make a cultivated Persian puke. The post-Soviet 21st-century recipe for blini (potato pancakes) with trimmings is actually tempting, an example of how Russians—at least those on the corrupt inside of “privatization”—can now enjoy good food with prime ingredients.
But what is saddest about all of this is something much more basic. The rare examples of really good food are almost always pre-Soviet or foreign-inspired. A near-century of Soviet rule was as much of a blight on creative cuisine as it was on free expression, material wellbeing, and basic human rights: nothing quite like it since the Dark Ages.
In the poignant closing section describing a recent trip to Russia, the embalmer’s daughter finally gets around to visiting Lenin’s mausoleum herself, only to find it marginalized and growingly irrelevant, with a dwindling number of true believer visitors. Afterwards, on the street, her cell phone rings. It is her mother, a formidable Soviet émigrée of Russian-Jewish ancestry but rather Chekhovian personality who managed to live through—and see through—Stalin, Khrushchev, and Brezhnev-era communism before making a new life in America.
“Where are you?” she asks.
“Just walked out of the mausoleum,” I said. For a while there was silence. “Idiotka,” Mom finally snorted, then made a kiss-kiss sound and went back to bed.
Chalk one up for Mom.