Cooking behind an Iron Curtain

Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking    by Anya von Bremzen

2012  ....   reviewed by David P. Stern

    What a strange title! "Soviet cooking"--mental images of boiled potatoes, dense bread stale on arrival, mystery meat, thin borsht soup, lifeless cooked vegetables (or none at all), tea served in glasses with metal handles, and ever-present vodka bottles. Mastering, art? One expects humor, yet this is a serious book, sort of a culinary layer cake. The foods listed above, yes, but also the kind prepared at home as relief from dreary cafeteria fare. The twisty path to obtain ingredients, always in short supply. A slice of the history of an unhappy society. A layer of Soviet life, citizens crammed into communal apartments, easy prey for alcohol. A web of personal encounters, networks of friends and families. A serving of slang, with words rarely taught in class--"blat" for political pull, "samogon" for home-brewed vodka. To American readers the Soviet Union may have seemed an all-powerful police state, but it was more complex. Yes, the state had unlimited power and a network of informers, but these mainly served to protect its own privileges. For ordinary citizens bribes and corruption were (and remain) facts of life, as were blat and samogon.

    What emerges here is a sort of alternate history. Not a standard history focused on public figures, public events, proclamations and wars, the kind of history usually compiled by men. This one belongs to the women who try make do in a life of shortages, of close quarters with too many neighbors, ups and downs of family life, petty crime and official indoctrination. An alternate history, viewed from the kitchen (recipes listed and described)--not a captain's view from high atop a storm-tossed ship, but that of a sailor battling the waves in a small boat below.

    Anya von Bremzen knows Soviet cooking--born in Moscow, she published earlier a wide-ranging book on Russian food, is familiar with the food and history, and has her personal stories, too. "Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking" follows its subject through the 20th century, each chapter devoted to a decade, starting with 1910, the end of imperial Russia, and ending with the dissolution of Soviet Russia and the rise of Putin. This is also her family memoir, it covers not only her own life with its abrupt transplant to the US at age 11, but also that of previous generations--in particular her mother, whose initiative brought Anya to the US and who was her lifelong mentor and companion. It also tells of the life of her grandfather, an intelligence officer of the Red Army who (together with others) tried in 1941 to warn Stalin of Hitler's impending attack, to no avail.

    Decade by decade, the story advances: Lenin's chaotic revolution, Stalin's purges and gulags, starvation during Leningrad's siege (a million died here in 1942-4), Khrushchev's bombast, Brezhnev's stagnation, Anya's cultural shock on arrival in America, the loosening of bonds under Gorbachev (1980s) and the collapse of the Soviet Union, pulled apart by old stresses. The humor is there, sure, offsetting to some extent the anguish, frustration and resignation, the lot of most Soviet citizens. Down on your knees and thank God, if you were spared this kind of life.



Author and Curator:   Dr. David P. Stern
     Mail to Dr.Stern:   david("at" symbol) .

Last updated 13 January 2014