Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking - Anya Von Bremzen

Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking:
A Memoir of Food and Longing
It's no secret that I love books about food. 

I feel like in the past few years, I have also developed a love for memoirs. Granted, most of the memoirs I read center around food, but still. I am coming to appreciate them in a way I never did before. Perhaps it's growing older and having a stronger appreciation for the stories of those who have gone before me. I'm not sure. I just know I've been loving non-fiction narrative lately, particularly when told by the person who actually lived those events.

Russian history is another thing, though. For all my love of European history, and it's a bit obsessive at times, I have never latched onto the Russian story. My AP European History teacher in high school loved all things Russian and even tried to teach us the Cyclic alphabet on one slow day in class. And, yet, the only bits of their story I've really gravitated toward are their female royals (Catherine the Great, the Romanov daughters); and that has nothing to do with them being Russian and everything to do with the fact that I love royal history

All that to say, I came across this food memoir on a list of them a while back. Initially, I would have passed over it. Russian history and Russian food - neither appeals to me much. Yet, something stopped me. Perhaps it was Anya Von Bremzen's clever title, an obvious ode to the great Julia Child. 

I went in a little blind. I did not know what to expect. I've come to familiar terms with Provencal French stories of food: cozy countrysides, local ingredients, decadent yet homey flavors. Russian food? I knew nothing. 

"Inevitably, a story about Soviet food is a chronicle of longing, of unrequited desire. So what happens when some of your most intense culinary memories involve foods you hadn't actually tasted?"

Von Bremzen caught my attention with that line. Her book focuses specifically on Soviet food and what Russians ate during that near century of Communist rule. Each chapter represents a decade. She gives history, specifically of her family and herself, and supplements the story with food. As with many of these memoirs and life itself, food is integrally intertwined into the human experience. 

The author argues that food is even more central for Russians. Von Bremzen compares food for 19th-century Russian writers to war for the Germans, love for the French, and landscape and class for the English - all cultural subjects "encompassing the great themes of comedy, tragedy, ecstasy, and doom." Especially during their years of famine and rationing, food was an important part of the Soviet story. 

Van Bremzen came to the United States with her mother in the 1970s, escaping Soviet life forever. Her position as an émigré gives her a unique ability to look back at her homeland with more clarity than others. She has nostalgia and realism both influencing her perspective, giving her a fairly balanced look at life in the USSR and, even, modern day Russia as well.

I enjoyed Van Bremzen's story more than I expected. I appreciate having a more complete view of Soviet history now, particularly from someone whose family experienced it first hand. Von Bremzen is a good writer and makes even the heavy historical sections enjoyable. 

The only downside? I am still convinced that Russian food is not for me. 

Pages: 339
Date Completed: September 9, 2014


  1. Sounds fascinating -- I'm not always a huge memoir reader, but I do love food and cooking. As my wife adores Russian food, this might be one for her, too.

    1. If she likes Russian food, she should definitely read this! I think I would have enjoyed it much more than I already did if I had an appreciation for their cuisine.