For a lot of my generation, who grew up on movies like Top Gun and Rocky IV and Rambo III, an attraction towards Cold War-era kitsch is natural. But along with that predictable desire to replay our own hazy childhoods, of late there’ve been accompanying attempts to see beyond the surface-level iconography (which, to be fair, was pretty awesome). For instance, after decades of patting ourselves on the back for the “Miracle on Ice,” we’re finally getting around to asking about the people on the other side, and thus we have two competing documentaries about the Soviet hockey team. Which speaks to a larger cultural phenomenon. Now that we don’t need images of bread lines and emotionless Slavic villains constantly reassuring us that we’re the good guys, we can finally ask: What those people were like and what it was like to live in that place and time?
If you’re at all interested in the subject, I doubt there’s a book more indispensable than Anya von Bremzen’s Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking: A Memoir of Food and Longing. I’ve heard family recipes described as a conversation between the dead and the living, and that seems a fitting way to describe Mastering, a book that starts with food and eventually becomes a memoir of Soviet childhood and a family history of 20th Century Russia, all woven together in one beautiful braid. It’s amazing how much historical context you need to adequately explain just one recipe.
The scope of the work is staggering, not to mention that Von Bremzen, a James Beard-award winning food and travel writer, is wading into a political minefield just to discuss her own childhood. How, for example, do you balance your own natural nostalgia without romanticizing the Soviet era? Or talk about its traumas without playing into the west’s same old reductive clichés? As the daughter of a dissident and the granddaughter of a Soviet intelligence officer, Von Bremzen, who emigrated to the U.S. in 1974, just before the time when she would’ve had to choose either “Jewish” or “Soviet” on her official passport, may just be comfortable trying to reconcile contradictions.
Von Bremzen is aware of the difficulty, referencing Proust’s madeleine, the cookie that became the framing device that sparks his childhood reminisces in his novel Remembrances of Things Past, describing her own Soviet nostalgia as a “poisoned madeleine.” Yet she bites right in, deftly balancing the horrors (and camaraderie) of the communal Soviet kitchen with the abundance (and alienation) of American suburbia.
It was my favorite book I read last year, and as you may have already guessed from my five paragraph intro, I had many questions. But, speaking on the phone from New York, Von Bremzen politely indulged me.
Do you feel pressured to not have fond memories of your childhood because it was spent under socialism? Was the book sort of a way to reclaim fond food memories?
Yes, in a way. I think there’s a counterpoint between me and my mother in the book. She’s extremely anti-Soviet because she left as an adult, and she really hated the system. She’s kind of the anti-Soviet character in the book. I grew up in a different generation, at a different time. I’m from a generation that’s much more ironic. Our generation kind of had more fun with socialism, because it wasn’t the same as under Stalin when so many lives were taken and people were being arrested. In a way, my childhood was more benign. And a lot of the food was gross, but a lot of it was actually really tasty.
What were some of the gross things, and what were some of the good things?
The good things were the bread and all the buns. They really produce great bread. The gross stuff, a lot of stuff that we bought was spoiled. Like you went in a vegetable store and everything was pretty much rotten. And the institutional food was really gross.
There’s another counterpoint between the institutional food that you got at like schools and canteens that sort of stank, the inevitable sauerkraut, stewed sauerkraut — that smell that we all remember from hospitals and school lunches — and then, there was the food that was prepared at home that was really delicious, that our grandmothers made, and the effort that went into it that made it really poignant. That amazing kind of feast that people could produce without too many ingredients.
Yeah, you talked about the Homo Sovieticus in the book, and Lenin and how he was sort of ascetic. Was there a pressure in that era to not take the kind of pleasure in food that they previously had?
Yeah, the whole idea of pleasure was kind of derided as bourgeois contamination. So the Bolsheviks looked at food as sort of utilitarian fuel. They were very futuristic actually. They kind of hoped that one day they’ll be able to just consume all these standardized calories, nutrients, almost like a pill that would provide all the food needs.
There was another project which was to liberalize women from household chores. That was very visionary. I mean, the feminist culture of the early Bolshevik days was extremely avant-garde for its time, and they really wanted to take the woman away from the harshness, and the suds, and the washing. They were kind of hoping that this state would provide for the citizens in these massive campaigns. The idea was for the woman to join the workforce, for the child to be taken care by the state, the kindergarten, for the food to be provided by the state. Again, it doesn’t work because of the distribution was so broken down and the whole experiment failed, but that was the idea.
I thought one of the most striking parts of the book is you sort of compare the lifestyle of the recently married Soviet woman with that of the American woman, and your mom was this anti-Soviet, and then it sounded like seeing the American model up close, that it sort of had its own problems.
That was in the context of the American Exhibition in Moscow in 1959, where the famous kitchen debate took place between Khrushchev and Nixon. The Americans bringing their own color futuristic kitchens, where everything was big and bright and overabundant. It was definitely a propaganda tool. It was a propaganda war, and I think people kind of felt that. The propaganda on the domestic front.
Right, so there was all this abundance, but it was also very tied to being a housewife almost.
Yeah, that and also it seemed kind of plastic. Imagine American food of late 1950s. It was all just like super tall, layered cakes, and everything standardized and industrialized in some way. And it was also too shiny and hard to believe, but that was my mother’s reaction. On the other hand, the Soviets made a poll — a secret poll — that they discovered much later, and it shows that the Soviets were asked to rank their attractions from the exhibition. And everyone loved the business thing, and the jobs, and everything about it, and people kind of hated the kitchen. Which I was very surprised about because there was so much envy about capitalist societies, but there was just something really artificial about the kitchen.
In the book, you go back to some of the Czarist era recipes. You talk about cooking one where you have different pots of cream, and you’re trying to take just the skin off the top. What were some of the more crazy decadent recipes from that era?
Yeah, that was crazy. It’s called Guriev Kasha. You could see it in the book. It’s this kind of a semolina dessert for which you need baked skins of cream. So you bake the cream, and you skim off the skins, and then you layer them, and you bake the cream again. I was doing it in 98 degree heat in my apartment in Queens. Just opening and closing the oven. That was just completely absurd. Suddenly, I understood why the revolution happened.
Let us not overtake America because Americans will see our bare asses.
What were some of the Soviet versions of those kind of dishes? What were the more interesting takes on those things?
I would say it was very classic dishes. Salat Olivier, you know, and I named the whole chapter after it. Pre-revolution, it was a very fancy salad of crayfish, and grouse with fresh vegetables in a Provencal sauce. But in the Soviet era, it all turned into potato salad with pickles and industrial mayonnaise that people still really love. Industrialization was a very major part of Soviet cuisine.
Were there things that you originally thought were uniquely Soviet that you found out came from other places through research?
Yes. For example, we had a huge pride in Soviet ice cream. We were told that was like the best ice cream in the world. And Stalin’s commissar had gotten that technology from America. Also, the meat patties — the kotleta — he was inspired by the burger, and he actually wanted to create a Soviet burger. But then World War II intervened, and we got the patty without the sandwich.
When you’re writing about memories that you’re fond of from that time period, is there a worry of trying not to play into patronizing western stereotypes about it, yet also trying not to make it sound like “the good old days?”
Yes. The Western Cold War — I got so many responses from readers. They were kind of terrified of nuclear Armageddon and then hiding nuclear shelters here. The Soviets were terrified of Americans. The Soviets kind of thought that Americans had this amazing life, and they themselves were living like sh*t. Khrushchev’s famous slogan was, “We have to overtake America.” The Russian joke on the street was, “Let us not overtake America, because Americans will see our bare asses.” So, what I try to do is I kind of try to humanize the culture. Food really humanizes the experience. It’s such a kind of interesting and intimate way of looking at the culture.
You have little Soviet jokes like that throughout the book that I thought were really interesting and illuminating in that way.
Yeah, jokes was important to Soviet culture because they were the only real form of sub-culture and counter-culture that existed, and you could just not stop it. You can get arrested for telling political jokes. But people still told them, and there were so much a part of our everyday scenes.
I’ve been to Russia for four days in my entire life, and even in that short amount of time, one of the main things that stuck out at me was the depth and complexity of Russian sarcasm. Can you talk about where that comes from, and how that continues to evolve?
Yeah, I think the interesting thing is the socialism created its own linguistic culture. It’s a language of slogans that was very fossilized, and essentially was just copied from one paper to another, so you had this layer of officialese that we’re all subjected to from the media from our teachers, and then you have this ironic counter-layer of sort of private, intimate speech which took these cliches – the socialist cliches – and so they subverted them into humor. Because a lot of the official culture with all the stupid slogans was so comical when you look at it, it is very easy to just be ironic about it. I remember like a famous pick-up lines from guys in the subway when they wanted to pick up a girl, they’d say, “Hey, young lady. Now we can build communism together.” Especially by the ’70s, when there was nothing sincere left in the official language, there was a hole in layers upon layer upon layer of ironic language. The whole culture was kind of comical, and the irony was your best defense against the authoritarian kind of paternalistic culture.
You talk about humanizing the Soviet era, and it seems like there’s a lot of works coming out just recently that are doing that for Western audiences, showing the human face behind the sort of big bad wolf persona that we had before it. Is that kind of going on in a different way in Russia, like with Putin, is he sort of co-opting that nostalgia?
Yes. Unfortunately, it goes from a private nostalgia that the society has for itself because the country no longer exists on a map. It’s weird to be brought up in a country that just doesn’t exist anymore, but what the Putin regime was doing, it’s kind of trying to institutionalize nostalgia, and to incorporate it as a whole projection of the new Russian might and new Russian power. And what they’re doing is, they’re kind of creating this collage of the powerful moments from history, like Alexander Nevsky, Peter the Great. They’re just plucking all these human historic figures, and assembling them into this collage of powerful characters designed to make Russians feel good about themselves. Because they sort of lost their identity. Like, it’s very hard to tell, especially for young people, who they are. I’ve been watching a lot of mini-series on Soviet subjects which are popular. It’s always this super glamorized vision, this retro-cool look at the old Soviet Union, with all of that stuff airbrushed and red, and just dames in cool hairdos, good-looking guys, and everything is just so kind of retro-cool.
Suddenly, you’re actually there, and it’s this cold, huge, overly air-conditioned, overly-bright American supermarket with 20 cans of salami, all of it pretty awful.
You talked about how even Stalin’s image has almost been rehabilitated lately, and there’s almost a nostalgia.
Yeah. You know how Stalin is described in Russian school books? As an effective manager [chuckles]. This is the answer, Stalin was an effective manager. Yes, there were losses, but he defeated the Germans, blah-blah-blah.
Is there a parallel between what Putin’s doing now in Russia compared to say, what Reagan was doing in the ’80s, where it was coming out of an era [post-Watergate] where we felt bad about ourselves, and then all of a sudden this person comes in, and he’s telling everybody how great we are and why we should be patriotic?
Yeah, and sort of it coincides with the rise of rapacious capitalism. That’s just been corporate culture’s MO, to commodify nostalgia.
In the book, you described your first trip to the American supermarket, and I think you called it at “the graveyard of your zagranitsa dreams.” [Editor’s Note: Zagranitsa, meaning “beyond the border,” the term for Soviet romanticization of all things foreign.] Can you explain that a little bit?
Well, it was kind of what my mom saw in that American kitchen show. Suddenly, you were bombarded. You have your own private fantasies about the west, which is based on a glimpse as a book, a movie, or what someone told you. But at the same time, you don’t even know this west even exists. Because it’s been so overly mythologized and part of this fantasy is food. It’s just having chewing gum whenever you want, meat whenever you want. And then suddenly, you’re actually there, and it’s this cold, huge, overly air-conditioned, overly-bright American supermarket with 20 cans of salami, all of it pretty awful. Suddenly, it just confronts us. I think a lot of the book is about yearning and longing nostalgia for the past, but also nostalgia for the dream. Suddenly, you’re confronted with the reality of that dream in this hyperreal way, and I remember this being completely crushing.
Is it because the food is sort of stripped of its power, its importance, because it’s too abundant?
Yeah, it is. I think if you look at for instance, Japanese department stores, or the way the Japanese were selling food, they work to create the demand. They have a cake they produce 20 times a day, and people line up in the middle of the night just to get it. So, in a way, it’s not just my reaction to capitalist abundance. I think when something is over abundant, it just loses its value. Kind of like a restaurant that everyone is suddenly dying to get into it and you can’t, and you really want to go there.
At one point in the book you talked about the Jewish organizations that were helping immigrants when you’re here, and they would get mad if you had like a Christmas tree. Was there pressure to be more Jewish when you had these Jewish organizations as the main ones helping?
Yeah, and the complicated thing is that in Russia, the Jewish was defined as a nationality. It was an ethno-national category. It had nothing to do with religion. We had no idea when we came here that Jewish was actually a religion because we grew up in an atheist state, so I thought being Jewish was an ethnicity. We ate pork and had Christmas trees. It was all fun. Other than some old people from this ghetto, from small towns would still retain their Jewish traditions. Suddenly, we’re taken to synagogues, and we’re told that Jewish identity is a religious one. It was a big shock. I still can’t come to terms with it really.
All the standing in line, it was the Soviet version of Facebook. That was your community.
You reference that quote about how private life disappeared in the Soviet Union. Was the flip side of that coming to America and feeling sort of isolated?
I mean, it was kind of regaining your private life. I think what we missed so suddenly is the Soviet institutions that brought us all together. It was very shocking to see that people didn’t walk on the streets. In suburbia, everyone drove. There was no life on the streets. There were no long lines. You know the kind of communal experience of standing in line together, being in communal houses together, doing everything collectively. Suddenly, it disappeared, and a lot of people really missed them. Soon, I moved to New York, and I feel completely at home here. I’m still shock whenever I encounter suburbia.
Do you think that isolation is sort of peculiar to suburbia?
Yeah. I think cities have become more sociable, certainly more sociable since we came in 1974. I use Facebook now. I love social media. I like to say that the Soviet line, all the standing in line, it was the Soviet version of Facebook. That was your community.
Recently, I think you posted some hate mail that you’d gotten. What kind of hate mail has the book produced?
Yeah. The book actually is still being translated into Russian. It hasn’t come out yet, but there was a lot of articles about the book that was translated into Russian. One forum I got like 800 comments, and the comments were like, “Anya, go die. Too bad your mother didn’t get eaten in the Siege of Leningrad.” “Jewish kikes, traitors, you left.” Basically, there’s a lot of this animosity towards people who left. And like, “Who are you? Go eat your stupid burgers in America. Who are you to talk about Soviet life? What do you remember?” There were a lot of apologists. I think a lot of these comments come from Stalinists, because Stalin is some made huge hero. The right-wingers say, “How dare she say anything negative about our great Soviet food?” Then intellegentsia, the left-wing people are saying, “How dare she say anything positive about the horrible Soviet food?”
You can’t please anyone.
Because it really touches people deeply. Like it has to do with nature of their memories. Some see this as pouring sh*t all over the idyllic Soviet Union, and others completely the opposite. Well, even here, there’s some NPR talks, and woman’s comments, “Look, how dare she said there were shortages in Russia? There was never any shortages.” And others say, “Oh, how dare she said, you know, any of this was good? It was disgusting.”
Writing for American audiences, I’ve found that the best way to start that kind of divisive argument is to say one kind of burger — In-N-Out, Shake Shack, Five Guys, say — is better than another. So really, “Go eat your burgers in America” is a pretty good insult.