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.