Thursday, 17 October 2013

Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking by Anya von Bremzen

review by Maryom

Anya van Bremzen grew up in Russia, emigrating to the US in 1974 at the age of 10. There, she discovered her Soviet-diagnosed 'incurable' disease wasn't life-threatening at all, abandoned  her early musical ambitions and became a food writer, but never forgot the tastes and dishes of her motherland. Subtitled a Memoir of Food and Longing this book is her attempt to tell the history of the Soviet Union through its people's relationship to food.
 From pre-revolution indulgence, through Leninist aestheticism and grain requisitions, the starvation years of WW2, cooking in communal kitchens or the more private but shoddier Khushchev era flats to Gorbachev's anti-alcohol years and the eventual collapse of the USSR this turned out to be more of a history book than cookbook but I was totally fascinated. Drawing on  her parents' and grandparents' history, Anya von Bremzen brings the past to life in a very personal way - food, after all, plays a central part in all of our lives and is perhaps one of the easiest ways to really get 'inside' a different era or culture. 
I was surprised to find that the Soviet diet wasn't all stale bread and thin gruel, though admittedly many foodstuffs were only available regularly to the elite and queuing for hours was part of everyday grocery shopping. Starting in pre-Revolution 1910, each decade is represented by a 'signature' dish;  kulebiaka - a pastry stuffed with fish, mushrooms and rice for which the description 'fish pie' seems woefully inadequate; gefilte fish as served by  Ukrainian cousins; Russian home made 'hamburgers'; Stalin's favourite Georgian lamb stew; cornbread to represent Khushchev's fixation with this 'foreign' grain; salat Olivier which graced every festive table; a special recipe for borshch; a Central Asian pilaf and blinis, the most traditional of Russian foods. The 1940s alone have no recipe but are represented by the ration-card issued to the starving population of Leningrad during its 900 day siege, when the daily food allowance dropped to 125 grams of bread.
Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking is a book full of nostalgia and yearning for a food-culture now disappearing under fast food brands familiar and identical the world over. It is more of a history than a cookery book but if the dishes mentioned have tempted you (they did me) there are recipes for them at the end of the book

Maryom's review - 5 stars
Publisher - Doubleday
Genre - non-fiction, history, cookery, Russia 
Buy Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking from Amazon

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