A REVIEW OF MASTERING THE ART OF SOVIET COOKING (2013) by Anya Von Bremzen. Today’s news brings the revelation that Russian authorities have closed down the fourth McDonald’s (the first outside Moscow) for health code violations. There are more than 400 McDonald’s throughout the country; the first fast food restaurant opened in January of 1990, after the Berlin Wall fell and before the dissolution of the Soviet Union, and has remained popular for close to 25 years. Most wise observers see the real reason behind the action: a retaliatory gesture against the West for its economic sanctions in the wake of the downing of the Malaysian Airlines Flight 17. It’s part of a larger campaign against the importing of many European and American agricultural products. While Putin can somewhat legitimately claim that such measures will strengthen domestic producers who are eager to fill the avoid, the occasionally populist politician can also appeal to the average Russian who is distrustful of Camembert and foie gras that carry the stigma of elitist tastes. Food is a vital chip in the geo-political struggle and a convenient sign system that one can use to unite and divide people.
This latest skirmish would be well understood by Amy Von Bremzen who writes knowledgeable and humorously about food culture in past and present Russia and in the former Soviet Union. Readers who expect a cookbook will be disappointed. While that last tenth of the book includes recipes for many of the dishes mentioned in the book, one would be better served by going to her 1989 James Beard Award-winning cookbook Please to the Table.
This book is a bit of a wonderful mash-up, a dish that in itself is better than the sum of its parts. Von Bremzen skillfully combines a number of popular genres.
It’s a work of “stunt literature” similar to Julie and Julia: 365 Days, 524 Recipes, and 1 Tiny Apartment Kitchen, Julie Powell’s attempt to cook her way Julia Child’s cookbook and to share her fascination with the influential chef. In Mastering, Von Bremzen, with the cooperation of her émigré mother, recreate a series of meals that evoke particular times in the history of the Russian Empire. They painstakingly recreate the kind of lavish meal that one would find on the 1910 table of the last Czarist family, the Romanoffs. Because Vom Bremzen’s father served the Russian navy in the Black sea area during WWII, his daughter prepares another meal reflecting the ingredients of Crimea and Moldova, with a special nod to the Jewish staple, gefilte fish. She’s assisted in this task by the availability of The Book of Tasty and Healthy Food. The collection of more than 400 recipes appeared 1939 when Larisa, Von Bremzen’s mother, was 5 (and was reissued in a more lavish form in 1952). This work was the product of Stalin’s Commissioner of the Food Industry, Anastas Mikoyan. Stalin, eager to throw off the asceticism of the austere Lenin years and hell bent on turning the Soviet Union into an industrial power, sent Mikoyan to the US to gather information about food variety and production. WWII got in the way of full implementation.
Mother and daughter depart for the States in 1974, when Von Bremzen is 11, and return after an absence of 12 years. In Moscow, they help their extended family cook in a communal kitchen in one of Moscow’s high rise apartment buildings. The creation of Salut Olivier, a mayonnaise-based vegetable “garbage” salads ignites primal memories but also leads Von Bremzen into a deep symbolic analysis on the ways in which individual cooks altered this dish universal across the 15 Soviet republics to say something about their place in the order of things. The reflections of an exile daughter from the motherland confirm what we know already: that food excites powerful memories that keep us in touch with family history and with our former selves.
The work is also an exploration of family history and the ways in which family and national culture is both continuous and disrupted. Grandfather Naum, a secular Jew, rises high in the Russian intelligence services and remains for his entire life a product of the Great Patriotic War, the war in which the Russian army lost nearly a million men alone in the siege of Stalingrad, a pivotal event in the war against the Nazis. He’s a Russian lucky to have avoided Stalin’s capricious purges of military brass and willing to overook Father Joe his many crimes against humanity because of his leadership during WWII and his skill as a post-war negotiator against the leaders of the West. [The contemporary worship of Stalin mystifies Von Bremzen.] His daughter, who was 11 when the war ended, is more a product of the Great Thaw, the period of recovery and redirection that followed the death of Stalin in 1953. Much to the admiration of her own daughter, the urban intellectual Larisa responds to the new opportunities for the criticism of Stalin and she becomes acutely attuned to the hypocrisies of the Soviet Utopian project especially once Brezhnev and company depose Khruschev in 1964. Especially galling are the privileges of the nomenklatura, the Communist elite; they have access to rich foods while comrades stand in bread lines. The Old Men of the Politburo inspire no confidence. Dissenter Larisa keeps her daughter home during Youth Patriot Days, thwarts her desire to get caught up in the “force fed rejoicing” surrounding the 100th anniversary of Lenin’s birth, and squashes all indications that her daughter is falling for the fantasy of a Radiant Future during Mature Socialism. Among the many other relatives on the genealogical chart is the divorced father, Sergei, an alcoholic who works as a bureaucrat in the Masoleum Research Laboratory, one of 150 workers assigned to keep the embalmed body of Lenin looking chipper for the worshipers. Von Bremzen creates the impression that the branches and fissures on this family tree are fairly typical for urban Russians during the Cold War.
The account of food two spirited food ethnographers makes for fine reading. As does the vivid portraits of a family whose lives are determined by both family genes, shared obligations, and global affairs. What makes this work special is the way in which its author, wise to the multi-faceted connections between food and culture, uses food – its production and nutrition, its abundance and scarcity, its use as an instrument of inclusion or exclusion, it’s cross-fertilizations, its myths and rituals – as a window into a culture. [One is tempted to call this a micro-history: the examination of a culture through one of its products, like tulips or cod.]
She writes with knowledge and enthusiasm about many food related topics and issues: she understands that Lenin’s indifference to food and his preference for the most ordinary fare is part of his desire to avoid any of the affectations of the bourgeois, the class that the exalted worker is destined to replace. To find pleasure in food is a sign of middle-class degeneracy.
She reminds us of the starvation of 7 million Ukrainians through the combined efforts of Stalin and Hitler. Stalin’s denigration of the peasantry as he promoted industrialization led to great food shortages in the early part of the ‘30s. At the end of the decade Hitler coveted the vast Ukrainian breadbasket to feed his military machine; Stalin denied him the abundance through a scorched earth strategy practiced by retreating Ukrainians.
Von Bremsten recounts how while researching Soviet regional cooking in 1989, she witnesses firsthand the animosity in the provinces toward central control. The dream of peaceful cultural diversity across 11 different time zones containing 130 different languages ends dramatically. Von Bremzen admits that she has been seduced by the glory of union by the presence of The Book of Tasty and Healty Food, the only glimpse of Eden that her mother would allow. She savors the irony that just as her cookbook wins a coveted award, the safe Sovietized version of diversity depicted in this work and other propaganda forms is coming apart. As she says, “the collection of the cuisines of nations becomes a witch’s brew of resentment.”
Gorbachev mounts a prohibition campaign to reduce vodka consumption among the Russian populace, further alienating him from both alkanauts and sober citizens already disenchanted with his dithering after a promise of glasnost (openness, transparency) and perestroika (restricting). His mismanagement of the agricultural sector produced the first rationing scheme since WWII.
In her final cleverly titled chapter, “Putin on the Ritz,” Von Bremzen describes how Czarist-era elegance returns to central Moscow and diners pay top rubles at restaurants run by world famous chefs. One downside of Putin’s kleptocracy is that long-time Muscovites, no longer able to afford the rents in one of the world’s most expensive cities, rent out their apartments and flee to the suburbs where they tend little gardens as in the days of scarcity and forced collectivization. The benefits of narcissistic consumerism are spread around unevenly. In such a setting, Putin, the former KGB man, plays his game of geopolitical chess with foodstuffs as the pieces on the board.
She knows first hand about “dostat,” the difficult acquisition of vital goods. She has heard relatives’ stories and jokes about long lines for basic necessities. Her first encounter with the superabundance of the American supermarket, where all things are available, convinces her that American shopping is a soulless affair. Shopping has been stripped of the emotional, character-building, soul-wearying dimension that it has in the old country.
The book would make a wonderful addition to a library of “the peoples’ history of the Soviet Empire (1945-1991)” and a great companion to David Shipler’s Russia: Broken Idols, Solemn Dreams (1984) and David Remnick’s Lenin’s Tomb: The Last Days of the Soviet Empire 1994), first drafts of history by talented journalists. In their books that concentrate on political leaders, both Remnick and Shipler provide many case studies in the lives of ordinary Russians. In her singular concentration on her family, this insider’s account does them one better.
In a spirit of cooperation and self-congratulations, George W. Bush once said after a summit meeting with Putin, “I looked into his eyes …I got a sense of his soul.” Some doubted his diviner’s ability. It may be fair to say that one has a much better chance of understanding the soul of the Russians by reading Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking than Bush had fathoming Putin’s character by looking into his steely gaze.