Bringing meaning to the food on our tables
The next book on my Soviet-Jewish Decade Top 10 list is Anya von Bremzen’s culinary memoir, Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking: A Memoir of Food and Longing, which brings fresh meaning to the food on our tables.
Von Bremzen is a well-known cookbook author across many cuisines, including, notably, Please to the Table: The Russian Cookbook. It’s the most well-worn cookbook I own, and Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking has quickly moved into that same category. It ushered in a new interest in Soviet-Russian cooking which has swept up books like Kachka and Salt & Time in the last few years. (Please to the Table was out of print when Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking came out, selling on Amazon for upwards of $600 — the memoir’s success seems to have pushed it back into circulation and it’s now widely available again.
Far more than a culinary memoir, Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking covers the entirety of the Soviet period, neatly tying together Soviet food history and policies with the everyday moments that make up family life. Each chapter covers a decade in Soviet history, and includes a recipe related to that decade, which von Bremzen and her mother tackle together in the flashes of present-day that tie the book together. While the book came under mild criticism in Soviet-Jewish circles for overly inflating her mother’s dissident status — a term normally reserved for people who publicly spoke out against the regime — the food history and recipes are solid. Growing up in an assimilate Jewish family in Moscow, the details of her family history are familiar to many Russian-Jews.
The book also tackles the complexities of nostalgia and longing for childhood in a country that treated its citizens with indifference at best and utter brutality much of the time. How is it possible to feel the tug of nostalgia for such a place and time? And yet.
On a personal level, von Bremzen’s work has been instrumental in helping me with my own work in trying to define a Soviet-Jewish cuisine here in North America. No Russian-Jewish reading list is complete without it for me.