Before I read Anya Von Bremzen’s Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking, I could count on one hand the things that I knew about Soviet/Russian/”Cold Place” food. There was a beet soup. Dark bread. Erm. Turnips? Oh! Vodka. Yes, vodka.
Total extent of my knowledge. Fin.
For the record, it wasn’t out of distaste for the food or anything like that, it was just a simple case of not having been exposed to it or having a real inclination to try it (or any places in Phoenix where I could get it). When I picked up Bremzen’s book, I was a clean slate then.
Now, I understand everything.
Well, not entirely, but certainly a lot more than I did. Bremzen has the rare gift of writing about food in the way that food actually interacts with our lives. Decade by decade, Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking tracks the progress (and setbacks) in the region’s cuisine as a backdrop to a story that spans generations of women–not the least important, of course, Mother Russia.
Starting in the decade of 1910, for her grandmother’s era, Bremzen discusses the opulence of the Czars, embodied in kulebyaka an over-the-top fish pie that Bremzen recreates with her mother. From blini to Salat Olivier to kotleti, Bremzen then gives us a tour of the decades both during and after the fall of the Soviet Union. With a bit of dark humor leading the way, she takes us into the post-war years of black market trading in elementary schools, the paradoxical culture of Russian drinking, and foods that infiltrated Russian cuisine from the fringes of the USSR (such as Stalin’s favorite, chanakhi from Georgia).
Of course, she also writes about the years of starvation and hunger that marked World War II. At the back of the book, Bremzen presents a complete recipe for each decade from 1910 to the present. For the 1940s, there is only shown a ration card.
It’s a book about food, of course, but what Bremzen keeps returning to is what that food meant to her family, to her apartment complex, to the cities, and to the country as a whole. It’s a fascinating look at the way food influences our lives, but also how our lives influence food.
Now, I’m off to explore even more about Russian cooking. Maybe stop into that Russian grocery I’ve been eyeing for the past few months. Try a few recipes from blogs like Natasha’s Kitchen or Tatyana’s Everyday Food. I’m pretty dang excited.
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