The Book of the Week is “Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking” by Anya Von Bremzen, published in 2013. This volume recounts the food-related details of the lives of the author (born in 1963) and her mother, who, up until 1974, lived in the former Soviet Union before moving to the United States. As can be surmised, they suffered many hardships from successive oppressive regimes that gave rise to hunger.
Under Vladimir Lenin in 1918 Russia, “The very notion of pleasure from flavorful food was reviled as capitalist degeneracy.” Millions died of starvation under Stalin in 1927 when he took over the means of grain production. The author’s grandfather, possessor of exceptional survival skills, was an intelligence officer under Stalin, so Von Bremzen’s family had access to the food of the wealthy. The author’s mother raised her to be a food snob. Stalin’s personal culinary expert Anastas Mikoyan visited America in 1936. “Unlike evil, devious Britain, the US was considered a semi-friendly competitor – though having American relatives could still land you in the gulag.” That attitude had changed by 1952.
The author’s mother celebrated the anniversary of Stalin’s March 1953 death, with a dinner party. She wed in 1958 at a government office and “…moved into her mother-in-law’s communal apartment where eighteen families shared one kitchen.”
The Soviets recycled mayonnaise jars all the time for many purposes, including medical samples; the jar itself was expected to be provided by the patient. When the author and her mother moved to the U.S., “Ahead of us was an era of blithely disposable objects.” Von Bremzen’s culture shock arose while food-shopping not from the dizzying array of products, but from the inability to show off those products to less fortunate people, such as Soviets. All Americans took such cornucopia for granted. She was disgusted that American food appeared to be phony and lowbrow, like Spam. At Christmas, Von Bremzen was grossed out by Oreos: “…charcoal-black cookies filled with something white and synthetic. A charcoal-black cookie! Would anyone eat such a thing?”
Mikhail Gorbachev’s anti-alcohol campaign ired many Soviets, as “Getting booze for the holidays ranked at the top of everyone’s concerns.” All the Soviet intelligentsia drank excessively. It was unpatriotic to not drink. Everyone had a drinking partner. Proposing toasts and making conversation with the partner was mandatory. Drinking alone was anathema, socially unacceptable.
Read the book to learn more about the Soviet culinary culture and history through the decades, and even see some authentic recipes.