August 28, 2013 by markbooks
From twelve-tiered kulebiaka – starting with the ground floor of burbot liver and topped with layers of fish, meat, game, mushrooms and rice, all wrapped up in dough, up, up, up to a penthouse of calf’s brains in brown butter – to wartime starvation and food queues, Anya Von Bremzen’s Mastering The Art Of Soviet Cooking (pub. Transworld/Doubleday) serves up so much more than the relatively narrow ingredients offered by its title.
This is a sensory journey through Soviet history, using its food as a framework rather than its overbearing centrepiece, and as such adds much welcome warmth and colour to a subject restricted all too often to the realms of relatively staid academia.
Starting at the crumbling end of the Romanov dynasty and ending with the Wild West-style Moscow makeover of the successive Yeltsin and Putin regimes, Von Bremzen threads her way through each decade of 20th century Soviet history seeking to recreate a show-stopping meal from each.
Born into a sprawling communal apartment at the tail-end of the slight Khrushchevian thaw, and later emigrating to the United States to become one of her new nation’s most respected food writers, Von Bremzen’s book is as much an engrossing personal narrative as it is an attempt to cast light on what ended up on dinner-time tables behind the Iron Curtain.
Her family history is fascinating, not least the story of her grandmother, born in then-untamed Turkestan at the time of the Bolsheviks; who became one of the leaders of the grand plan to empower its Muslim natives and thus prepare the ground for socialism, yet who ended her life in the gulag at Magadan.
From Lenin’s idealistic vision of taking food out of family homes completely, and have people share their mealtimes in vast communal cafes, to the havoc wreaked by collectivisation and the Second World War, Von Bremzen weaves a gripping narative of a daily life far removed from the snapshots of grand parades and presidential funerals beamed out for the west. Even now, she admits, a simple banana – a once-a-year treat back in the USSR – still holds an almost talismanic sway over my psyche.
There are some superbly related episodes, not least the trip made by one of Stalin’s henchmen, Anastas Mikoyan, to the United States in order to research which western food and processes could be best adapted to Soviet industrialization. Among the cookbook-sized examples Mikoyan embraced was a penchant for hamburgers: unfortunately, his instructions got lost in layers of bureaucracy, emerging from the process somehow shorn of bread baps, thus accidentally creating the naked and now-ubiquitous kotleti, or Soviet burger.
The grim humour of the food queues and the increasing reliance on home-distilled alcohol to ease the cold and boredom is never far away. But Soviet food was about far more than one-banana-a-year, something Von Bremzen begins to appreciate much more upon her arrival in the States to find the land of plenty serving up raw Pop Tarts, hot dogs sour from nitrates and yellow-skinned, thirty-nine cent chicken parts bandaged in plastic.
The book finishes with a selection of alluring recipes from each of the decades in question, though the 1940s section is reserved for a simple ration card: Those 125 grams, those twenty small daily bites gotten with a puny square of paper, were often the difference between survival and death.
For anyone even remotely interested in Russian history or the literature of food this book will be a welcome discovery. Fans of both will find more riches here than even the most indulgent of those Romanov dinner parties had to offer.