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Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking: A Memoir of Food and Longingby Anya von Bremzen
Synopses & Reviews
A James Beard Award-winning writer captures life under the Red socialist banner in this wildly inventive, tragicomic memoir of feasts, famines, and three generations.
With startling beauty and sardonic wit, Anya von Bremzen tells an intimate yet epic story of life in that vanished empire known as the USSR — a place where every edible morsel was packed with emotional and political meaning.
Born in 1963, in an era of bread shortages, Anya grew up in a communal Moscow apartment where eighteen families shared one kitchen. She sang odes to Lenin, black-marketeered Juicy Fruit gum at school, watched her father brew moonshine, and, like most Soviet citizens, longed for a taste of the mythical West. It was a life by turns absurd, drab, naively joyous, melancholy — and ultimately intolerable to her anti-Soviet mother, Larisa. When Anya was ten, she and Larisa fled the political repression of Brezhnev-era Russia, arriving in Philadelphia with no winter coats and no right of return.
Now Anya occupies two parallel food universes: one where she writes about four-star restaurants, the other where a taste of humble kolbasa transports her back to her scarlet-blazed socialist past. To bring that past to life, in its full flavor, both bitter and sweet, Anya and Larisa, embark on a journey unlike any other: they decide to eat and cook their way through every decade of the Soviet experience — turning Larisa’s kitchen into a "time machine and an incubator of memories.” Together, mother and daughter re-create meals both modest and sumptuous, featuring a decadent fish pie from the pages of Chekhov, chanakhi (Stalin’s favorite Georgian stew), blini, and more.
Through these meals, Anya tells the gripping story of three Soviet generations — masterfully capturing the strange mix of idealism, cynicism, longing, and terror that defined Soviet life. We meet her grandfather Naum, a glamorous intelligence chief under Stalin, and her grandmother Liza, who made a perilous odyssey to icy, blockaded Leningrad to find Naum during World War II. We meet Anya’s hard-drinking, sarcastic father, Sergei, who cruelly abandons his family shortly after Anya is born; and we are captivated by Larisa, the romantic dreamer who grew up dreading the black public loudspeakers trumpeting the glories of the Five-Year Plan. Their stories unfold against the vast panorama of Soviet history: Lenin’s bloody grain requisitioning, World War II hunger and survival, Stalin’s table manners, Khrushchev’s kitchen debates, Gorbachev’s disastrous anti-alcohol policies. And, ultimately, the collapse of the USSR. And all of it is bound together by Anya’s passionate nostalgia, sly humor, and piercing observations.
Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking is that rare book that stirs our souls and our senses.
"The culinary memoir has lately evolved into a genre of its own, what is now known as a 'foodoir.' But Anya von Bremzen is a better writer than most of the genre's practitioners, as this delectable book, which tells the story of postrevolutionary Russia through the prism of one family's meals, amply demonstrates....Von Bremzen moves artfully between historical longshots (minefields being cleared 'by sending troops attacking across them') and intimate details, like her schoolgirl mother’s lunch ration of podushechka, a candy the size of a fingernail....The descriptions of meals are delightful." New York Times Book Review
"Von Bremzen ladles out a rich, zesty history of family life in the USSR conveyed through food and meals." Entertainment Weekly
"A delicious narrative of memory and cuisine in 20th-century Soviet Union. In Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking, [von Bremzen] follows in the footsteps of Nigel Slater's Toast and Anthony Bourdain's Kitchen Confidential: memoirs about life, love and food that linger long after the last page is turned. Her tale is a nostalgia-laden compendium of madeleine moments...A banquet of anecdote that brings an entire history to life with intimacy, candor and glorious color." Ellah Allfrey, NPR’s All Things Considered
"One-of-a-kind....A nostalgically anti-nostalgic tribute to 20th-century life and food in the land once known as the Soviet Union....Breathtaking feats of raconteurial skill...Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking is not only a magic tablecloth, it’s a magic carpet that revisits the roads and lanes of the former Soyuz, surveying the tales of hardship and hardwon joys of von Bremzen’s relatives and the Russian people." Liesl Schillinger, The Daily Beast
"Moving...funny...fascinating....Soul-stirring for any emigrant to read, Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking is a beautifully written tale of heartbreak and ultimately happiness." Epicurious
"Wry, provocative, genre-busting." Wall Street Journal (Europe edition)
"I don’t think there’s ever been a book quite like this; I couldn’t put it down. Warm, smart and completely engaging, this food-forward journey through Soviet history could only have been written by someone who was there. Part memoir, part cookbook, part social history, this gripping account of Anya von Bremzen’s relationship with the country she fled as a young girl is also an unsentimental, but deeply loving tribute to her mother. Unique and remarkable, this is a book you won't forget." Ruth Reichl, author of Tender at the Bone and Comfort Me with Apples
"A delicious, intelligent book. When I read it, I can taste the food but also the melancholy, tragedy, and absurdity that went into every bit of pastry and borscht." Gary Shteyngart, author of Super Sad True Love Story
"Von Bremzen’s nostalgia for a prickly Soviet childhood brings memories of food both delectable and biting….A lively, precisely detailed cultural chronicle." Kirkus Reviews
"Celebrated food writer Von Bremzen pulls back the curtain on Soviet life in this sweeping, multigenerational memoir." Publishers Weekly
"Most Westerners imagine Stalinist Russia as a food desert....Although this view has plenty of truth, it lacks nuance and humanity, as von Bremzen reveals so eloquently in this memoir....[Von Bremzen] shows the personal side of Soviet life, recounting the terror of war and secret police as well as the power of human resilience." Booklist
A celebrated food writer captures the flavors of the Soviet experience in a sweeping, tragicomic multi-generational memoir that brilliantly illuminates the history and culture of a vanished empire.
Proust had his madeleine; Narnia's Edmund had his Turkish delight. Anya von Bremzen has vobla — rock-hard, salt-cured dried Caspian roach fish. Lovers of vobla risk breaking a tooth or puncturing a gum on the once-popular snack, but for Anya it's transporting. Like kotleti (Soviet burgers) or the festive Salat Olivier, it summons up the complex, bittersweet flavors of life in that vanished Atlantis called the USSR. There, born in 1963 in a Kafkaesque communal apartment where eighteen families shared one kitchen, Anya grew up singing odes to Lenin, black-marketeering Juicy Fruit gum at her school, and, like most Soviet citizens, longing for a taste of the mythical West. It was a life by turns absurd, drab, naively joyous, melancholy — and, finally, intolerable to her anti-Soviet mother. When she was ten, Anya and her mother fled the political repression of Brezhnev-era Russia, arriving in Philadelphia with no winter coats and no right of return.
These days Anya lives in two parallel food universes: one in which she writes about four-star restaurants, the other in which a simple banana — a once-a-year treat back in the USSR — still holds an almost talismanic sway over her psyche. To make sense of that past, she and her mother decided to eat and cook their way through seven decades of the Soviet experience. Through the meals she and her mother re-create, Anya tells the story of three generations — her grandparents', her mother's, and her own — masterfully capturing the strange mix of idealism, terror, self-sacrifice, longing, and cynicism that defined Soviet life. Her family's stories are embedded in a larger historical epic: of Lenin's bloody grain requisitioning, World War II hunger and survival, Stalin's table manners, Khrushchev's kitchen debates, Gorbachev's disastrous anti-alcohol policies, and the ultimate collapse of the USSR. And all of it is bound together by Anya's sardonic wit, passionate nostalgia, and piercing observations.
Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking is that rare book that stirs our souls and our senses.
About the Author
Anya von Bremzen is the author of five cookbooks, the recipient of three James Beard awards, and a contributing editor at Travel + Leisure magazine. Her articles have appeared in The New Yorker, Food & Wine, Saveur, and the Los Angeles Times. She divides her time between New York City and Istanbul.
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