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Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking: A Memoir of Food and Longing

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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 too 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, the two of them 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. 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 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. This is that rare book that stirs our souls and our senses.


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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 too 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, the two of them 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. 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 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. This is that rare book that stirs our souls and our senses.

30 review for Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking: A Memoir of Food and Longing

  1. 4 out of 5

    Mark

    This is not a cookbook, though it does have a couple recipes. Think "Julie and Julia" with Stalin and Brezhnev in place of Julia Child. Sort of. What Anya von Bremzen has written here is an insider's look at daily life in the Soviet Union as expressed in food. I grew up believing that life in the Soviet Union must have been terrible, and this book mostly confirms that it was. von Bremzen traces how, as the Soviet Union left its imperial past and transformed itself into a (mythical) socialist work This is not a cookbook, though it does have a couple recipes. Think "Julie and Julia" with Stalin and Brezhnev in place of Julia Child. Sort of. What Anya von Bremzen has written here is an insider's look at daily life in the Soviet Union as expressed in food. I grew up believing that life in the Soviet Union must have been terrible, and this book mostly confirms that it was. von Bremzen traces how, as the Soviet Union left its imperial past and transformed itself into a (mythical) socialist worker's paradise, the food the Soviet people ate gradually deteriorated, improved a bit, then completely fell apart as the Union itself began to crumble. von Bremzen tells the story mostly through the experiences of her mother Larisa and grandparents Naum and Liza. There is humor and heartbreak in their stories. The account of the siege of Leningrad and what the Soviet people were reduced to eating during World War II left me wondering how anyone survived. The stories of the different classes of citizens in the USSR and the wildly disparate quality of food available to them would be heartbreaking if it wasn't clear that the Soviet people knew they were being lied to about the fundamental nature of their society. The account of the infamous "kitchen debate" between then vice-president Nixon and Nikita Khrushchev at a Moscow international expo illustrates how Soviet citizens didn't trust their own economic system but also doubted that people in America actually had all the shiny automated gadgets on display. (Spoiler alert: of course they didn't, and still don't.) The book really comes alive, though, when von Bremzen describes her own experiences. In a land of false abundance and real scarcity, small pleasures like little pieces of jam-filled candy take on incredible significance. Hearing how Soviet kids craved those candies so much that they ate them as slowly as possible and even shared them among one another -- as in "shared the same piece of candy" -- made the sense of longing seem very real to me. I grew up a block away from a convenience store and usually had a buck or two; I don't know what it's like to not have candy very often. von Bremzen also describes being fed caviar at school in kindergarten and how it took everything she had not to throw it up. I am glad to know there is at least one other person in the world who thinks caviar is gross and is happy to leave it to the plutocrats. Eventually von Bremzen and her mother emigrated to America, where her first encounters with American food left her disappointed. Those encounters were with Wonder Bread and Pop-Tarts. I really wish the rest of the world realized most Americans don't eat those products. The book closes with the collapse of the Soviet Union and a return trip to a completely different Moscow, except for one aspect. There are still a lot of foodstuffs unavailable to the average Muscovite, but now it's only because they can't afford to buy them rather than not being allowed to. As an American child of the 1970s and 1980s I treasured this book not so much because it affirmed my way of life but rather because it let me see things I hadn't seen before. We remember Khrushchev as the stubborn man who pounded a podium with his shoe and swore that the Soviet Union would bury us. The Russians remember him as a corn-obsessed lunatic. We think of Gorbachev as the reformer who brought us perestroika and glasnost. The Russians think of him as a wishy-washy leader whose unsteady hand wrecked the fragile economy and led to the destruction of the Soviet Union. (It's helpful to know that both Russians and the West think of Boris Yeltsin as essentially a drunken doofus.) For all this and more, I loved this book. It was a compelling read that took me to somewhere I thought was a nice place to visit but I sure as heck wouldn't want to live there. Now, if you actually want a book about food from the former Soviet Union, von Bremzen has written that as well. It's called Please to the Table and it's out of print but available for a king's ransom from the usual suspects. Maybe if this book sells well (which it deserves to) then Please to the Table will go back in print.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Jenny (Reading Envy)

    I read this back in 2013, and my review at the time still holds true. I reread it for a book club and I'm looking forward to our discussion, and might add more afterwards. What I found really striking this time through is the concept of nostalgia and how we can long for and idealize things or people or times that weren't necessarily good but they were known or our experience. In Soviet Russia, maybe this is the only thing to cling to. ;) I read this back in 2013, and my review at the time still holds true. I reread it for a book club and I'm looking forward to our discussion, and might add more afterwards. What I found really striking this time through is the concept of nostalgia and how we can long for and idealize things or people or times that weren't necessarily good but they were known or our experience. In Soviet Russia, maybe this is the only thing to cling to. ;)

  3. 5 out of 5

    Catherine

    Food memoirs are usually among my favorite books. Not this one. I toiled and pushed, really pushed to get to 35%, trying to give it a chance. Anya failed miserably in her attempt to articulate her genuine experiences and feelings. Her writing was all over the place. I’d pick up a tidbit of where she was going with her story and did everything in my power as a reader to stay engaged with where she was going, but then she’d veer off in another direction and would fall away from the through-line. I Food memoirs are usually among my favorite books. Not this one. I toiled and pushed, really pushed to get to 35%, trying to give it a chance. Anya failed miserably in her attempt to articulate her genuine experiences and feelings. Her writing was all over the place. I’d pick up a tidbit of where she was going with her story and did everything in my power as a reader to stay engaged with where she was going, but then she’d veer off in another direction and would fall away from the through-line. It never felt like she was speaking to me. When she’s writing about food, history or family, she lacks real emotion. She seemed more conscious about sounding literary rather than actually sharing her true feelings with her reader. This book, for me, was hugely disappointing.

  4. 5 out of 5

    Andrea

    So much more than the memoir of its title; this is part family history, part socio-political history, part cookbook. The author traces the rise and fall of the USSR by decade, from the 1910s to the 2010s, using food as the milestone markers of the journey. Von Bremzen's writing has an engaging, fairly irreverent style, allowing her to deliver both the tragedy and the comedy of the era in such a way that the reader can choose whether to laugh or cry. I am in awe of how much I learned from reading So much more than the memoir of its title; this is part family history, part socio-political history, part cookbook. The author traces the rise and fall of the USSR by decade, from the 1910s to the 2010s, using food as the milestone markers of the journey. Von Bremzen's writing has an engaging, fairly irreverent style, allowing her to deliver both the tragedy and the comedy of the era in such a way that the reader can choose whether to laugh or cry. I am in awe of how much I learned from reading this book. A few things I will take away from it: * a desire to try kulebiaka (it seems almost sacrilegious to categorise this as a 'fish pie' dish) * Russian salad is actually called salat Olivier * recognition that we (the universal we) have a long way to go in terms of sustainable repurposing of consumer packaging materials * a thirst to understand what happened during those early Putin years, to turn Russia's fortunes around so dramatically (research required). However, while I admire the author, her family and the book itself, I wouldn't say any of it has ignited any grand passion in me for Russian cuisine!

  5. 4 out of 5

    Daisy

    This book should be taught in school history courses. It is an exceptional resource for Soviet history, it's well-written and well-researched. But most of all, it's accessible, nostalgic without being cloying or overly-sentimental, and it's touching. It happens to cover some of the subjects that interest me most: food, Russian/Soviet history, mother-daughter relationships. This book could've been written for me. I first took it out from the library, but I saw immediately I wanted to own it. Each This book should be taught in school history courses. It is an exceptional resource for Soviet history, it's well-written and well-researched. But most of all, it's accessible, nostalgic without being cloying or overly-sentimental, and it's touching. It happens to cover some of the subjects that interest me most: food, Russian/Soviet history, mother-daughter relationships. This book could've been written for me. I first took it out from the library, but I saw immediately I wanted to own it. Each chapter takes on a decade in the Soviet Union. Von Bremzen (where does the "von" come from?) chooses a dish that sort of symbolizes the events of that decade. Actually, there is less food-talk than I expected. I guess I thought it would be sprinkled with more recipes like Like Water for Chocolate or something. The recipes are instead collected at the end of the book before the (very valuable) bibliography. I learned so much. I've already checked out from my library one of the first books Von Bremzen mentions: Classic Russian Cooking: Elena Molokhovets' a Gift to Young Housewives and there are many more I'd like to read. Some things that stuck out: the Immortalization Commission--the group concerned with embalming Lenin's corpse or Object No. 1, as it became known "toska"--a word for which there is no English equivalent. "At its deepest and most painful," explains Vladimir Nabokov, "toska is a sensation of great spiritual anguish ... At less morbid levels it is a dull ache of the soul." This reminds me of a conversation I once had with the beautiful Lana W. when we were novices on a Soviet/American film production and she was trying to explain her childhood. "mass song"--a vital tool in molding the new Soviet consciousness 1930s more 1930s--Karl Schlögel sums up the atmosphere of the times in his description of Red Square. "Everything converges: a ticker-tape parade and a plebiscite on killing, the atmosphere of a folk festival and the thirst for revenge, a rollicking carnival and orgies of hate. Red Square ... at once fairground and gallows." "non-sober" "co-bottling" 1960s--Anna, Annushka, Anya, Anechka, the irreverent An'ka. The peasant-vernacular Anyuta and Anyutochka. Nyura and Nyurochka. Or Anetta, in a self-consciously ironic Russified French. Or the lovely and formal Anna Sergeevna (my name and patronymic)--straight out of Chekhov's "The Lady with the Dog." The inexhaustible stream of diminutive permutations of Anna, each with its own subtle semiotics, rolled sweetly off my mother's lips during pregnancy. Larisa hoped for one thing now: a half-basement room of her own where she and I would have tea from folkloric cups she'd once seen at a farm market. Happiness to her was those cups, those artisanal cups of her own. Humpty Dumpty translates as "Shaltai Baltai." In case you're curious. Anna Akmatova's years at the Fountain House living in the same rooms as her lover's ex-wife and the new lovers he continued to bring through... On Sundays Mom invariably ran out of money, which is when she cracked eggs into the skillet over cubes of fried black sourdough bread. It was, I think, the most delicious and eloquent expression of pauperism. I would like to know, if I can find Provansal Mayonnaise here, if it tastes the same as she remembers it tasting.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Jenny (Reading Envy)

    Ever since I read the starred review of Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking in the 24 June issue of Publishers Weekly, I knew I had to get my hands on this book! I was lucky to come across it in NetGalley, which gave me a copy for review. "Inevitably, a story about Soviet food is a chronicle of longing, of unrequited desire." Anya Von Bremzen was born in the USSR and later emigrated to the United States with her mother. Her James Beard award winning cookbook, Please To The Table: The Russian Cook Ever since I read the starred review of Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking in the 24 June issue of Publishers Weekly, I knew I had to get my hands on this book! I was lucky to come across it in NetGalley, which gave me a copy for review. "Inevitably, a story about Soviet food is a chronicle of longing, of unrequited desire." Anya Von Bremzen was born in the USSR and later emigrated to the United States with her mother. Her James Beard award winning cookbook, Please To The Table: The Russian Cookbook, was published in 1990, so her knowledge of the food of Russia is not to be disputed. Instead of the regional focus that her cookbook had, this memoir is divided into decades of Soviet Russia. Each chapter takes a decade and discusses the historical events, the food, and how each impacted her personal story - her family, her ancestors, her memories - from 1910s into the twenty-first century. When I got to the end of the chapter on the Czars and there were no recipes, I panicked. Surely I couldn't move on from this book without a chance to make Kulebiaka! She quotes Chekhov's description of the dish from "The Siren" and then goes on to talk about the significance of the dish in her own family. I wanted to try it immediately! Thankfully, Part V of the book features recipes from each chapter, removed to the end for the sake of a continual narrative. Even the decades of Communism-driven scarcity create a sort of nostalgia for Soviet sausages and dense bread that I was surprised to be feeling along with her. The comparison she makes between those foods and the only food they could afford right after entering the country - hot dogs and Wonderbread - I had to wonder if they really are so different? From reading how Lenin had a fondness for apple cake to the puzzling "luxury" of Salat Olivier, I enjoyed reading about the very Russian foods and stories. Highly recommended! Here is a bit that made me giggle - a poster from the 1920s when housewives were being encouraged to stop cooking for their families, and families were being forced to live communally. The translation is "Down with Kitchen Slavery!"

  7. 4 out of 5

    Ana

    This book combines the diverse cuisines of the USSR, and the story of Soviet communism, through the lens of the author's family experience. I can't recommend this book highly enough: you want to learn about totalitarianism, Russia's relationship with other soviet countries and food, then you need this book in your life. The writing is superb so just dive in!

  8. 5 out of 5

    Valerie

    Rare is the book that hits so many different intellectual and emotional notes.... Rare is the book that can discuss the ideologies of food at all, never mind its semiotics and psychoemotional registers, too, all while critiquing not one but two economic-political systems. This book is masterly. My only reservation with it is that its attention to emotional detail makes it at times a heavy read. I find this point quite interesting because I own one of her cookbooks, and part of what I appreciate Rare is the book that hits so many different intellectual and emotional notes.... Rare is the book that can discuss the ideologies of food at all, never mind its semiotics and psychoemotional registers, too, all while critiquing not one but two economic-political systems. This book is masterly. My only reservation with it is that its attention to emotional detail makes it at times a heavy read. I find this point quite interesting because I own one of her cookbooks, and part of what I appreciate about That book is how little emotional detail is given in the recipe preambles---it's all about the food. This time, it's all about what the food Means. I have never learned so much from a food memoir-- in part because I have been largely ignorant of the details --the real gritty details-- of daily life in Russia in the Soviet period--and the thing is, you don't realize how little you know and how much there was to know about surviving those years. The contradictions stay with me--Anya selling Western treasures such as Juicy Fruit gum to other children--gum she receives from the children of diplomats--and uses the cash to skip ballet lessons and order luxurious small meals for herself, oblivious to her mother's struggles and humiliations in order to feed her.(I'll never forget the scene with the bloody stumps of body parts in her purse.) Her mother's efforts to feed her, to try to raise her amidst the surreal madness are the stuff of daily heroism. The bananas. The new years' trees. And of course the kulebiake-- kasha stuffed fish plus dried sturgeon spine encased in pastry dough, a dish that has received inordinate attention this year thanks to the New Yorker piece on Buford's food sleuthing with Daniel Boulud. (That was a terrific article, but it's seems they need not have worked so hard--they could have called Von Bremzen!) All smart people must read this book if only to remind themselves of the limits of that descriptor, but I also recommend it on audio, where Von Bremzen's voicing conveys buckets of disdain for "American peanut butter" and the other mass produced grotesqueries that the very poor wind up designating as "food." I'm not sure when I'll stop hearing her say in my head "American peanut butter." Which is fine. This is a book that will stay with me for a long while.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Yiotula

    I really felt this was three different books, one about her family, one about her and her food, and one about Russia's history. I really don't like how they ran together. I found some sections confusing. The history was dry and the food secondary to the story. I wish she had written one great book about her trip back to Moscow to do the TV show and incorporated stories from the past that related to the food. I felt that the chronological order really hampered the showcasing of the food. In the l I really felt this was three different books, one about her family, one about her and her food, and one about Russia's history. I really don't like how they ran together. I found some sections confusing. The history was dry and the food secondary to the story. I wish she had written one great book about her trip back to Moscow to do the TV show and incorporated stories from the past that related to the food. I felt that the chronological order really hampered the showcasing of the food. In the least she should have put the recipes for each chapter in the chapter. That might have helped to make the whole thing come together a little better.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Margaret Sankey

    This one is a stunner. Bremzen and her mother, who emigrated from Moscow in 1974, recreate a dinner for each decade from 1910 to 2000, weaving in the story of her family--Jewish-categorized Naval Intelligence officers on one side, Baltic aristocrats on the other, as they move in and out of privileged positions and survive Soviet history with vivid food experiences. From the frequently reprinted and edited Book of Healthy and Tasty Food (which disappeared discredited capitalist kepchup as well as This one is a stunner. Bremzen and her mother, who emigrated from Moscow in 1974, recreate a dinner for each decade from 1910 to 2000, weaving in the story of her family--Jewish-categorized Naval Intelligence officers on one side, Baltic aristocrats on the other, as they move in and out of privileged positions and survive Soviet history with vivid food experiences. From the frequently reprinted and edited Book of Healthy and Tasty Food (which disappeared discredited capitalist kepchup as well as politicians from subsequent Stalinist editions), WWII ration books, 1970s Globus peas from Hungary, 80s vodka restrictions and creative moonshine, the Uzbek stew recipe from great grandma who helped pioneer the unveiling of Central Asian women and disappeared into a gulag in the 1950s, 1930s hamburgers championed by food expert Mikoyan, the Putin excesses of the new consumer world and the lost czarist cooking of pre-Revolutionary (with lots of servant labor) kitchens. I genuinely couldn't put this down.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Chintogtokh

    I love this book. I think many Mongolians have a sort of nostalgia for out communist, Soviet past. The apparent lack of a big cultural heritage, or rather, what constitutes "culture" in modern times - food, music, art - led to the adoption of many Soviet-era exports as our own. Reading this book feels both familiar (Olivier salat - Nisslel salat, Blinchik, Plov, Borshch) and yet, with the detailed look into one family's life from the nation's infancy to its death, it serves as a cure for any ost I love this book. I think many Mongolians have a sort of nostalgia for out communist, Soviet past. The apparent lack of a big cultural heritage, or rather, what constitutes "culture" in modern times - food, music, art - led to the adoption of many Soviet-era exports as our own. Reading this book feels both familiar (Olivier salat - Nisslel salat, Blinchik, Plov, Borshch) and yet, with the detailed look into one family's life from the nation's infancy to its death, it serves as a cure for any ostalgie that one might have for those times.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Alysa H.

    I'm so happy that I had the opportunity to read an early copy of this book. The title might mislead those unwilling to give it more than a shallow glance, as they'll assume it's a cookbook. It's actually the best kind of history book - a wonderfully written, rich cultural history told through the prism of personal experiences of the author and her family. The fact that most of those experiences use food as an anchoring point is splendid, I think, simply because food is so universal. Food is a to I'm so happy that I had the opportunity to read an early copy of this book. The title might mislead those unwilling to give it more than a shallow glance, as they'll assume it's a cookbook. It's actually the best kind of history book - a wonderfully written, rich cultural history told through the prism of personal experiences of the author and her family. The fact that most of those experiences use food as an anchoring point is splendid, I think, simply because food is so universal. Food is a topic to which everyone can relate in one way or another. Rarely have I felt a sense of "lived history" more palpably than in this book. There is heartbreak, tragedy, and dark humor here. A particular mix -- a recipe, if you will -- that seems common among post-Soviets, and which is itself touched upon throughout the book. The only places that miss a beat, perhaps, are the final chapters on the 1980s, 1990s and now. I think this is largely because the author left the USSR for the USA as a child in the 1970s, so her own personal experiences of life on the other side of the Iron Curtain during those times become more limited and abstract, and because many of the older family members whose lives took up so much of the earlier chapters begin to pass on at that point. Also, the early-1990s "tour of the crumbling empire" section feels a little show-offy and is not very well fleshed out. But on the whole, this is a real tour-de-force that could be recommended reading for pretty much anyone, but especially those interested in cultural history, personal narrative, or food studies.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Erin

    Weeeeellll, it made for a good book club because the host presented lots of examples of the food and there was vodka, of course! However, the writing was absolutely tedious! Beyond. Painfully. I actually found myself counting how many times she used the word bourgeois (it was way too many, by the way)! I kept asking myself what point was the author trying to present? Get to the point...get to the point. I chanted that in my head sometimes. The point was muddled. I still don't know what the autho Weeeeellll, it made for a good book club because the host presented lots of examples of the food and there was vodka, of course! However, the writing was absolutely tedious! Beyond. Painfully. I actually found myself counting how many times she used the word bourgeois (it was way too many, by the way)! I kept asking myself what point was the author trying to present? Get to the point...get to the point. I chanted that in my head sometimes. The point was muddled. I still don't know what the author's primary focus was in writing the book. Was a political commentary? Was it about her family life? Was it about what led up to her life now? It got more readable towards the end. Seems like she gave up trying to be a descriptive ninja. She was like a pathetic show off in the beginning. So many unnecessary adjectives! It made me laugh out loud. I'm sorry if I'm being mean here...she seems like a funny, smart, very successful woman, for sure. I'm sure she's swell! The book got rave reviews all over the place. I just didn't personally like her book! If I didn't love my book club babe who chose the book, I wouldn't have forced myself through it. The reason for two stars is because of the way that babe presented the food at book club. That was really fun and yummy!

  14. 4 out of 5

    Barbara

    God I loved this book. Maybe it's that long-hidden degree in Russian history... This book has about four great stories running through it - the history of the Soviet Union from the time of the Revolution to the present, the story of the author's family as they coped with the changes in Moscow during this long period, often oppressed, frequently hungry, the story of the author's own life growing up in Brezhnev's time and her eventual asylum-seeking with her mother to the US, and finally, it is th God I loved this book. Maybe it's that long-hidden degree in Russian history... This book has about four great stories running through it - the history of the Soviet Union from the time of the Revolution to the present, the story of the author's family as they coped with the changes in Moscow during this long period, often oppressed, frequently hungry, the story of the author's own life growing up in Brezhnev's time and her eventual asylum-seeking with her mother to the US, and finally, it is the story of food and how it links all these people and time periods together. After all, history marches along in a linear way, but we always have to eat. I had to try many of the recipes (even those that weren't in the book, but were available online). I also enjoyed downloading the Soviet Cookbook she talked about so often. Who knew it would be in English and available on Kindle.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Emmkay

    Very, very good. The author emigrated from the Soviet Union to the US as a child with her mother and later became a food writer, with her first book focusing on food from the various cultures of the USSR. Each chapter of her memoir focuses on a different decade, from the 1910s through to Putin’s Russia, discussing both food and her family’s history. Beautifully written and so interesting.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Biblio Files (takingadayoff)

    Not strictly a memoir, and certainly not a cookbook, Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking is an original. Anya Von Bremzen has told the history of the Soviet Union through the story of her grandparents, her mother, and herself, with a special emphasis on food. It may sound like a goulash with too many ingredients, but the result is wonderful. In addition to enjoying an entertaining memoir about a memorable bunch of people, I learned a lot about what it was like to live in the Soviet Union at diff Not strictly a memoir, and certainly not a cookbook, Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking is an original. Anya Von Bremzen has told the history of the Soviet Union through the story of her grandparents, her mother, and herself, with a special emphasis on food. It may sound like a goulash with too many ingredients, but the result is wonderful. In addition to enjoying an entertaining memoir about a memorable bunch of people, I learned a lot about what it was like to live in the Soviet Union at different times. In any number of books I've read about various aspects of the Soviet Union, I'd never come across Salat Olivier, a sort of potato salad. According to Von Bremzen, it's the salad that appears at every holiday and special occasion. It's taken for granted and it isn't the sort of thing people mention in letters or diaries or histories. But you'll learn about it here. Von Bremzen and her mother came to the United States in 1974 when Von Bremzen was eleven years old. She was old enough to have vivid memories of the Soviet Union and young enough to be able to completely adapt to life in the United States. Further travels in the Soviet Union and post-Soviet Union gave her even more points of view to round out the book. In addition to knowing her onions about food, Von Bremzen has an unusual story to tell, and is a terrific writer. I even enjoyed the bibliography!

  17. 5 out of 5

    Camelia Rose

    Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking really is a book of personal history and the 80 years history of Soviet Union. Anya von Bremzen was born in Moscow, USSR in 1963. In 1974, she emigrated to the United States with her Jewish dissident mother. She tells stories of what she remembered from her childhood, as well as experiences from her mother Larisa, maternal grandparents Naum and Liza and her father Sergei. The heartbreaking stories are told in a humorous voice. A lot of dark Soviet jokes. Scarc Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking really is a book of personal history and the 80 years history of Soviet Union. Anya von Bremzen was born in Moscow, USSR in 1963. In 1974, she emigrated to the United States with her Jewish dissident mother. She tells stories of what she remembered from her childhood, as well as experiences from her mother Larisa, maternal grandparents Naum and Liza and her father Sergei. The heartbreaking stories are told in a humorous voice. A lot of dark Soviet jokes. Scarcity and hunger. The WWII soldiers’ amputated arms and legs frozen in snow, as hard as tree trunks. Siege of Leningrad, Ukraine famine in the 1930s, Stalin’s cleanse, and Gulag. A Soviet begins her life at the long line of birth registry and ends at the equally long burial line. The ridiculous anti-parasite law. What it really means by socialist equality, and the 27 shades of "comrade". “Six paradoxes of Mature Socialism: 1) There’s no unemployment, but no one works; 2) no one works, but productivity goes up; 3) productivity goes up, but stores are empty; 4) stores are empty, but fridges are full; 5) fridges are full, but no one is satisfied; 6) no one is satisfied, but everyone votes yes.” I have already known some Soviet Union history, but history in this book is fresh and intimate, with details of food, scarcity of food, and longing for food. “On Sundays Mom invariably ran out of money, which is when she cracked eggs into the skillet over cubes of fried black sourdough bread. It was, I think, the most delicious and eloquent expression of pauperism.” "Dreaming of food, I already knew, is just as rewarding as eating it." In a land of false abundance and real scarcity, small pleasures like little pieces of jam-filled candy leave permanent imprints on one’s memory. At the age of 10, the author became a self-claimed “black-marketer”-- she made friends with kids of foreign embassies, got invited to their fancy homes, secretly saved candies, cut each into smaller pieces and sold them to her classmates in the school bathroom. The chapter about the collapse of Soviet Union makes me realize how little I know about that piece of history. The Nobel Peace Prize winner Gorbachev is not whom the West wanted to believe and he did not voluntarily dissolve USSR, had blood in his hands too. Boris Yeltsin is the populist who induced a free-market shock that drove ex-USSRs further into poverty and brought the Russian oligarchs into existence. I can not help to compare my impression of USSR from my own childhood and what’s written in the book. More importantly, I can’t help to compare China with the USSR. I totally get her childhood fantasy induced by propaganda. The “raw emotional grip of a totalitarian personality cult” is hard to escape. Personal identity is another theme in the book. As a daughter of a Jewish mother and a Russian father, she escaped by immigrating to US the dreaded choice of which “ethnic”--Jewish or Russian--to “officially” identify herself, the former would cast her as a lesser member of the society and severely restrict her social standing. However, the unmade choice forever haunted her. After having arrived at the United States, she soon discovered Jewish was not only an “ethnic”, but also a religion which she knew nothing about. Back in the USSR, her rebellious mother secretly celebrated Christmas because Christmas was banned. Ironically, putting up a Christmas tree in their Philadelphia apartment also offended their overzealous American Jewish sponsors because it was un-Jewish. On a banquet hosted by a Russian Royal from Romanov era whose name “too grand to pronounce”, she discovered their Russia and her Soviet Union had nothing in common. Patriotism is a fiction. Of their "motherland" Soviet Union, the generational difference is presented well: her grandparents the idealists, her mother the dissident, and herself who knew everything was farce. The last chapter is the author visit to Moscow in early 2010s. In the Putin Land, the official history of Russia, as the author puts it, is a "tightly scripted remembering". For an individual, memories are always what you choose to remember. Then, how accurate is the collective memory of a group, especially when they are a part of an ongoing event? In reality, the collective memories are complex and dynamic, always shifting. I am particularly moved by the story of an Anna Akhmatova reading. In Moscow, the author attended a reading of Anna Akhmatova by the great poet's "ancient" friend. Anna Akhmatova's Requiem, lamenting those who were brutally purged, was read right under the pictures of the executioners--Stalin and his enablers. The author burst out, "Ladies, have you lost your mind?!" She called the scene “insane asylum where history has been dismantled and photoshopped into a pastiche of victims, murderers, dictators and dissidents, all rubbing sentimental shoulders together.”. She soon realized she had no rights howling at these frail survivors of a terrible era. Yet the frail woman did not blame her for her outburst, instead, she only gave her a mischievous half-smile. Perhaps it is true that "the bystanders see most of the game, while the players get limited vision", or perhaps the players simply play along, aware or not of what's going on. "All happy food memories are alike; all unhappy food memories are unhappy in its own fashion." Deep down, Anya von Bremzen would always feel the pull from the fantasy land of her childhood, a world existed in propaganda, and yes, in the Kremlin's banquets.

  18. 5 out of 5

    K

    Huh. Somehow I always expect to enjoy culinary memoirs more than I do. I mean yeah, this book was kind of interesting. Von Bremzen seamlessly flits around between history of the Soviet Union from 1917 on, her own family's experiences under the various regimes, and description of various Soviet foods that reflect the times. Von Bremzen includes several interesting-looking recipes at the end, although I agree with reviewers who felt these recipes would have been better placed throughout the book. V Huh. Somehow I always expect to enjoy culinary memoirs more than I do. I mean yeah, this book was kind of interesting. Von Bremzen seamlessly flits around between history of the Soviet Union from 1917 on, her own family's experiences under the various regimes, and description of various Soviet foods that reflect the times. Von Bremzen includes several interesting-looking recipes at the end, although I agree with reviewers who felt these recipes would have been better placed throughout the book. Von Bremzen is a good writer with subtly caustic tongue-in-cheek humor that occasionally sneaks up and takes you by surprise. I found many of the history and personal memoir sections interesting, and her writing about the food fit nicely as opposed to being tacked on. I felt she did a good job of using food as a lens through which to view the Soviet experience. Unfortunately, though, I found my interest waning as the book progressed. Some of the later chapters felt disjointed and stream-of-consciousness, and I wasn't sure what she was trying to portray exactly. In truth I was also rushing to finish the book so I could give it back to the library, but I still think it could have been a more enjoyable experience than it was. I'll give her three stars -- it's a nice idea, mostly well done. My feelings overall remain in the lukewarm range though.

  19. 4 out of 5

    Melanie Hilliard

    Politics, culture, family and the fall of Communism all orbiting around the subject of food. I guess that's how you win a Beard prize while the rest of us just write reviews. This is how it's done memoir / food writers, this is how it's done.

  20. 4 out of 5

    Iona Sharma

    This is in part a history of one family, partly a book about food and partly a complete history of the Soviet Union. The author and her mother have resolved to represent each decade of the USSR's existence with a specific dish or dishes, embodying the time, and she uses the food as a jumping off point to talk about the wider things: e.g. in the 1910s, the food is opulent, as this is still the time of the czars; in the 1930s, there's no recipe, because there was no food. Despite the sort-of gimmi This is in part a history of one family, partly a book about food and partly a complete history of the Soviet Union. The author and her mother have resolved to represent each decade of the USSR's existence with a specific dish or dishes, embodying the time, and she uses the food as a jumping off point to talk about the wider things: e.g. in the 1910s, the food is opulent, as this is still the time of the czars; in the 1930s, there's no recipe, because there was no food. Despite the sort-of gimmick this book isn't slight or gimmicky. It's a caustic, fascinating, compelling account of what daily life in the USSR was like, it encompasses the author's grandparents living through the Stalinist purges, her grandfather's role as Chief of Baltic Intelligence during WW2, her mother's deep alienation from the regime and her own cynical and strange childhood in a communal apartment under Brezhnev ("Mature Socialism"), followed by emigration to the US during the seventies. It's sometimes harrowing and often deeply weird (her account of attending the kindergarten intended for the children of the Central Committee of the USSR is bizarre). I didn't always find this an easy book to read - particularly as it doesn't flinch from the cruelties of the regime, or of the Putin era - but I was gripped.

  21. 5 out of 5

    Deb

    Written by a James Beard-award winning writer, it's a memoir about growing up in Russia and tells of Russian history through its food, the chapters divided by the decades from the twentieth through the twenty-first century. Overall I enjoyed reading this book, the subject matter was interesting and I love nothing more than hearing about the food culture in other countries--however I did find myself wishing that there was a little more food description included and slightly less depth on the hist Written by a James Beard-award winning writer, it's a memoir about growing up in Russia and tells of Russian history through its food, the chapters divided by the decades from the twentieth through the twenty-first century. Overall I enjoyed reading this book, the subject matter was interesting and I love nothing more than hearing about the food culture in other countries--however I did find myself wishing that there was a little more food description included and slightly less depth on the history side of things. To me, Von Bremzen's writing was most appealing when describing food and cooking, but dragged a bit in her descriptions of people. I think this was because everyone seemed to have at least one nickname, whether historical figure or family member, and I kept getting confused with who exactly she was referring to and going back to reread pages to find out. It's a small, picky thing, but it slowed the story down and impacted my enjoyment of the first half of the book. Whether I caught the rhythm of the writing, or had it figured out by the time Von Bremzen emigrated to America with her mother in 1974, the book picked up its pace for the second half and I enjoyed it much more, through to the end--which included a recipe for each decade. I think foodies who are also history buffs, will enjoy Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking the most. Since I am not that familiar with Russian food and culture as compared to other countries, I'm glad we read the book and I walked away learning a lot--always a bonus.

  22. 4 out of 5

    Mark Staniforth

    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 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 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 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.

  23. 4 out of 5

    Kiwiflora

    Growing up in the West during the 1960s, 1970s and into the 1980s, international relations were dominated by this thing called the Cold War. The war was between 'us' and 'them' - a whole different, entirely undesirable, backward, and frightening other world behind this other thing called the Iron Curtain. It probably never entered my empty teenage head that there were people just like us behind this Iron Curtain - Mums, Dads, children, teenagers, grandparents. They were, quite simply, all commun Growing up in the West during the 1960s, 1970s and into the 1980s, international relations were dominated by this thing called the Cold War. The war was between 'us' and 'them' - a whole different, entirely undesirable, backward, and frightening other world behind this other thing called the Iron Curtain. It probably never entered my empty teenage head that there were people just like us behind this Iron Curtain - Mums, Dads, children, teenagers, grandparents. They were, quite simply, all communists - baddies, a serious threat to the democracies we pretty much took for granted. But after reading this memoir by a woman of a similar age to me, is it possible that threat may well have been a lot of hot air? It seems they were all too damn hungry and spent too much time standing in queues to be a threat to anyone! Nevertheless, Anya von Bremzen's memoir is a book truly written from the heart - for her mother and grandmothers, her father, her grandfather, her fellow Soviets, the terrible waste, deaths, family tragedies all resulting from the megalomania of a few. In their own way each of the leaders was mad. The chapter on Stalin is the most compelling and frightening to read, Khrushchev is positively boring in comparison, and the chapter on Gorbachev was a complete revelation. In the Western media, I remember him being portrayed in glowing terms - perestroika, glasnost and all that. But in the USSR it seems he was quite a different sort of fish. And of course throughout the book there is the food. It is amazing how we so often associate food with how we feel, our overall well being and happiness with ourselves, our lives and how it lives on in our memories. Now a successful food writer in the US, Ms von Bremzen takes the traditional Russian food of her family and weaves the history of both her family and Communist Russia from its beginnings in 1917 under Lenin to its dissolution in the early 1990s. She treats the whole 70 year odd years as an unmitigated disaster for virtually everyone. I really hope that writing this memoir was cathartic for her and for her mother who is still alive. Anya was very fortunate that in 1974 when she was 10, she and her mother fled to the US, leaving everything and everyone behind, knowing that they would never be able to return. In her writing there is very little happiness or nostalgia for what she left, and although their first few years in Philadelphia were not easy, at least it was better than what they had come from. She would never have had the life she currently has if they had stayed.

  24. 4 out of 5

    Lena

    It's hard to describe this mesmerizing book because it is so many different things. The overlying premise involves food writer and Soviet emigre Anya von Bremzen's idea to trace the history of the Soviet Union through the food (or lack thereof) that dominated each decade of its 70-plus year existence. But as she describes her and her mother's attempts to prepare her country's classic dishes, familial, social and cultural history flavor each and every page. I found this incredibly intimate view in It's hard to describe this mesmerizing book because it is so many different things. The overlying premise involves food writer and Soviet emigre Anya von Bremzen's idea to trace the history of the Soviet Union through the food (or lack thereof) that dominated each decade of its 70-plus year existence. But as she describes her and her mother's attempts to prepare her country's classic dishes, familial, social and cultural history flavor each and every page. I found this incredibly intimate view inside the now defunct USSR uniquely fascinating. Part of the reason is that Von Bremzen has such a diverse family history, including a great, great grandmother who attempted to bring Soviet ideals of feminist equality to Muslim women just after the revolution, a Jewish grandfather who was a KGB spy during the war, and dissident mother appalled by the abuses of the central government whose longing for another world ultimately carried the 9 year-old von Bremzen away from her budding career as a black marketeer specializing in evil capitalist Juicy Fruit gum and into the US. There are parts of this book that are not easy to read, as Von Bremzen details in unflinching prose what it's like to live in a world where people regularly disappeared into the gulags, and starvation was so widespread that men would steal bread from the hands of children. But despite the multiple horrors of the Soviet state, von Bremzen's account is rich with nostalgia. Like people everywhere, her family found their own ways of salvaging hope from widespread despair. In reading her account of encountering an America rich in Pop Tarts and Velveeta cheese, I came to understand that a life lived standing in bread lines can have its own satisfactions. Von Bremzen's writing is also flavored with a healthy dose of very dry Soviet humor. This, combined with her compelling storytelling and tantalizing food descriptions, made this book one that I regret having finished so soon.

  25. 4 out of 5

    Jaylia3

    Part memoir and part family history, Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking is a fascinating, affectionate, irreverent, and for me surprising inside account of everyday life during successive eras of the Soviet Union, from revolution through Stalin and Khrushchev to glasnost, paying particular attention to the food that was available and how it was acquired, prepared, and served. Having grown up in Cold War America reading it was like looking out at the world through the reverse side of a mirror. A Part memoir and part family history, Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking is a fascinating, affectionate, irreverent, and for me surprising inside account of everyday life during successive eras of the Soviet Union, from revolution through Stalin and Khrushchev to glasnost, paying particular attention to the food that was available and how it was acquired, prepared, and served. Having grown up in Cold War America reading it was like looking out at the world through the reverse side of a mirror. Anya’s grandfather worked in Soviet intelligence, and through devout loyalty managed to not get arrested when regimes changed, rules morphed, and history was rewritten. Her mother on the other hand was a self-styled cultural exile and dissident, still actually living within the country but refusing as much as possible to be part of it, so Anya had a wide variety of experiences, from the nauseating privilege of a kindergarten curriculum that included daily doses of caviar to the difficult negotiations of cooking in a crowded communal kitchen. She queued in food lines and ran a black market business selling sticks, or sometimes just a few flavorful chews, of Juicy Fruit gum to her school mates. Eventually Anya and her mother immigrated to the United States and when an injury ended her musical career she became a food writer--food being a natural obsession for someone who grew up in a country where getting enough could be a challenge. Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking is not a cookbook but there are a few recipes in the back of the book, including for Salat Olivier, a potato/carrot/canned peas/egg/apple/pickle salad that I can’t picture and have to try.

  26. 4 out of 5

    Barbara

    What an interesting book---part family story, part history of the USSR, part food review. Don't remember how I first heard about it, but I'm glad I did. Really enjoyed it.

  27. 4 out of 5

    Amy

    This is an interesting personal history of Soviet times, but was not exactly what I was expecting. The idea, I thought, was to create and serve a meal representative of Soviet/Russian times during each decade, from the Tsarist teens through the 1970s. The author discusses the political landscapes and social issues of each time, and she does talk about the food available to her and her family at the time. I kind of thought she and her mother, now living in the US, would talk about how they decide This is an interesting personal history of Soviet times, but was not exactly what I was expecting. The idea, I thought, was to create and serve a meal representative of Soviet/Russian times during each decade, from the Tsarist teens through the 1970s. The author discusses the political landscapes and social issues of each time, and she does talk about the food available to her and her family at the time. I kind of thought she and her mother, now living in the US, would talk about how they decided on each dish, and how they had to improvise or whatever to make it here. She didn't really talk about any of the parties they had after that first one. (If that's even what they actually did) That said, there are some recipes in the back that look amazing. I have never had lamb, but the Georgian lamb stew sounds really good.

  28. 4 out of 5

    Jill

    Unlike what you might expect from the title, this book is more of a memoir and a history of the Soviet Union than a guide to cooking, but it is organized around the subject of getting and preparing food, which was a central concern in Soviet Russia. It takes its inspiration from Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, with his theme of the images and memories evoked by the taste and smell of food. The author begins cleverly, paraphrasing the famous passage from Russian literature with her assertion Unlike what you might expect from the title, this book is more of a memoir and a history of the Soviet Union than a guide to cooking, but it is organized around the subject of getting and preparing food, which was a central concern in Soviet Russia. It takes its inspiration from Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, with his theme of the images and memories evoked by the taste and smell of food. The author begins cleverly, paraphrasing the famous passage from Russian literature with her assertion that “All happy food memories are alike; all unhappy food memories are unhappy after their own fashion.” She has written some award-winning cookbooks, and so it is only natural that she uses food as a focal point. But she has a further rationale: For any ex-citizen of a three-hundred-million-strong Soviet superpower, food is never a mere individual matter. In 1917 bread riots sparked the overthrow of the czar, and seventy-four years later, catastrophic food shortages helped push Gorbachev’s floundering empire into the dustbin. In between, seven million people perished from hunger during Stalin’s collectivization; four million more starved to death during Hitler’s war.” She observes that food and drinking and the rituals associated with them have been an abiding theme of Soviet political and cultural history. Food, she says, quoting one academic, “defined how Russians endured the present, imagined the future, and connected to their past.” Her goal, she states, is to show the “epic disjunction,” the “unruly collision of collectivist myths and personal antimyths” that made up the Soviet Union, and she does a splendid job achieving this aim. She personalizes the story by making it into a memoir of her own family's experiences for the duration of the Soviet Union, starting with the 1910’s, and proceeding by decade increments to the present. This, to me, is the real value of the book, because there are plenty of Soviet histories around, but von Bremzen provides anecdotes about what it was really like for the non-elites who lived through those times. She talks about food a lot, and I admit, most of it is food I wouldn’t want to eat. But most of the time, ordinary citizens in the USSR didn’t have much choice, and the author tells us just how they managed to make do with what they could find. They used as their bible The Book of Tasty and Healthy Food (or as she calls it “a totalitarian Joy of Cooking"). What is interesting about this book is that the content changed with each new regime. It was first published in 1939, and included didactic commentaries and ideological sermonizing as well as recipes, many of which involved food that none of the proletarian masses could hope to obtain. Von Bremzen writes: The wrenching discrepancy between the abundance on the pages and its absence in shops made [the book’s] myth of plenty especially poignant. Long-suffering Homo sovieticus gobbled down the deception; long-suffering H. sovieticus had after all been weaned on socialist realism, an artistic doctrine that insisted on depicting reality ‘in its revolutionary development’ - past and present swallowed up by a triumphant projection of a Radiant Future.” This paragraph is an excellent summary of what von Bremzen makes her theme, and her goal, in highlighting the contradictions of life in the USSR. At the end of the book, the author includes one recipe for each decade she covered. The recipes are preceded by very entertaining anecdotes. Discussion: I love the understated cynicism and humorous sarcasm so common to many who survived the Soviet period, especially among the samizdat writers. If you have read other remembrances of that time, you will recognize this tone, so distinctive to those who daily lived and breathed the hypocrisy of their so-called socialist state. This passage, in which von Bremzen writes of Stalin’s involvement in food policy is a perfect example of her style: When [Stalin] wasn’t busy signing execution orders or censoring books or screening [the movie] Volga-Volga], the Standardbearer of Communism opined on fish (‘Why don’t we sell live fish like they did in the old days?’) or Soviet champagne.” Similarly, her ironic names for the leaders of the USSR are endlessly entertaining as well as revealing, from one of many for Stalin, “The Best Friend of All Children” to “the fossilized lump of Brezhnev,” to Putin: “an obscure midget with a boring KGB past” who established a “petrodollar kleptocracy.” Evaluation: Although this book wasn’t what I thought it would be, it was actually much better. If you are looking for more of a cookbook, there are certainly many that feature foods of the Russian continent. This book is much more than that, and yet, the subject of food is central to the story.

  29. 5 out of 5

    Bea Pires

    I came into Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking with the expectation of finding only several recipes and perhaps they’re own history, inside the scope of Russian history and the writer’s own personal story but what I got was so much more than that and I couldn't be happier! In this memoir, von Bremzen takes the reader through a fascinating story of not just random Russian recipes, but whole generations of her family and the socio-political landscape that shaped them, with food often serving as th I came into Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking with the expectation of finding only several recipes and perhaps they’re own history, inside the scope of Russian history and the writer’s own personal story but what I got was so much more than that and I couldn't be happier! In this memoir, von Bremzen takes the reader through a fascinating story of not just random Russian recipes, but whole generations of her family and the socio-political landscape that shaped them, with food often serving as the glue holding together the trainwreck that was the fall of the Russian Empire and its’ Soviet years. Being a topic often disregarded, especially at times when famine is the rule, it was refreshing to read a memoir of those troubled times so focused on what is often a huge part of personal and family life. As von Bremzen writes, in the worst moments, life was measured through the time between meals, sparse as they were, so the importance of said moments is obviously to be remembered. Stepping outside the URRS, I also found it extremely compelling to read about Anya herself and, who is perhaps the true heroine of this book, her mother, Larisa Frumkin. Besides their experiences growing in Russia and its’ various regimes, their longing to find their roots while so far away from home, as emigrants in America, resonates with anyone missing home and finding it in the taste of their childhood. Their adventures both in the kitchen and with fellow escapees, to find the perfect flavors of their chimerical madeleines, were both trilling and heartbreaking and, as someone that never had true Russian cuisine, I cannot wait to try out a kulebiaka! (This book was read thanks to NetGalley and Crown Publishing. Thank you so much!)

  30. 4 out of 5

    Sistermagpie

    Like so many really powerful books, this one's hard to describe! The author and her mother work their way through the 20th century in Russia via food, going decade by decade, weaving in the history of the country and the history of their family. Like so many true stories, it's at times so crazy it has to be true. The author describes such a strange history (both Russia's and her family's) that you know you kind of had to be there to truly understand it, yet you come away from it feeling like you Like so many really powerful books, this one's hard to describe! The author and her mother work their way through the 20th century in Russia via food, going decade by decade, weaving in the history of the country and the history of their family. Like so many true stories, it's at times so crazy it has to be true. The author describes such a strange history (both Russia's and her family's) that you know you kind of had to be there to truly understand it, yet you come away from it feeling like you got to know some really special people. It definitely left me with the longing described in the title--I tend to be vulnerable to fits of melancholy over the fact that everything dies and nothing gold can stay--not to mention Proustian madeleine's etc. etc., and this book just serves that up in a heady mixture of conflicted feelings. It's like all these people who went through so much and don't really know why or what it was for--and that's life itself distilled into one sentence right there.

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