BOOK: The Soviet Union, with its periodic famines and chronic food shortages, was not exactly a culinary paradise, but Anya von Bremzen nevertheless recounts the pleasures of the kitchen in her new memoir, Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking (Crown, 2013). Note the last word of the title — "cooking" rather than "cuisine." Von Bremzen does not attempt to glamorize the culinary achievements of the Soviet Union — a topic she attempted in her 1990 cookbook, Please to the Table. Rather, she describes the everyday delights she remembers from her childhood in Moscow, which she left in 1974, when she was 11. As her subtitle says, she has written "A Memoir of Food and Longing" that deftly conjures the smell of fermenting sauerkraut, the sheen of fatty goulash, and the taste of "provensal" — a "loose" and "tangy-sharp" mayonnaise that enlivened many a dreary dish.
Two years ago, von Bremzen and her mother, Larisa Naumovna Frumkina, set out to re-create one classic Soviet meal from each decade of the 20th century (except for the 1940s, which she marks with a reproduction of a ration card from Leningrad, dated December 1941— the frigid third month of the 900-day siege by the Nazis that claimed around a million lives). "Neither I nor Mom had a clue how they were meant to taste," von Bremzen admits of the dishes the created. Yet, they soldiered on, producing functional recipes and engaging anecdotes about what life was like in a nation largely remembered as drab, harsh, and without flavor of any kind.
WHY READ? The title of von Bremzen's book is somewhat misleading. Although she includes a few recipes, she makes no attempt to teach the reader how to master Soviet cooking. Rather, she reminisces about the culinary triumphs her mother and grandmother produced during an era when there was almost nothing decent to eat anywhere in the Soviet Union. (Von Bremzen was born in 1963, during one of the worst crop failures in post-Stalin Soviet history.) While not much of an instruction book, Soviet Cooking contains vivid stories, such as an account of the travails of Anastas Mikoyan, a member of the Politburo sent by Stalin in 1936 to study food in America. Mikoyan came back with a version of the hamburger, which von Bremzen's mother re-creates as "kotleti," and published The Book of Healthy and Tasty Food, which provided the two women with guidance as they devised their own versions of standard dishes.
As von Bremzen says, paraphrasing Tolstoy's famous opening to Anna Karenina, "All happy food memories are alike; all unhappy food memories are unhappy after their own fashion." But the memories she shares are not really unhappy. Despite the shortages and the long food lines at stores, von Bremzen recalls being quite content. "Dreaming about food, I already knew, was just as rewarding as eating," she writes.
MAKE IT: To commemorate the 1950s, von Bremzen and her mother offer a recipe for Cornbread for Khrushchev — a Moldovan corn bread with feta. Khrushchev set out to replace wheat with corn as the staple grain of the Soviet Union, which led to crop failures and bread lines. This contributed to the Soviet Premiere's premature retirement, and to his nickname "Nikita Kukuruznik," or "Corn man."
Tom Valeo, Special to the Times
Read & Feed is a monthly column in Taste that matches possible book club selections with food to serve at meetings. If you have suggestions or would like to share what your book club is cooking up, send an email to [email protected] Put BOOK FOOD in the subject line.