1910s: The Last Days of the Czars
My mother is expecting guests.
In just a few hours in this sweltering July heat wave, eight people will show up for an extravagant czarist-era dinner at her small Queens apartment. But her kitchen resembles a building site. Pots tower and teeter in the sink; the food processor and blender drone on in unison. In a shiny bowl on Mom’s green faux-granite counter, a porous blob of yeast dough seems weirdly alive. I’m pretty sure it’s breathing. Unfazed, Mother simultaneously blends, sautés, keeps an eye on Chris Matthews on MSNBC, and chatters away on her cordless phone. At this moment she suggests a plump modern-day elf, multitasking away in her orange Indian housedress.
Ever since I can remember, my mother has cooked like this, phone tucked under her chin. Of course, back in Brezhnev’s Moscow in the seventies when I was a kid, the idea of an “extravagant czarist dinner” would have provoked sardonic laughter. And the cord of our antediluvian black Soviet telefon was so traitorously twisted, I once tripped on it while carrying a platter of Mom’s lamb pilaf to the low three-legged table in the cluttered space where my parents did their living, sleeping, and entertaining.
Right now, as one of Mom’s ancient émigré friends fills her ear with cultural gossip, that pilaf episode returns to me in cinematic slow motion. Masses of yellow rice cascade onto our Armenian carpet. Biddy, my two-month-old puppy, greedily laps up every grain, her eyes and tongue swelling shockingly in an instant allergic reaction to lamb fat. I howl, fearing for Biddy’s life. My father berates Mom for her phone habits.
Mom managed to rescue the disaster with her usual flair, dotty and determined. By the time guests arrived—with an extra four non-sober comrades—she’d conjured up a tasty fantasia from two pounds of the proletarian wurst called sosiski. These she’d cut into petal-like shapes, splayed in a skillet, and fried up with eggs. Her creation landed at table under provocative blood-red squiggles of ketchup, that decadent capitalist condiment. For dessert: Mom’s equally spontaneous apple cake. “Guest-at-the-doorstep apple charlotte,” she dubbed it.
Guests! They never stopped crowding Mom’s doorstep, whether at our apartment in the center of Moscow or at the boxy immigrant dwelling in Philadelphia where she and I landed in 1974. Guests overrun her current home in New York, squatting for weeks, eating her out of the house, borrowing money and books. Every so often I Google “compulsive hospitality syndrome.” But there’s no cure. Not for Mom the old Russian adage “An uninvited guest is worse than an invading Tatar.” Her parents’ house was just like this, her sister’s even more so.
Tonight’s dinner, however, is different. It will mark our archival adieu to classic Russian cuisine. For such an important occasion Mom has agreed to keep the invitees to just eight after I slyly quoted a line from a Roman scholar and satirist: “The number of dinner guests should be more than the Graces and less than the Muses.” Mom’s quasi-religious respect for culture trumps even her passion for guests. Who is she to disagree with the ancients?
And so, on this diabolically torrid late afternoon in Queens, the two of us are sweating over a decadent feast set in the imagined 1910s—Russia’s Silver Age, artistically speaking. The evening will mark our hail and farewell to a grandiose decade of Moscow gastronomy. To a food culture that flourished at the start of the twentieth century and disappeared abruptly when the 1917 revolution transformed Russian cuisine and culture into Soviet cuisine and culture—the only version we knew.
Mom and I have not taken the occasion lightly.
The horseradish and lemon vodkas that I’ve been steeping for days are chilling in their cut-crystal carafes. The caviar glistens. We’ve even gone to the absurd trouble of brewing our own kvass, a folkloric beverage from fermented black bread that’s these days mostly just mass-produced fizz. Who knows? Besides communing with our ancestral stomachs, this might be our last chance on this culinary journey to eat really well.
“The burbot liver—what to do about the burbot liver?” Mom laments, finally off the phone.
Noticing how poignantly scratched her knuckles are from assorted gratings, I reply, for the umpteenth time, that burbot, noble member of the freshwater cod family so fetishized by pre-revolutionary Russian gourmands, is nowhere to be had in Jackson Heights, Queens. Frustrated sighing. As always, my pragmatism interferes with Mom’s dreaming and scheming. And let’s not even mention viziga, the desiccated dorsal cord of a sturgeon. Burbot liver was the czarist foie gras, viziga its shark’s fin. Chances of finding either in any zip code hereabouts? Not slim—none.
But still, we’ve made progress.
Several test runs for crispy brains in brown butter have yielded smashing results. And despite the state of Mom’s kitchen, and the homey, crepuscular clutter of her book-laden apartment, her dining table is a thing of great beauty. Crystal goblets preen on the floral, antique-looking tablecloth. Pale blue hydrangeas in an art nouveau pitcher I found at a flea market in Buenos Aires bestow a subtle fin-de-siècle opulence.
I unpack the cargo of plastic containers and bottles I’ve lugged over from my house two blocks away. Since Mom’s galley kitchen is far too small for two cooks, much smaller than an aristocrat’s broom closet, I’ve already brewed the kvass and prepared the trimmings for an anachronistic chilled fish and greens soup called botvinya. I was also designated steeper of vodkas and executer of Guriev kasha, a dessert loaded with deep historical meaning and a whole pound of home-candied nuts. Mom has taken charge of the main course and the array of zakuski, or appetizers.
A look at the clock and she gasps. “The kulebiaka dough! Check it!”
I check it. Still rising, still bubbling. I give it a bang to deflate—and the tang of fermenting yeast tickles my nostrils, evoking a fleeting collective memory. Or a memory of a received memory. I pinch off a piece of dough and hand it to Mom to assess. She gives me a shrug as if to say, “You’re the cookbook writer.”
But I’m glad I let her take charge of the kulebiaka. This extravagant Russian fish pie, this history lesson in a pastry case, will be the pièce de résistance of our banquet tonight.
“The kulebiaka must make your mouth water, it must lie before you, naked, shameless, a temptation. You wink at it, you cut off a sizeable slice, and you let your fingers just play over it. . . . You eat it, the butter drips from it like tears, and the filling is fat, juicy, rich with eggs, giblets, onions . . .”
So waxed Anton Pavlovich Chekhov in his little fiction “The Siren,” which Mom and I have been salivating over during our preparations, just as we first did back in our unglorious socialist pasts. It wasn’t only us Soviet-born who fixated on food. Chekhov’s satiric encomium to outsize Slavic appetite is a lover’s rapturous fantasy. Sometimes it seems that for nineteenth-century Russian writers, food was what landscape (or maybe class?) was for the English. Or war for the Germans, love for the French—a subject encompassing the great themes of comedy, tragedy, ecstasy, and doom. Or perhaps, as the contemporary author Tatyana Tolstaya suggests, the “orgiastic gorging” of Russian authors was a compensation for literary taboos on eroticism. One must note, too, alas, Russian writers’ peculiarly Russian propensity for moralizing. Rosy hams, amber fish broths, blini as plump as “the shoulder of a merchant’s daughter” (Chekhov again), such literary deliciousness often serves an ulterior agenda of exposing gluttons as spiritually bankrupt philistines—or lethargic losers such as the alpha glutton Oblomov. Is this a moral trap? I keep asking myself. Are we enticed to salivate at these lines so we’ll end up feeling guilty?
But it’s hard not to salivate. Chekhov, Pushkin, Tolstoy—they all devote some of their most fetching pages to the gastronomical. As for Mom’s beloved Nikolai Gogol, the author of Dead Souls anointed the stomach the body’s “most noble” organ. Besotted with eating both on and off the page—sour cherry dumplings from his Ukrainian childhood, pastas from his sojourns in Rome—scrawny Gogol could polish off a gargantuan dinner and start right in again. While traveling he sometimes even churned his own butter. “The belly is the belle of his stories, the nose is their beau,” declared Nabokov. In 1852, just short of his forty-third birthday, in the throes of religious mania and gastrointestinal torments, Nikolai Vasilievich committed a slow suicide rich in Gogolian irony: he refused to eat. Yes, a complicated, even tortured, relationship with food has long been a hallmark of our national character.
According to one scholarly count, no less than eighty-six kinds of edibles appear in Dead Souls, Gogol’s chronicle of a grifter’s circuit from dinner to dinner in the vast Russian countryside. Despairing over not being able to scale the heights of the novel’s first volume, poor wretched Gogol burned most of the second. What survives includes the most famous literary ode to kulebiaka—replete with a virtual recipe.
“Make a four-cornered kulebiaka,” instructs Petukh, a spiritually bankrupt glutton who made it through the flames. And then:
“In one corner put the cheeks and dried spine of a sturgeon, in another put some buckwheat, and some mushrooms and onion, and some soft fish roe, and brains, and something else as well. . . . As for the underneath . . . see that it’s baked so that it’s quite . . . well not done to the point of crumbling but so that it will melt in the mouth like snow and not make any crunching sound.
Petukh smacked his lips as he spoke.”
Generations of Russians have smacked their own lips at this passage. Historians, though, suspect that this chimerical “four-cornered” kulebiaka might have been a Gogolian fiction. So what then of the genuine article, which is normally oblong and layered?
To telescope quickly: kulebiaka descends from the archaic Slavic pirog (filled pie). Humbly born, they say, in the 1600s, it had by its turn-of-the-twentieth-century heyday evolved into a regal golden-brown case fancifully decorated with cut-out designs. Concealed within: aromatic layers of fish and viziga, a cornucopia of forest-picked mushrooms, and butter-splashed buckwheat or rice, all the tiers separated by thin crepes called blinchiki—to soak up the juices.
Mom and I argued over every other dish on our menu. But on this we agreed: without kulebiaka, there could be no proper Silver Age Moscow repast.
When my mother, Larisa (Lara, Larochka) Frumkina—Frumkin in English—was growing up in the 1930s high Stalinist Moscow, the idea of a decadent czarist-era banquet constituted exactly what it would in the Brezhnevian seventies: laughable blue cheese from the moon. Sosiski were Mom’s favorite food. I was hooked on them too, though Mom claims that the sosiski of my childhood couldn’t hold a candle to the juicy Stalinist article. Why do these proletarian franks remain the madeleine of every Homo sovieticus? Because besides sosiski with canned peas and kotleti (minced meat patties) with kasha, cabbage-intensive soups, mayo-laden salads, and watery fruit kompot for dessert—there wasn’t all that much to eat in the Land of the Soviets.
Unless, of course, you were privileged. In our joyous classless society, this all-important matter of privilege has nagged at me since my early childhood.
I first glimpsed—or rather heard—the world of privileged food consumption during my first three years of life, at the grotesque communal Moscow apartment into which I was born in 1963. The apartment sat so close to the Kremlin, we could practically hear the midnight chimes of the giant clock on the Spassky Tower. There was another sound too, keeping us up: the roaring BLARGHHH of our neighbor Misha puking his guts out. Misha, you see, was a food store manager with a proprietary attitude toward the socialist food supply, likely a black market millionaire who shared our communal lair only for fear that flaunting his wealth would attract the unwanted attention of the anti-embezzlement authorities. Misha and Musya, his blond, big-bosomed wife, lived out a Mature Socialist version of bygone decadence. Night after night they dined out at Moscow’s few proper restaurants (accessible to party bigwigs, foreigners, and comrades with illegal rubles), dropping the equivalent of Mom’s monthly salary on meals that Misha couldn’t even keep in his stomach.
When the pair stayed home, they ate unspeakable delicacies— batter-fried chicken tenders, for instance—prepared for them by the loving hands of Musya’s mom, Baba Mila, she a blubbery former peasant with one eye, four—or was it six?—gold front teeth, and a healthy contempt for the nonprivileged.
“So, making kotleti today,” Mila would say in the kitchen we all shared, fixing her monocular gaze on the misshapen patties in Mom’s chipped aluminum skillet. “Muuuuusya!” she’d holler to her daughter. “Larisa’s making kotleti!”
“Good appetite, Larochka!” (Musya was fond of my mom.)
“Muuusya! Would you eat kotleti?”
“Aha! You see?” And Mila would wag a swollen finger at Mom.
One day my tiny underfed mom couldn’t restrain herself. Back from work, tired and ravenous, she pilfered a chicken nugget from a tray Mila had left in the kitchen. The next day I watched as, red-faced and teary-eyed, she knocked on Misha’s door to confess her theft.
“The chicken?” cackled Mila, and I still recall being struck by how her twenty-four-karat mouth glinted in the dim hall light. “Help yourself anytime—we dump that shit anyway.”
And so it was that about once a week we got to eat shit destined for the economic criminal’s garbage. To us, it tasted pretty ambrosial.
A Publishers Weekly Best Nonfiction Book of 2013
A Christian Science Monitor Best Nonfiction Book of 2013
"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."
"Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking turns a bittersweet eye and an intelligent heart on Soviet history through food...Beautifully told."
—Los Angeles Times
"Von Bremzen knows how to tell a story – poignant, funny, but never lacking."
"Brilliant...a lyrical memoir and multifaceted reflection on Soviet (and American) cultures."
"An ambitious food memoir that is also a meticulously researched history of the Soviet Union...a meditation on culinary nostalgia."
—Julia Moskin, New York Times
"Anya von Bremzen's saga of growing up in a superpower always on the verge of starvation is both rollicking and heartrending."
"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
"Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking is a painstakingly researched and beautifully written cultural history but also the best kind of memoir: one with a self-aware narrator who has mastered the art of not taking herself entirely seriously...A breathtaking balancing act...Von Bremzen is as much a virtuoso in her writing as her mother is in her cooking."
—Masha Gessen, New York Review of Books
"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
"Russian treasures! You never know when they're going to pop up. My heart gladdened at the sight of Anya Von Bremzen's book. This is history at a personal level, the kitchen table."
—Martin Cruz Smith, The Wall Street Journal
"Splendid...[Von Bremzen] describes the U.S.S.R. with the eyes of a betrayed lover—alternately despairing, dismayed, aghast and yet, somehow...with love."
—Russ Parsons, Los Angeles Times
"At once harrowing and funny as hell, an epic history told through kotleti (Soviet hamburgers) and contraband Coca-Cola."
—James Oseland, Saveur
"There is no book quite like Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking...Through all of this lovely and moving memoir's good humor, bittersweet reminiscences, and gorgeous evocations of food, there hangs the 'toska,' the Russian nostalgic 'ache,' of Anya and Larisa's conflicted feelings about the past."
—Christian Science Monitor
"[T]his is no simple food memoir. Von Bremzen situates every dish she mentions in its historical, cultural and literary context, simultaneously delving into her own fascinating family history. Her book is an education through the senses, written with humor, affection and a no-nonsense view of her often baffling native land."
"A masterful telling of Soviet history through the eyes of a cook... a collection of fantastic stories that you hear only when sitting on a bar stool or in a church pew. Von Bremzen offers remarkable — and personal — insight about the Cold War, its politics, military strategy and the human suffering that accompanied it."
"[Von Bremzen] is a profoundly gifted writer, able to lace information with observation, observation with wit...[This book] feels rather like a novel, richly populated and filled with deft dialogue, yet it's also crammed full of history. Imagine Robert Caro crossed with a Chekhov play, if it were funny."
"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."
"Splendid...Von Bremzen is a gifted storyteller who writes with an easy elegance. In Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking, she achieves a perfect balance between her narrative’s varied ingredients. The result: a feast for readers."
"Wry, provocative, genre-busting."
—Wall Street Journal (Europe edition)
"Through a kaleidoscopic mix of family life, politics, history, and jokes, Von Bremzen evokes in her book a whole Soviet-era world of deprivation and delight."
"The funniest and truest book I've read about Russia in years. Ms. von Bremzen had the brilliant idea of transporting us back to the Soviet era of her youth by way of its hilarious, soulful, mayonnaise-laden, doctrinally-approved cuisine. This is both an important book and a delight."
—Ian Frazier, author of Great Plains and Travels in Siberia
"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
"I have delighted in Anya von Bremzen’s writing for decades. But her prose is at its tangiest, richest, and tastiest in these pages, when she writes about her childhood in the USSR. Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking is as much a history of Soviet life as it is a personal story. Both narratives are provocative and delicious, and both are worth telling your children."
—Mario Batali, chef, author, entrepreneur
"Three cheers for Anya Von Bremzen's poignant, vivid, often hilarious book about trying to survive—and have a square meal—in the last decades of the Soviet Union. The author's acute political perceptiveness, mordant wit and notable culinary expertise keep the reader delightfully engaged throughout."
—Francine du Plessix Gray, author of Them: A Memoir of Parents and Soviet Women
"Anya's description of the saltiness in vobla is as poignant and image-filled as her reflection on a life that started out one way, but ended up in a better place by chance and fate. Her experience of growing up a child of two different worlds tells the beautiful tale of so many American immigrants."
—Marcus Samuelsson, chef-founder, Red Rooster Harlem, and author of Yes, Chef
"This is much more than a memoir or an extended meditation on food and longing: this is history at its best, accessed through the kitchen door. Written with verve and seasoned with perfect doses of that irony that communist societies excel at cultivating, this book is a rare and delightful treat, as much of a page-turner as the best of novels and as enlightening an introduction to Soviet history as one could ever hope to find. Anya Von Bremzen proves with admirable flair that the adage “you are what you eat” applies not only to individuals and families, but also to entire nations, and that cookbooks may indeed be the most translucent of windows to the soul."
—Carlos Eire, author of Waiting for Snow in Havana: Confessions of a Cuban Boy
"Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking is a monumental but deeply human book that reads like a great Russian novel, filled with dark humor and nostalgia. It opens up an entire universe, teaching us about the many deep meanings of food: cultural, political, social, historical, personal."
—Ferran Adrià, chef-proprietor, El Bulli
"A fascinating, colorful and at times oddly tender look at the history of the former Soviet Union as seen through Anya von Bremzen’s intimate recollections of food--including foods never eaten or never to be sampled again. Von Bremzen does a soulful job of capturing Russians’ ‘complicated and even tortured relationship with food.’ What emerges is her own complicated yet loving relationship to the culture she and her mother willingly left behind, but could never quite abandon."
—Lucette Lagnado, author of The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit: One Family’s Exodus from Old Cairo to New York
"Anya von Bremzen describes the foods of her past powerfully, poetically, and with a wicked sense of humor. Anyone can make a fancy layer cake sound delicious. To invoke an entire culture and era through an intimate story about a salad or soup--that's taking food writing to a whole different level."
—David Chang, chef-founder, Momofuku
"Here’s a surprise: a wry account of how the Soviet Union tasted. Larisa Frumkina, the mother of the author, the daughter of a top military intelligence officer (endlessly, brilliantly resourceful, she appears to come straight out of Russian literature), becomes an émigré, a Pathmark shopper, and a co-conspirator with her daughter in Soviet food nostalgia and self-discovery. A wink, a laugh, a transgression, a sweet sad life over the generations that throws an epic history into a new light."
—Stephen Kotkin, professor of history, Princeton University; author of Magnetic Mountain: Stalinism as Civilization
"One of the most unexpectedly pleasurable reads this year. Beyond the innately voyeuristic thrill of reading about the details of Soviet life, Mastering is funny, intimate, evocative and rueful."
"Celebrated food writer Von Bremzen pulls back the curtain on Soviet life in this sweeping, multigenerational memoir."
"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."