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Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking: A Memoir of Food and Longing [Anglais] [Relié]

Anya Von Bremzen

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Extrait

Chapter One

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...

Revue de presse

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."
Entertainment Weekly

"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."
—Chicago Tribune

"Brilliant...a lyrical memoir and multifaceted reflection on Soviet (and American) cultures."
—Philadelphia Inquirer

"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."
Time

"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."
The Oregonian

"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."
Minnapolis Star-Tribune

"[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."
—LA Weekly

"Moving...funny...fascinating...Soul-stirring for any emigrant to read, Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking is a beautifully written tale of heartbreak and ultimately happiness."
Epicurious

"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." 
—Book Page

"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."
Tablet magazine

"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-pr...


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Amazon.com: 4.3 étoiles sur 5  137 commentaires
32 internautes sur 35 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
5.0 étoiles sur 5 Hammer & Pickle 4 juillet 2013
Par takingadayoff - Publié sur Amazon.com
Format:Relié|Commentaire client Vine pour produit gratuit (De quoi s'agit-il?)
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 Moscow during the Soviet years. In all the books I've read about various aspects of the Soviet Union, I'd never come across Salat Olivier, a sort of potato-y Waldorf 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. She also tells us about the canned fatty pork called tushonka that America sent the Soviet Union during World War II, and was a much-loved picnic staple thereafter. Further research reveals that America initially sent Spam, but the Russians rejected it and demanded tushonka. If you search for an image of tushonka, be warned -- it makes Spam look downright gorgeous by comparison.

Von Bremzen and her mother came to the United States in 1974 when Von Bremzen was eleven years old. She was old enough to retain 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 internautes sur 20 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
5.0 étoiles sur 5 Not a Cookbook, but great fun to read! 2 juillet 2013
Par Naomi Manygoats - Publié sur Amazon.com
Format:Relié|Commentaire client Vine pour produit gratuit (De quoi s'agit-il?)
I ordered this book expecting a Russian cookbook, since I have another excellent cookbook by the author. However, I was NOT at all disappointed once I began reading the book. This is a magical memoir of what it was like to live in Soviet Russia, and very eye-opening to my western eyes. The author and her mother decide to recreate Russian meals from each decade in modern Russian history, and this tells of the food, and memories of Russia in a way I cannot even begin to describe. If you love to read about food, live, and history, you will enjoy this book immensly. It makes me realize how very much we have here to be grateful for. The stories of new immigrants in their first American supermarket were pretty funny, how one couple loved the lunch meat with little kitties on the lable for example.
8 internautes sur 8 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
5.0 étoiles sur 5 Great nostalgia and meaning of food 23 septembre 2013
Par Citizen John - Publié sur Amazon.com
Format:Relié|Commentaire client Vine pour produit gratuit (De quoi s'agit-il?)
The book made me understand how much we all lost in the process of gaining world-class consumer power. The simple recipes that could produce Russian crepes made me sad that nobody has time for that anymore. The diversity of cuisine throughout the Soviet regions was fantastic. Nothing was wasted and mayonnaise was practically a staple. It's odd to think we'd miss it, but the food reminds us of how life once was for so many.
14 internautes sur 18 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
5.0 étoiles sur 5 A delicious piece of history... 23 juillet 2013
Par NyiNya - Publié sur Amazon.com
Format:Relié|Commentaire client Vine pour produit gratuit (De quoi s'agit-il?)
Anya von Bremzen wrote the best Russian cookbook I've ever encountered. Her "Please to the Table" is loaded with easy to follow recipes, literary references and information about Russian history and Russian life. She's taken that one step further with this memoir. The result is a book that's informative and fun to read.

Von Bremzen grew up during the coldest days of the Cold War, when the Cuban Missile Crisis had us in a nuclear p-ing contest with Nikita Krushchev, Russia's 'five year plans' were hopelessly mired in incompetence, the communist dream degenerated into a morass of black market dealings and Animal Farm corruption. Home for the author was a damp and crumbling Soviet-era apartment building, shoddily built and smelling of mold and wet cement, with a communal kitchen where she and her mother cooked up whatever was available at the state-run shops...which wasn't much. In that environment, Von Bremzen develops a love of food and a love of the process.

Anya's mother, Larisa, is a gifted cook and does her best to transform the gray and lifeless soviet-era basics. Her real gift for cooking is displayed only on those rare occasions when she makes a lucky score at the shops or the black market and rounds up the necessary ingredients for a traditional dish. These occasional feasts stand out like icebergs in the drab daily fare. Like all Russians, she knows how to shop the black market, how to finagle and finesse. But it's a hard way to live, and the shortages and second-rate lifestyle weigh heavily on mother and daughter.

Daily life was a slog. Buying a pair of shoes was a week's worth of effort. Grocery shopping could be almost Kafka-esque in its labyrinthian complexity and frustration. You had to wait on line for hours for sausage that might prove rotten or might no longer be available by the time you get to the counter. Having secured whatever grim products you could, you rushed home to do your prep work in a kitchen where the appliance don't work and no one repairs them. You do your cooking and perparing while the seventeen other families who share the kitchen argue and harass and hurry you.

When the opportunity to emigrate presents itself, Larisa and her ten year old daughter waste no time deciding to take their chances in America. They leave, almost literally, with nothing but the shirts on their backs and a complete ignorance of what life is really like in the Land of the Free. Her experiences are touching and amusing. Anya manages to bring something new and interesting to the familiar tale of the Fish out of Water. But the best is yet to come.

Like Proust, Anya is transported back in time when she tastes the food of her childhood. She and her mother don't want to lose their cultural or culinary roots and decide to write the history of Russia...in food. They take us on an Odyssey that includes Chekhovian feasts and make-do glories of the shortage-plagued contemporary Soviety scene. Interwoven through this odyssey is a family history that includes romance, intrigue, and a little window into recent Russian history through the eyes of the average nobody.

A lovely book, beautifully written, chock full of interesting tidbits, culinary and historical. Five stars for this and another five stars for "Please to the Table." If you love food and enjoy history, you'll want to read both.
6 internautes sur 7 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
4.0 étoiles sur 5 Intriguing And Fascinating 23 septembre 2013
Par Wilhelmina Zeitgeist - Publié sur Amazon.com
Format:Relié|Commentaire client Vine pour produit gratuit (De quoi s'agit-il?)
"Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking: A Memoir of Food and Longing" by Anya Von Bremzen is an eye opening view of life inside the USSR before and during the Cold War. The world of the Soviets was always a closed door to me growing up. Nothing to see there, keep moving. All I knew of the Soviets was they wanted to bomb us before we bombed them and had spies foiling the antics of Rocky and Bullwinkle. Soviet life was portrayed to me as unhappy, dismal, and dreary. There must have been 15 families living in a studio apartment from what they told me about the Soviet citizen's daily life and they are grateful if they get a bowl of Borscht once a day after standing in line for 10 hours waiting for bread then finding it was actually a line for toilet paper. Not that it mattered because they always ran out of whatever it was.

While much of the truth may not be much rosier, from Anya's tale of 3 generations of her family inside the USSR to a new life in the United State I was able to see the truth about life behind the Iron Curtain. To make sense of what it actually was like to live there and then to immigrate to the United States was totally new information for me.

Anya's writing style flows easily and is brilliant. The mix of food, memories, and history was superbly well done. No, it is not a cookbook. Although there are a few recipes in the back of the book I am tempted to make. Memoirs like this make world history much more interesting. My curiosity about the USSR as well as modern Russia has been stirred so I'll be looking into those topics further.
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