Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking (Anglais) Broché – 3 juillet 2014
Descriptions du produit
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. --Ce texte fait référence à l'édition Relié .
Revue de presse
"Heartbreakingly poignant and laugh-out-loud funny. This is an important book, a must read!" (Heston Blumenthal)
"Vastly entertaining... A real treat." (Woman & Home)
"By turns funny, tragic and nostalgic, this is a wonderful, fascinating volume, which puts a human face on the grim pages of the history books" (The Lady)
"This poignant memoir is an education in the richness of eastern European cuisine, and the story of Soviet communism, through the lens of family experience." (Observer)
"wry, provocative, genre-busting..." (Wall Street Journal)
"Absorbing... a social history of the Soviet Union cast through the prism of food" (Jewish Chronicle)
"Rollicking and heartrending" (Time)
"You will read few better books about food, family, exile or the Soviet tragedy―and none, I'll bet, which combines all those themes this magically. Funny, angry, ingenious and moving." (AD Miller, author of 'Snowdrops')
"The culinary memoir has lately evolved into a genre of its own... 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...and intimate details. The descriptions of meals are delightful..." (New York Times)
"One-of-a-kind … 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)
"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 is a book you won't forget" (Ruth Reichl, author of Tender at the Bone)
"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. It is also an utterly magical journey into a rich, mysterious land of totalitarian tyranny, and a portrait of a courageous, passionate people." (Ferran Adria)
"von Bremzen has conjured up the Proustian aromas of her Soviet life for her enjoyable ‘foodoir’... perceptive and funny on the subtleties of life under Soviet rule and in exile." (Charlotte Hobson Spectator)
"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)
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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!
Importantly, with food and family as the centralizing thing, von Bremzen is able to sublimate abstract Soviet history and policy changes into narratives that are accessible and relatable to any reader. I recommend this book to history buffs, foodies and Russophiles alike, as you will not be disappointed by von Bremzen's incisive vignette into life behind the Iron Curtain
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.