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Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking par [von Bremzen, Anya]
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Longueur : 354 pages Composition améliorée: Activé Page Flip: Activé
Langue : Anglais

Description du produit


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 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?”

“Me? Never!”

“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.

Revue de presse

"Moving and darkly comic" (Niki Segnit The Sunday Times)

"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)

Détails sur le produit

  • Format : Format Kindle
  • Taille du fichier : 3443 KB
  • Nombre de pages de l'édition imprimée : 354 pages
  • Editeur : Transworld Digital (12 septembre 2013)
  • Vendu par : Amazon Media EU S.à r.l.
  • Langue : Anglais
  • ISBN-10: 0552777471
  • ISBN-13: 978-0552777476
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7 internautes sur 7 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
5.0 étoiles sur 5 one should refer to Anya's other excellent work, "Please to the Table 13 juin 2016
Par Douglas Reynolds - Publié sur
Format: Broché Achat vérifié
Anya Bremzen's book on Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking should not be confused with a typical cookbook on Russian cuisine. For a very thorough treatise on Russian and general Slavic recipes, one should refer to Anya's other excellent work, "Please to the Table." There you will find an immense list of fabulous cooking ideas. But if you are like me, someone who is mystically drawn to all things Russian especially as it relates to everyday life for those who lived through Russia's darkest days then you will find this book very stimulating.
Anya speaks partly from her own experience but draws heavily on her mother's. Going back to what life was actually like trying to provide for her family under indescribable hardships. Food is a common denominator between all of us and it is through this that we are made to see a life like we would not want to live.
Anya is an extremely gifted writer and can clearly articulate her mind in a fashion that paints a clear and riveting picture for the reader. In addition, she contributes facts about life during this period that is extremely interesting to say the least. If you are a person who is drawn to learning more about life as it was under Lenin and Stalin then this book will feed your mind. This book will appeal to those who enjoy the fascinating depth of real cooking and how it can be so involving coupled with a way of life so foreign to us who have never experienced it. Do yourself a favor and purchase this book.
1 internautes sur 1 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
5.0 étoiles sur 5 Amazing! 27 mars 2017
Par joe - Publié sur
Format: Broché Achat vérifié
This book is a treasure-I cannot even put it into words-it is first and foremost a personal memoir of what basic eating and survival looked like in the USSR, but it weaves in so much history and how the political changes molded the country's food culture as well. If you have seen stock photos of Soviet Union food ration lines, and wanted more of the story, pick it up. Through the lens of food, you get a history lesson that school text books do not offer. Von Bremzen's raw honesty, sometimes embarrassingly so, is endearing; although she is highly critical of the many leadership mishaps and horrors committed by the leaders of the USSR, she seems to genuinely miss at least parts of it in all its former glory. It is hard for me to understand, as I cannot separate out the good from the bad, but the way she shares her story, you can see how she could have such a nuanced point of view. This was her home. Her childhood. Her mother is the heroine of the book-sensible and strong, the life she led, the sacrifices she made, it's heartbreaking yet still a story of redemptive love and perseverance. And you will never look at your stocked pantry and and grocery shelves the same.
2 internautes sur 2 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
5.0 étoiles sur 5 Give yourself a little time to "get into" this book ... 13 janvier 2017
Par Diane - Publié sur
Format: Format Kindle Achat vérifié
Give yourself a little time to "get into" this book. It starts slowly, but gradually becomes a can't-put-it-down memoir. There is just enough food in the book to give it a focal point, but really in the larger sense this story is about a mother and daughter navigating the latter end of the 20th century as newcomers to America, and what you bring from your home country that matters, and what does not. Food as part of a culture does matter, and it serves as a way to bind this family together, even across thousands of miles.
1 internautes sur 1 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
4.0 étoiles sur 5 A Memoir and History that Deserves Patience 9 février 2017
Par Serena - Publié sur
Format: Format Kindle Achat vérifié
I had a hard time reading this at first and almost gave up which is something I rarely do. I was not expecting a short history of Russia and food since 1900. It was drudgery. However, when I realized that somehow I completely missed Russian history during my school years I decided that it wouldn't hurt to learn a bit and changed my attitude.

There are many very interesting family members. Some, not so nice, and others delightful--especially Anya's mother. And I loved that some of the food that Ms. Von Bremzen thought was strictly Russian was based on food from the U.S. How Russia got those food ideas during the time of Stalin was fascinating.

This is not an easy book to read, but once I was able to "tune" my brain to it I found it remarkable.
3 internautes sur 3 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
5.0 étoiles sur 5 As Tasty As Home Made Kotletii 24 juillet 2014
Par Greg Polansky - Publié sur
Format: Format Kindle Achat vérifié
In this loving and poignant memoir, von Bremzen uses food as a lens to focus in on and explore late Russian Imperial, Soviet, and post-Soviet history. And what a story it is. Being Russian-American myself I was seduced by the charm of this book. My own parents defected in the same period that von-Bremzen and her mother left and I grew up on much of the same food because I grew up near the Russian-Ukrainian enclave of Brighton Beach in NYC. So this particular book was like a fun house mirror - not quite the same as my own experiences, but close enough to act as a madeleine. And I can truly say that this book speaks from authentic experiences that will fill you with joy even if you are not Russian or Russian-American. It's an extremely well-written history.

The book is divided into decades chronicling roughly 100 years of Russian and Imperial Soviet history. In each decade we explore von-Bremzen's family - from her great grandparents to herself and also in each decade we have a particular food experience. If you are looking for recipes, then you will get them - at the back of the book with extra information about the author's experiences with the food. If you are looking for history, you will get it. It's much more personal history and that makes it much more rewarding to read. After reading this you will understand more about the centrality of food to the Russian experience.

Now I really to want to go and make some Salat Olivier (Russian potato salad) and Kotleti (bunless hamburgers!).
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