Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Review: Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking: A Memoir of Food and Longing by Anya von Bremzen

Title: Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking: A Memoir of Food and Longing
Author: Anya von Bremzen
Format: Hardcover
Publisher: Crown
Publish Date: September 17, 2013
Source: Library

What's the Story?:

From "Proust had his madeleine; Narnia's Edmund had his Turkish delight. Anya von Bremzen has vobla-rock-hard, salt-cured dried Caspian roach fish. Lovers of vobla risk breaking a tooth or puncturing a gum on the once-popular snack, but for Anya it's transporting. Like kotleti (Soviet burgers) or the festive Salat Olivier, it summons up the complex, bittersweet flavors of life in that vanished Atlantis called the USSR. There, born in 1963 in a Kafkaesque communal apartment where eighteen families shared one kitchen, Anya grew up singing odes to Lenin, black-marketeering Juicy Fruit gum at her school, and, like most Soviet citizens, longing for a taste of the mythical West. It was a life by turns absurd, drab, naively joyous, melancholy-and, finally, intolerable to her anti-Soviet mother. When she was ten, the two of them fled the political repression of Brezhnev-era Russia, arriving in Philadelphia with no winter coats and no right of return.

These days Anya lives in two parallel food universes: one in which she writes about four-star restaurants, the other in which a simple banana-a once a year treat back in the USSR-still holds an almost talismanic sway over her psyche. To make sense of that past, she and her mother decided to eat and cook their way through seven decades of the Soviet experience. Through the meals she and her mother re-create, Anya tells the story of three generations-her grandparents', her mother's, and her own. Her family's stories are embedded in a larger historical epic: of Lenin's bloody grain requisitioning, World War II hunger and survival, Stalin's table manners, Khrushchev's kitchen debates, Gorbachev's anti-alcohol policies, and the ultimate collapse of the USSR. And all of it is bound together by Anya's sardonic wit, passionate nostalgia, and piercing observations."

My Two Cents:

"Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking" is a memoir of family and food. The author grew up in the USSR and has many fond memories of the food there and of another time and place where a simple piece of fruit becomes a true treasure. Eventually she emigrates to the United States and what she has left of the Soviet Union is only in her and her family's minds.

In this book, she looks back on her and her family's history against the larger history of the Soviet Union and the foods that played a role during each decade. The book is broken down by decade, which I really liked. It was interesting to see the author's family's history (which I obviously did not know before reading this book) juxtaposed against the history of the country (which I do know). It made the pure history feel a little more intimate and personal. This was a new view of the history that I had not seen before.

The writing of the book was good. The author does a lot to show that although life was difficult under Soviet rule, there were still some small pleasures and ways to escape through a small bit of candy or a banana. It is easy to lose sight that between the big events of history, there are still bits of every-day life where people were simply living. This book would be a great pick for those that understand that sometimes its the food that makes a place.

1 comment:

  1. This sounds like a great book. I love books that break down big historical events into personal histories. I run a monthly link up for books about food too. If you'd like to link up this review, we have a monthly giveaway. Http://


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