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Hunger, Longing, Celebration: New Book Explores Soviet Relationship With Food

In Soviet times it was often people's imaginations, not actual ingredients, that made meals memorable. (file photo)
In Soviet times it was often people's imaginations, not actual ingredients, that made meals memorable. (file photo)
Asked to name a country defined by its love for food, one might think naturally of Italy or France.

But Anya von Bremzen, who was born in the Brezhnev-era Soviet Union, says her homeland was also passionate about food -- although in a completely different way.

"France and Italy have this hedonistic relationship with their identity through food. The relationship with Russians and their food is much more complicated, because so much of the time it was about not having something," she says. "And the fantasizing about having a full table, about being able to go to the store without a line, I really think shaped people's lives in a very dramatic way."

Food writer von Bremzen’s previous books include "Please to the Table," a collection of recipes from the countries of the former Soviet Union.

But her latest work, "Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking: A Memoir Of Food And Longing," is more than just a cookbook. Instead, it's a deeply personal account that braids von Bremzen's family history into the tumultuous decades of the Soviet century and its continually fraught relationship with food.

Deprivation, Imagination

Von Bremzen's family tree stretches far across the Soviet Union and the Soviet experience. It includes Odesa Jews who embraced Bolshevism after their first-born child was slaughtered in a pogrom, and a Central Asian feminist later imprisoned in a Siberian labor camp. Her grandfather, a secret intelligence worker, was among the elite who watched, horrified, as Josef Stalin ignored repeated warnings about the looming Nazi invasion in 1941.

With each family anecdote von Bremzen conjures up recollections of flavors and foods, from Uzbek "plov" and "gefilte" fish to the rare packets of chewing gum carried in from abroad.

Shortages, ration cards, and food lines played a role as well. So in many cases it is imagination and not actual ingredients that add up to von Bremzen's most memorable meals -- as when her mother, Larisa, transforms a bland, stagnation-era dinner of eggs and black bread simply by giving it an elegant French name.

For all its hardships, von Bremzen remembers her Soviet childhood fondly. After she and her mother emigrated to the United States in 1974 she says she was deeply homesick, even for the aspects of life -- like the endless food lines -- that had arguably driven them away.

"Standing in line was kind of a Soviet version of Facebook. It was a community. And people got into fights, and they swore, and they exchanged gossip. For a child, it was fascinating," von Bremzen says.

"And when my mom and I came to the United States, we moved to a suburban part of Philadelphia where there were no sidewalks. People didn't walk on the streets. And I think for a lot of immigrants that was really crushing: How come people don't walk on the streets?"

'Soviet' Flavors

Nor was von Bremzen impressed by the untrammeled access to food available in American supermarkets. Surrounded by choice and row after row of air-conditioned, over-lit shopping aisles, the young Anya lost her desire for food. After Soviet Russia, where a single orange could be cause for jubilation, von Bremzen said the abrupt introduction to American abundance left her with the feeling there was "nothing to celebrate."

Some of the best parts of "Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking" involve von Bremzen and her mother reclaiming that feeling of celebration by cooking a series of meals tied to each decade of the Soviet century.

Together, in their cramped New York apartments where they ended up settling, they make "kulebiaka," an elaborate fish-and-mushroom pie that represented the height of excess in the waning days of the tsarist empire.

For a 1930s meal, they serve "Stalinist-Baroque" crab salad and sweet Soviet champagne as their elderly emigre guests discussed life during the Great Terror. And to mark the demise of the Soviet Union they serve blini -- a staple of Russian commemorations and wakes -- served with butter, sour cream, caviar, and smoked fish.

But von Bremzen says their favorite joint meal may have come from the mayonnaise-laced cooking of her 1970s Moscow childhood.

"Once, for my birthday, we made a meal from the '70s, from the Brezhnev era. All of the real Soviet, kitschy dishes that everyone loves and remembers," she says.

"We made 'kholodets' -- meat in aspic; we made 'selyodka pod shuboi' -- herring under [a] 'fur coat,' a kind of beet salad. We made meatballs with 'podliva' -- you know, that horrible gravy that got poured over everything.

"I tried to make the flavors as Soviet as possible. And we invited a bunch of friends, we played '70s music, and everyone had such an amazingly good time."

Changing Tastes

Von Bremzen now regularly returns to Russia, where she and her mother have even appeared on television cooking shows with hosts like Viktor Belyayev, a former Kremlin chef.
Anya von Bremzen
Anya von Bremzen

She says the newfound wealth in cities like Moscow and St. Petersburg, with their opulent supermarkets and ubiquitous sushi restaurants has forever changed what she calls the "sacredness" of the Soviet food experience. "I think that was completely lost as soon as the supermarkets became full," she says, somewhat wistfully.

Still, the flavors of the past are still intensely nostalgic for many Russians who grew up in the Soviet era, says von Bremzen, who claims "piroshki" and Salad Olivier, or Russian potato salad, as her own comfort foods.

Even now she says she enjoys making the culinary staples of the Soviet kitchen, especially for non-Russian friends who want to become acquainted with the flavors of her youth.

"I would probably make blini," she says, drawing up an imaginary menu. "I would make borscht -- but a borscht full of meat, I would probably put some smoked sausage in it. A lot of 'zakuski' -- little appetizers -- with vodka."

And dessert? Von Bremzen hesitates, then says she'd improvise, Soviet-style.

"My mom makes a lovely dessert she calls 'guest at the doorstep' apple charlotte, which you can whip up in minutes," she says. "It's essentially pancake batter, and you pour it over apples in a skillet and pop it in the oven, and it's just really delicious."

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