|I read the Kindle edition,|
so I never actually
saw this dust jacket.
Unlike childhood memories in the majority of food memoirs, the most vivid memories of this book were not of tastes that the writer experienced, but rather of dishes from literature and news reports that she and her family only imagined. If their pizza was a miserable piece of bread “smothered in ketchup and gratings of Sovetsky cheese” they imagined the original from their contraband copy of Family Circle. (p. 134)
One huge irony of life for all the decades of Soviet history was how the communist leaders were eating incredible luxury food while the poor starved. The disasters of harvests ruined by foolish policies and the war years were the extremes, but there are many other examples. Soviet candy, for example, came in two identically packaged versions made by the Red October Chocolate Factory. Candy that you bought (sometimes, if you waited in line) in ordinary stores was vastly inferior to the same brands sold in stores for communist nomenklatura. (p. 172)
Even the title "Mastering the Art..." of something that wasn't much of an art, but mainly the act of a desperate person, is ironic, riffing on the Julia Child title.
|Thinking of my own madeleines from|
Costco: not Anya's poisoned madeleines,
not the cliche of many other writers,
and also not quite like in France.
She also refers specifically to rather formula-driven Russian emigre memoirs: "My First Supermarket Experience was the anchoring narrative of the great Soviet epic of immigration to America. Some escapees from our socialist defitsit society actually swooned to the floor (usually in the aisle with toilet paper)." The author relates various amusing first-supermarket experiences of the Russians she knew, wrapping up. "Mom ... roamed Pathmark's acres with childlike glee. 'She-ree-ohs ... Ri-seh-rohnee ... Vel. Vee. Tah ... " She murmured these alien names as if they had been concocted by Proust, lovingly prodding and handling all the foodstuffs in their bright packaging, their promiscuous throwaway tara [i.e. packaging and receptacles, of which there had been a shortage in Russia]."(p. 199)
Her discussions of Soviet-era "Provansal" style mayonnaise and the jars (tara) that it came in are priceless: "If, as Dostoyevsky supposedly said, all Russian literature comes out of Gogol's story 'The Overcoat,' then what Gogol's garment was to nineteenth-century Russian culture, the Provansal mayonnaise jar was to the domestic practices of Mature Socialism." (p. 183)
Of course she also discusses that other cliche of Soviet mayonnaise memories: Salad Oliver, which can never be understood in America because it features not only mayo but also canned peas. "A precious heirloom of our non-idyllic socialist pasts, the Olivier recipe gets pulled out from the memory drawer to commemorate a particular moment in life." (p. 176)
|A still life by Casimir Malevich: Von Bremzen names|
him as one of the cultural contributors to Soviet Russian
life in the 1920s.
The author's cultural and social descriptions
add to the liveliness of the book.
Because her mother's family were Jewish and her father's family not, the book encompasses both Jewish and non-Jewish Russian experiences -- including some of course ironic (of course) remarks about gefilte fish. In this respect I can also relate the stories to those of several Russian emigre families I have known.
I learned an amazing amount of history from reading this book. Or maybe it would be more accurate to say that this book made somewhat familiar history come alive for me, by linking to the many personal stories of Anya Von Bremzen's family, her conflicted feeling about Soviet heros like Stalin and Lenin, and her adventures in returning to the disintegrating Soviet Union and its successors several times in the 80s, 90s, and 00s.
|Von Bremzen has had a long career writing cookbooks, magazine articles, and|
published recipes, such as this one from Food and Wine.
Her first cookbook, an enormous tome titled Please to the Table, appeared around 20 years ago.