Saturday, September 28, 2013

Cuisine without Food

I read the Kindle edition,
so I never actually
saw this dust jacket.
In Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking: A Memoir of Food and Longing, Anya Von Bremzen compresses the last 100 years of Russian history into a few representative meals. Tales of eating are punctuated by descriptions of several eras of scarcity and outright famines.

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.
Cliches from food memoirs here take on new twists, made ironic by hunger and longing. Proust’s madeleine memory has been used so often that many writers' references to it hardly use the actual source. Von Bremzen doesn’t bother too much with the original – she calls her own preface “Poisoned Madeleines.” She uses this term to capture the “epic disjunction” and “unruly collision of collectivist myths and antimyths” of her Soviet childhood (from birth in 1963 to emigration in 1974) and the life of her mother who was born in 1934. Through irony the author consistently dodges any sort of self-pity or whining.

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.
Von Bremzen uses her own memories of food and events as well as her mother’s memories and political opinions along with impressive historical detail characterizing each decade of the past century starting in 1910. She uses the experiences of her relatives, such as her grandfather who was a spy during World War II and her father whose job for many years was as a member of a huge lab responsible for constantly restoring or re-embalming the corpse of Lenin.

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.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for this review. It helps me better appreciate the lives of my only first cousins (children of my father's only sister) who grew up in the Soviet Union 1930 onward. I met them first in the 1970's and heard a bit of their very hard times during WWII.
On account of their political activity, my father and his sister had to leave Germany in 1934; she to Moscow, he to New Haven CT. ( At first he was also headed to the USSR, but fortune smiled with an offer from Yale.) We came over in 1934 on the SS St Louis, a ship that in 1939 was the vessel of "The Voyage of the Damned" when Jewish refugees were turned away from Cuba, the US, and other countries.

Jeanie said...

This one sounds very interesting to me. I know little of the Soviet culture -- some of the old history and little of the new, except what we heard on the news. This one sounds pretty fascinating.

I've much to catch up and doubt I can do it all but will try!

Helen Faller said...

Greetings Mae (if I may)!

What an interesting blog. Evelyn pointed me to it when we were discussing Mastering the Art on Facebook. I enjoyed the book a lot too, mostly because of the familiarity of the history. I'm writing something on food in Central Asia now, dumpling recipes. Perhaps you'll do me the honor of reading it once it's published.

Fondly, Helen Faller