Sunday, January 04, 2015

"The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine"

As the Soviet Socialist Empire disintegrated, large numbers of Jewish refugees fled from their impoverished, discriminatory, and increasingly erratic life there, often taking young and impressive children with them. Now we know that among these children were a large number of gifted writers. These Russian emigrants, as I've noted before, offer us a variety of insights into how they adjusted (or didn't adjust) to their new schools, environments, material possessions, and to the problems of assimilation that their parents faced.

Rosa, the narrator of Alina Bronsky's novel The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine is for me one of the least sympathetic characters of this newish literary school (if you can call it that). Bronsky's family left Russia for Germany, unlike most of the other immigrant writers I've read -- who live in New York, mainly. I don't know if this difference has anything to do with the unlikeableness of this character.

In the novel, Rosa's daughter Sulfia, Sulfia's daughter Aminat, her husband (who leaves her and she scarcely cares), and several lovers and other contacts all are seen through her self-absorbed, self-serving, and sometimes cruel eyes, and as a result it's also hard to be very sympathetic to them or to her. At least that's how I reacted. Rosa was raised in an orphanage where she learned Russian and forgot the tartar language, culture, and cooking of her vaguely remembered parents.

Most of the novel takes place in Russia, where food is scarce -- food scarcity is always an issue whenever you hear about life in Soviet times, of course. Rosa had a garden outside the city, and also, in her second bedroom, raised some sort of fungus that could substitute for tea. She stood in line to get oranges and other healthy food for her granddaughter. She used chocolate (sometimes stale) to bribe teachers and others. Sulfia, a nurse in a clinic, had big stashes of chocolate that she apparently received as bribes herself. And Rosa summarized their eating this way:
"We'd all had the same recipes here for a long time: noodles with butter, sausage with boiled potatoes, oatmeal with old marmelade, tea with rock-hard cookies. Those were the only foodstuffs you could get hold of without connections." (p. 138) 
Unlike most of the novels by Russian Jews, most of the characters in this one aren't Jewish at all; however, the second of Sulfia's three husbands is Jewish and Rosa tries to cook Jewish food for his family (he's a mama's boy).
"I decided to make gefilte fish and vorschmack, and for dessert tzimmes. I'd be making all of these things for the first time in my life, which excited me. The vorschmack turned out to be the same as an appetizer I'd made every New Year's Eve for years. I put chunks of brined herring, moistened white bread, onion, and a large apple through a meat grinder and grated hard-boiled egg yolks with vinegar. The gefilte fish turned out to be a sort of cold fishcake that took hours of my time only to taste like nothing at all. I didn't think the effort was worth it." (p. 100)
Finally Sofia's third husband, a German visitor, took the family to Germany. His profession: food writer! He's writing about Tartar cuisine, but despite her efforts, Rosa has nothing to contribute to him -- her family recipes were all forgotten, though she tries to convince him that she has secret expert knowledge. After he dies she reads through his draft of a book on Tartar cuisine and learns about her own heritage, which she had lost in the orphanage. In his notes she reads
"Pechleve -- a layered dessert... Kystybyi, also called kuzimak, is a sort of pierogi made of unleavened dough... Katyk denotes curdled milk that the Tartars heat for a long time in a clay pot. It is sometimes finished with the addition of cherries or red beets... For the filling of gubadia, a baked layered pie made for festive occasions, they sometimes use qurut, a uniquely processed dried yoghurt." (p. 246)
And finally, Rosa found in his notes: "It is proving practically impossible to write a cookbook about Tartar cuisine." (p. 247) I felt as if she should have channeled Vonnegut: "And so it goes."

One of many year-end articles in Forward was "The Year of the Former Soviet Author," which briefly mentioned Alina Bronsky along with a list of other Russian emigrant writers. Several of these I've already read like Gary Shteyngart, Lara Vapnyar, Anya Ulinich, Boris Fishman. I think I'm hooked, as I added several other authors and more books by the ones I've read before to my list, including Bronsky (whom I don't really regret reading) and Olga Grjasnowa.

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