Thursday, November 17, 2016

"Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking"

Last night at my culinary reading group we discussed Anya von Bremzen's delightful book Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking. I originally read the book when it was new, and wrote a fairly complete review here: "Cuisine without Food." And an addendum here: "Cuisine without Food: Addendum" about the Soviet cookbook titled Book of Tasty and Healthy Food by Anastas Mikoyan.

Our leader Gene remarked that even
the dust jacket was exceptional!
That's a real Soviet tank, he said.
I loved the book. My friends in last night's discussion also loved it. Consensus is rare in this group, and as one of our members said, this book is well-written, has several great subjects including historic background, personal/family history, food, recipes, and humor. Since my previous reviews were pretty complete, I'm just going to add a few topics that were the subject of some of our discussions last night.

We enjoyed Von Bremzen's descriptions of how food became political, and how there was a pretense of having a variety available -- especially in the Book of Tasty and Healthy Food when actually there were shortages and famines.  We enjoyed reading about a number of dishes, such as the elaborate foods that she and her mother prepared to recall the czarist era, such as how they once in New York tasted coulibiac, the elaborate filled pastry, that was made with the original ingredient, sturgeon spine, found in Chinatown by a czarist-era emmigré --
"Dried sturgeon spine? Who were we kidding? Whether we liked it or not, we were Soviets, not Russians. In place of the sturgeon, defrosted cod would do just fine." (p. 25)
We especially savored the description of Russian salad, a.k.a. Salad Olivier, and its essential mayonnaise. All of us have eaten some version of Salad Olivier, made in many lands. Von Bremsen explains its history:
"The salad gained a second life in the mid-1930s when Olivier’s old apprentice, a chef known as Comrade Ivanov, revived it at the Stalin-era Moskva Hotel. Revived it in Soviet form. Chicken replaced the class-enemy grouse, proletarian carrots stood in for the original pink of the crayfish, and potatoes and canned peas took center stage— the whole drenched in our own tangy, mass-produced Provansal mayo. Meanwhile, variations of the salad traveled the world with White Russian émigrés." (p. 316)
We were amused at several words in Russian that can be expressed only by a longer phrase in English, for example, the word for "hangover breath"!
"I loved everything about shopping at Praga. Loved skipping over the surges of brown melted snow and sawdust that comrade janitors gleefully swept right over the customers’ feet. Loved inhaling the signature scent of stale pork fat, peregar (hangover breath), and the sickly sweet top notes of Red Moscow perfume." (p. 16)
About drunkenness and drink in the Soviet Union, which maybe made this word necessary, we remarked on the extreme destructiveness of alcohol, especially to men, reflected in the book. We compared it to social observations and political implications from a book we read about an earlier era, The King of Vodka: The Story of Pyotr Smirnov and the Upheaval of an Empire by Linda Himelstein. As in the czarist era, Von Bremzen points out that the government condoned and even encouraged drinking because it brought so much revenue to the state. She sets the bar high in her definition of alcoholism:
"Like all Russian families, mine has its own entanglements with the green serpent, though by the Russian definition of alcoholism— trembling hands, missed workdays, full-blown delirium, untimely death— only my uncle Sashka truly qualified." (p. 229-230)
In sum, it's a terrific book which we feel is one of the best we have read in the years we've been meeting. I've ordered Von Bremzen's earlier cookbook, which I plan to write about soon.


Beth F said...

This sounds like a winner. Amazing that everyone like it!

jama said...

Have heard many good things about this book. Enjoyed reading about the topics your book group discussed.

Katherine P said...

This book has been on my TBR for some time but I really must move it up the list after this review! It's definitely rare for a group of people to all love a book and the concept of this one sounds fascinating.

Tina said...

I never thought about food and politics entwining. I'm sure there were good discussions from this book and your group.

(Diane) bookchickdi said...

What a wonderful review! I have heard good things about this book and your review has convinced me to buy it.

Deb in Hawaii said...

We are reading this for Cook the Books (a virtual foodie book club I co-host), although not until June/July 2017. I am looking forward to it. ;-)

Vicki said...

I'm so glad to hear that everyone liked this book. I have only seen it mentioned for Cook The Books and I'm looking forward to reading it in June/July.