Recalling a Childhood in the Soviet Union, Through a Series of Family Meals
“Nostalgia for an ideologically wretched regime is so incredibly complicated and fraught,” said Anya Von Bremzen, author of the new book Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking: A Memoir of Food and Longing. “How does one miss foods produced by the very party-state we had reviled and fled? The nostalgia is real, but so is the revulsion for the regime. The flavors are always tainted with nausea.”
In her book, Von Bremzen tells stories about such Soviet-era culinary creations as kotleti—the factory-made mystery-meat cutlets sometimes referred to as “Soviet hamburgers,” so heavily breaded that they “fried up to a fabulous greasy crunch”—and vobla, the salt-encrusted dried Caspian roach fish that was so hard you could break a tooth on it. Or the slimy okra that was imported from Bulgaria, or the beets to which a “greenish-white slime adhered.” Worst of all, she writes, was when the butcher shop was empty except for some unidentifiable flesh: “udder and whale meat,” Von Bremzen’s mother was informed—take it or leave it.
Through a kaleidoscopic mix of family life, politics, history, and jokes, Von Bremzen evokes in her book a whole Soviet-era world of deprivation and delight. At one point, for example, she recalls how her mother’s fierce opposition to the system made her gag on the black caviar she was fed at the elite kindergarten for Communist Party children.
“I call it the ‘poisoned madeleine’ issue,” she told me. “It was easy for Proust to wax lyrical about a teacake. His childhood was idealized, ours ideologized.”
Food is the main lens through which Von Bremzen organizes her memoir. Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking is structured around a series of meals created by the author and her mother in her Queens apartment. “I’ve tried to tell this as a social history of the whole Soviet experience, and an account of me and Mom cooking and eating and talking through the Soviet century,” she said as we settled down last month to a lavish feast prepared by her mother, Larisa Frumkin, in that same apartment. We were joined by Von Bremzen’s partner, the South African-born writer and actor Barry Yourgrau, and Anna Brodsky, who as a child lived in the same Moscow communal apartment where Von Bremzen grew up and is now a professor of Russian literature at Washington and Lee University.
Pouring vodka from a cut-glass decanter, Anya said, “There’s still a Cold War idea in America that we were numbed cogs in the infernal machine of an evil state. It was richer.” Spearing a piece of herring, she added: “It was sad, drab, absurd, yes, but also naively optimistic and intense. What I wanted was to convey this range of contradictory human emotions even in a dictatorship. ”
Frumkin’s lavish table was set with smoked sturgeon, chopped liver, black bread and homemade challah, wine and blackcurrant juice; borscht and much else would follow. It has always been hard to separate what the descendants of Eastern European Jews consider “Jewish food” and what is simply Russian.
It was through food, in fact, that Von Bremzen first encountered her Jewishness, in the shape of a very large gefilte fish in Odessa. On a trip to the city where her mother was born, Anya, aged 9, was sent to visit some distant relations. “I was instructed to sit and watch ‘true Jewish food’ being prepared,” Von Bremzen writes. In the kitchen were three large and noisy women—two named Tamara and one named Dora—with a couple of gold teeth here and there. “One Tamara fileted the fish; the other chopped the flesh with a flat-bladed knife, complaining about her withered arm. Dora grated onions, theatrically wiping away tears. Reduced to a coarse oily paste and blended with onions, carrots, and bread, the fish was stuffed back into the skin and sewn up with thick twine as red as the cook’s hair.” It was too much for little Anya: “Suffocating from fish fumes, August heat, and the onslaught of entreaties and questions, I mumbled some excuse and ran out, gasping for air.”
Afterward, Anya worried and wondered about her sense of alienation, the taste of the gefilte fish, her need to get away. “Then back in Moscow, it dawned on me,” she writes. “On that August day in Odessa, I had run away from my Jewishness.”
Growing up in the 1970s, Von Bremzen lived in a period that was ferociously anti-Semitic and anti-Zionist. At 16, as the child of mixed Jewish/Russian parentage, she was allowed to make a choice: What nationality would she put on her internal passport? To put “Russian” meant a better life, better schools, jobs, even housing. Writing “Jew” would be an act of moral courage. “Our emigration rescued me from the dilemma, but the unmade choice haunts me to this day,” said Von Bremzen. “What would I have done?”
For Frumkin, her mother, there is no question: She identifies as a Jew. It is who she is, who her parents were, as well as her grandparents, who watched their baby boy murdered in front of them in the 1905 pogroms. Frumkin’s parents were fierce young Soviets, children of the Revolution; her father was in Naval intelligence and interrogated Hermann Goering after WWII. The prospects for Soviet Jews looked pretty good in the beginning, when the early Soviets dismantled the Pale and banned anti-Semitism. Jews were to be treated simply as another nationality—like Kazakhs. You could even have a Seder, though, as Von Bremzen notes in her book: “The Soviet Haggadah substituted the words October Revolution for God.” But by the 1970s, the situation was much worse: A matzo ball could seem an act of sedition, and people carefully stashed matzos in secret places.
When the family left the USSR in 1974, Frumkin, who had remained fierce in her fury at the system, never looked back. For Von Bremzen, then just 11, there was plenty of nostalgia for a life that if tough, was her own: her crush on Yuri Gagarin, her black-market career at school, her wearing of the red Young Pioneer scarf. Suddenly she found herself adrift in Philadelphia on a sea of Oscar Mayer bologna, missing Moscow’s rye and sausages.
Von Bremzen hoarded her memories of Soviet food and the world it evoked for almost four decades before she settled down to write her book. Everything was a trigger: A Lebanese pickle could remind her of a Russian gherkin. A Salat Olivier (what we call Russian salad) could provide a gastronomic metaphor for Soviet émigrés’ legends “loosely cemented with mayo.”
Von Bremzen came to food-writing as a second career. On her way to a life as a concert pianist, a graduate of Juilliard, she found a lump on her wrist and could not play anymore. She would have to start over. For money, she was translating a cookbook and thought, “What if I myself wrote a cookbook?” She did, publishing a 1990 book about the cuisines of the multiethnic USSR in all its diversity called Please to the Table.
The timing was perfect. The Soviet Union fell. The foodie zeitgeist, as Von Bremzen puts it, was getting into high gear in America. She has written for Travel & Leisure, Food and Wine, The New Yorker, and others; For Please to the Table, her first Russian cookbook, she won a James Beard Award and then another for Fiesta! A Celebration of Latin Hospitality, her unique style always including culture, humor, and history, as well as the food itself.
“But I had this constant feeling of leading a double life,” she said, “for my American food-writing career, me eating foie gras or something, and feeling pangs of struggling back in Moscow.”
Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking brings the food-writing and the pangs of nostalgia together. “The title is deeply ironic,” said Von Bremzen. “In the USSR, it was often the absence of food and the struggle to get it that made eating so poignant and loaded.”