Staff Picks: Books
Staff-recommended reading from the
Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking: a Memoir of Food and Longing
One of my absolute favorite cookbooks is the 1990 James Beard Award-winning Please to the Table: the Russian Cookbook by Moscow native Anya von Bremzen. The book allows me to recreate some of my delicious memories from the time I spent in Russia several years ago, with recipes for everything from adzhika to pirozhki to vareniki, originating from across the former Soviet Union. So naturally I was delighted to discover von Bremzen’s forthcoming memoir Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking, and I devoured it almost as quickly as a plate of blini.
Von Bremzen’s book is not simply about food—something that is so inextricably bound with culture, tradition, politics, economics, the environment. And it is not only personal memoir and family history, but a sweeping account examining the twilight years of the Russian Empire, the nearly 70 years of the Soviet Union’s existence, the Russian Federation’s bleak early days, as well as its more recent economic boom. Into this epic history, she weaves in details of her family’s experience. Like her paternal grandmother Alla, who was born in Central Asia, orphaned, and then raised by an early activist for women’s rights who was later exiled to Siberia. Alla moved to Moscow as a teenager, and brought Uzbek recipes with her. Von Bremzen’s mother’s bout with scarlet fever, suffered while subsisting on wartime rations, contrasts sharply with her first taste of Pepsi-Cola a decade later. And von Bremzen’s own experiences – rejecting on principle difficult-to-procure products like special candy from the Red October Chocolate Factory at her school for children of Communist Party elites, to her confusion over Pop Tarts as an immigrant in Philadelphia – are shared with earnestness.
Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking is a satisfying read, and especially suggested for readers of food memoirs like Gabrielle Hamilton’s candid Blood, Bones and Butter: the Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef, or Russian culture enthusiasts who enjoyed Elif Batuman’s The Possessed: Adventures With Russian Books and the People Who Read Them.
Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking