Doubleday £16.99

Review: Mastering The Art of Soviet Cooking, By Anya von Bremzen

5.00

 

Billed as “The Hare With the Amber Eyes meets Julie and Julia”, Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking is part memoir and part history – following the Russian kitchen from the turn of the 20th century through to the present. Von Bremzen herself moved to the USA at the age of 10, and much of the book is recounted from a distance, both of geography and of time.

As with so many food memoirs, it places the family at its heart – in von Bremzen’s case, a family fractured and torn by successive Soviet governments. Never were food and politics more closely entwined. A 1950s edition of the state-sponsored The Book of Tasty and Healthy Food proclaimed: “Capitalist states condemn working citizens to constant under-eating … and often to hungry death,” yet its readers were tormented by the disparity between the culinary abundance on its pages, and the barren shops.

When von Bremzen’s mother finally made it to the top of those famous food queues, she found that “a greenish-white slime adhered to the beets”. In another passage the author describes, with a child’s fascination, the various ways in which goulash meat might fall short, “the blueish spots on beef that had sat around for too long acquired a metallic glow; if the light hit them right you could see an actual rainbow.”

This is one of the few books in its genre that probably ought to be kept well away from the dinner table.

Tellingly, von Bremzen’s descriptions of her homeland are at their most effusive once she is in the USA, nostalgia providing the seasoning that the grocers lacked. It is only in a snowless Philadelphia that von Bremzen remembers her mother’s bag bulging with sharply fragrant clementines; earlier, the culinary descriptions tend towards bread that was “coarse and damp”, and to ‘“the primal shock of gefilte fish”.

Even when von Bremzen remembers a particular food she loves, it is sometimes hard for the Westernised reader to empathise; I remain untempted by the recipe for her beloved salat Olivier, a concoction of diced potatoes, boiled eggs, and pickles, doused in tangy mayonnaise. But I might just seek out some volba, a dried, salted Caspian roach fish which needs to be whacked against the table, and may result in tooth loss.

It is often the smallest incidents that illuminate this vast and troubled history: Von Bremzen’s mother, trying to protect her family’s secrets by eating their papers, torn into confetti and soaked in milk, or von Bremzen’s father, whose job it was to monitor the changes in hue of the embalmed Lenin’s skin, and who often came home reeking of mausoleum spirits, not from his hands but on his breath.

In one especially memorable passage, the writer recalls being force-fed caviar, her kindergarten teacher imploring: “Open wide … a spoonful for Lenin,” while she gagged, and her less-fortunate contemporaries fell ill from tainted borscht.

Yet, despite many such moments, the narrative somehow fails to grip. The publisher’s comparison only serves to show what Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking is not – von Bremzen lacks de Waal’s lightness of touch; his prose is crystalline, hers has a tendency towards the claggy.

But, like the cuisine it so painstakingly documents, there is much in this book to enjoy, even if, at times, it is somewhat hard to digest.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Save the Tiger: Meet the hunters tasked with protecting Russia's rare Amur tiger

    Hunters protect Russia's rare Amur tiger

    In an unusual move, wildlife charities have enlisted those who kill animals to help save them. Oliver Poole travels to Siberia to investigate
    Transfers: How has your club fared in summer sales?

    How has your club fared in summer sales?

    Who have bagged the bargain buys and who have landed the giant turkeys
    Warwick Davis: The British actor on Ricky Gervais, how the Harry Potter set became his office, and why he'd like to play a spy

    'I'm a realist; I know how hard this business is'

    Warwick Davis on Ricky Gervais, Harry Potter and his perfect role
    The best swim shorts for men: Bag yourself the perfect pair and make a splash this summer

    The best swim shorts for men

    Bag yourself the perfect pair and make a splash this summer
    Has Ukip’s Glastonbury branch really been possessed by the devil?

    Has Ukip’s Glastonbury branch really been possessed by the devil?

    Meet the couple blamed for bringing Lucifer into local politics
    Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

    Robert Fisk on Gaza conflict

    Dress the situation up all you like, but the truth hurts
    Save the tiger: Tiger, tiger burning less brightly as numbers plummet

    Tiger, tiger burning less brightly

    When William Blake wrote his famous poem there were probably more than 100,000 tigers in the wild. These days they probably number around 3,200
    5 News's Andy Bell retraces his grandfather's steps on the First World War battlefields

    In grandfather's footsteps

    5 News's political editor Andy Bell only knows his grandfather from the compelling diary he kept during WWI. But when he returned to the killing fields where Edwin Vaughan suffered so much, his ancestor came to life
    Lifestyle guru Martha Stewart reveals she has flying robot ... to take photos of her farm

    Martha Stewart has flying robot

    The lifestyle guru used the drone to get a bird's eye view her 153-acre farm in Bedford, New York
    Former Labour minister Meg Hillier has demanded 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists

    Do women cyclists need 'pootling lanes'?

    Simon Usborne (who's more of a hurtler) explains why winning the space race is key to happy riding
    A tale of two presidents: George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story

    A tale of two presidents

    George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story
    Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover

    The dining car makes a comeback

    Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover
    Gallery rage: How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?

    Gallery rage

    How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?
    Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players

    Eye on the prize

    Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players
    Women's rugby: Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup

    Women's rugby

    Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup