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


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.