Thursday, September 19, 2013

Read This, Eat That!

Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking: A Memoir of Food and LongingMastering the Art of Soviet Cooking: A Memoir of Food and Longing by Anya Von Bremzen
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

(I received a temporary e-copy of the book through the publisher and Netgalley. Netgalley reviewers are not paid.)

For any of the Boomer generation, or anyone interested in history, or anyone interested in a memoir in an ironically longing and nostalgic nicotine-boozy (New York! Russian!) tone--a must-read. It's the Cold War from the other side, fear and loathing in Moscow.

Von Bremzen, a James Beard award-winner for her first book, Please to the Table: a Russian Cookbook, and other food writing, takes us through Soviet history as she and her family experienced it. And I categorize the book as social history, more than memoir or food writing—it’s fascinating.

The author's maternal grandfather was a Navy Intelligence officer; her paternal grandmother, a tall, blonde, hard-drinking, chain-smoking scientist. Her dad worked in Lenin's Mausoleum, did drugs and was a playboy; her mother Larisa, an anti-Soviet, culture-loving idealist, named her after Anna Akhmatova and spirited her away to the United States in 1973, when she was eleven.

Now, in the 21st century, Anya and Larisa decide to cook their way through Soviet history, one representative meal for each decade, from the fall of the Czars to WWII and the USSR's beginnings, through the travesties and tragedies of Lenin, Stalin, Kruschev, Gorbachev and Brezhnev. In their two tiny New York kitchens, they cook these sumptuous feasts to commemorate the past. (There are recipes for a few of the dishes at the end of the book. Yum--mostly. I haven't met a gefilte fish I like yet, but maybe this is one.)

Food is the unifying theme throughout this history. Food is all about memory and desire. When it's scarce, you want it. When it's plentiful you want it. You can invest all your senses, your imagination, your soul in it. Our food is our homeland, and we try to take it with us wherever we go. Access to food delineates the wealthy and healthy from the sick and poor. Food is the sublime and the ridiculous; food is life.

Food was all about mayonnaise in the USSR in the 50s and 60s, too! It’s actually scary to see how mirror-like we were during the Cold War, the anything-you-can-do, I-can-do-better balancing act of the MAD (mutually assured destruction) years. Scary, too, to look back through the years and see what happens when the gap between haves and have-nots widens so far that society implodes and the carefully crafted veneers of unity crack and crumble to ruin, prejudice and hatred shining through. This is history.

You laugh, you cry, you drink, you sing--and you put on the table whatever you can, however beautifully you are able. For me, this book is more than a memoir of food. I can't remove myself from the history of this book--it's my own history, from the other side. My parents, too, saw the Kruschev-Nixon Kitchen debates. I started an international cooking club with my high-school friends--our first dinner, Russian--borscht and Beef Stroganoff. I lived and live with Cold War nuclear missiles next door.

The food writing is lovely, evocative--and despite its unifying factor, the tone of the book is at once detached and dramatic, reflective of the world we grew up in, poised on the edge of destiny and despair, ready to go either way--because the future is unsure. By all means, let us eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow--who knows?

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