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Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking...Review

About the book:
A celebrated food writer captures the flavors of the Soviet experience in a sweeping, tragicomic, multi-generational memoir that brilliantly illuminates the history and culture of a vanished empire.

Proust had his madeleine; Narnia's Edmund had his Turkish delight. Anya von Bremzen has vobla-rock-hard, salt-cured dried Caspian roach fish. Lovers of vobla risk breaking a tooth or puncturing a gum on the once-popular snack, but for Anya it's transporting. Like kotleti (Soviet burgers) or the festive Salat Olivier, it summons up the complex, bittersweet flavors of life in that vanished Atlantis called the USSR. There, born in 1963 in a Kafkaesque communal apartment where eighteen families shared one kitchen, Anya grew up singing odes to Lenin, black-marketeering Juicy Fruit gum at her school, and, like most Soviet citizens, longing for a taste of the mythical West. It was a life by turns absurd, drab, naively joyous, melancholy-and, finally, intolerable to her anti-Soviet mother. When she was ten, the two of them fled the political repression of Brezhnev-era Russia, arriving in Philadelphia with no winter coats and no right of return.

These days Anya lives in two parallel food universes: one in which she writes about four-star restaurants, the other in which a simple banana-a once a year treat back in the USSR-still holds an almost talismanic sway over her psyche. To make sense of that past, she and her mother decided to eat and cook their way through seven decades of the Soviet experience. Through the meals she and her mother re-create, Anya tells the story of three generations-her grandparents', her mother's, and her own. Her family's stories are embedded in a larger historical epic: of Lenin's bloody grain requisitioning, World War II hunger and survival, Stalin's table manners, Khrushchev's kitchen debates, Gorbachev's anti-alcohol policies, and the ultimate collapse of the USSR. And all of it is bound together by Anya's sardonic wit, passionate nostalgia, and piercing observations.

This is that rare book that stirs our souls and our senses.

I have always had a fascination with Russia.  The Russia I grew up with was Soviet, communist and forbidden.  The Cold War was in full swing and there was a mystique about the country that simply captivated me.  Glimpses of icons like St. Basil's Cathedral seemed so stark in contrast to what we viewed as the dreary, monotone gray of every day Soviet life.

In her memoir, food writer, Anya von Bremzen blends the politics of the time with her family experiences as she recounts her life in Soviet Russia before she and her mother immigrated to America.  As with many who emigrated from oppressed cultures, Anya's family stories aren't all happy. But, they are thought-provoking and honest.

I wasn't a big fan of her writing as it tried too hard to be literary and it wasn't a book that I could read quickly. I would have liked to see the recipes included in each chapter, rather than at the end of the book. Unfortunately, few sounded very appetizing, but I may still try one or two.

Memories and life experiences revolve around food and the enjoyment of it as well as the lack of it and Anya's story brings that concept to life.

Thanks to Amazon Vine for the opportunity to review this book.  You can learn more about Anya von Bremzen here.  You can purchase your own copy here.

Read 9/13

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  1. Sorry to see this didn't live up to its promise.

  2. I read this also but I liked it more than you did. It definitely was not what I was expecting though from the title!