Unlike what you might expect from the title, this book is more of a memoir and a history of the Soviet Union than a guide to cooking, but it is organized around the subject of getting and preparing food, which was a central concern in Soviet Russia. It takes its inspiration from Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, with his theme of the images and memories evoked by the taste and smell of food.
The author begins cleverly, paraphrasing the famous passage from Russian literature (Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina) with her assertion that “All happy food memories are alike; all unhappy food memories are unhappy after their own fashion.”
She has written some award-winning cookbooks, and so it is only natural that she uses food as a focal point. But she has a further rationale:
“For any ex-citizen of a three-hundred-million-strong Soviet superpower, food is never a mere individual matter. In 1917 bread riots sparked the overthrow of the czar, and seventy-four years later, catastrophic food shortages helped push Gorbachev’s floundering empire into the dustbin. In between, seven million people perished from hunger during Stalin’s collectivization; four million more starved to death during Hitler’s war.”
She observes that food and drinking and the rituals associated with them have been an abiding theme of Soviet political and cultural history. Food, she says, quoting one academic, “defined how Russians endured the present, imagined the future, and connected to their past.”
Her goal, she states, is to show the “epic disjunction,” the “unruly collision of collectivist myths and personal antimyths” that made up the Soviet Union, and she does a splendid job achieving this aim.
She personalizes the story by making it into a memoir of her own family’s experiences for the duration of the Soviet Union, starting with the 1910’s, and proceeding by decade increments to the present. This, to me, is the real value of the book, because there are plenty of Soviet histories around, but von Bremzen provides anecdotes about what it was really like for the non-elites who lived through those times. She talks about food a lot, and I admit, most of it is food I wouldn’t want to eat. But most of the time, ordinary citizens in the USSR didn’t have much choice, and the author tells us just how they managed to make do with what they could find.
They used as their bible The Book of Tasty and Healthy Food (or as she calls it “a totalitarian Joy of Cooking“). What is interesting about this book is that the content changed with each new regime. It was first published in 1939, and included didactic commentaries and ideological sermonizing as well as recipes, many of which involved food that none of the proletarian masses could hope to obtain. Von Bremzen writes:
“The wrenching discrepancy between the abundance on the pages and its absence in shops made [the book’s] myth of plenty especially poignant. Long-suffering Homo sovieticus gobbled down the deception; long-suffering H. sovieticus had after all been weaned on socialist realism, an artistic doctrine that insisted on depicting reality ‘in its revolutionary development’ – past and present swallowed up by a triumphant projection of a Radiant Future.”
This paragraph is an excellent summary of what von Bremzen makes her theme, and her goal, in highlighting the contradictions of life in the USSR.
At the end of the book, the author includes one recipe for each decade she covered. The recipes are preceded by very entertaining anecdotes.
Discussion: I love the understated cynicism and humorous sarcasm so common to many who survived the Soviet period, especially among the samizdat writers. If you have read other remembrances of that time, you will recognize this tone, so distinctive to those who daily lived and breathed the hypocrisy of their so-called socialist state. This passage, in which von Bremzen writes of Stalin’s involvement in food policy is a perfect example of her style:
“When [Stalin] wasn’t busy signing execution orders or censoring books or screening [the movie] Volga-Volga], the Standardbearer of Communism opined on fish (‘Why don’t we sell live fish like they did in the old days?’) or Soviet champagne.”
Similarly, her ironic names for the leaders of the USSR are endlessly entertaining as well as revealing, from one of many for Stalin, “The Best Friend of All Children” to “the fossilized lump of Brezhnev,” to Putin: “an obscure midget with a boring KGB past” who established a “petrodollar kleptocracy.”
Evaluation: Although this book wasn’t what I thought it would be, it was actually much better. If you are looking for more of a cookbook, there are certainly many that feature foods of the Russian continent. This book is much more than that, and yet, the subject of food is central to the story.
Published by Crown Publishers, an imprint of the Crown Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc., 2013