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Memoir Reveals True Taste of Soviet Life

Published: January 21, 2014 (Issue # 1793)



  • Borscht is just one of the many popular Russian meals mentioned in the book with a special recipe provided at the end.
    Photo: Juerg Vollmer / Wikimedia Commons

  • Von Bremen's cookbook-memoir.
    Photo: Random House

Soviet cooking? The adjective "Soviet" frequently brings to mind food lines, food monotony, and food deprivation — but cooking does not readily come to mind.

Soviet homemakers who endured the lines, monotony, and deprivation did, of course, still want to cook, when and if they could. "Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking" recounts their efforts. It is not a cookbook, although it does contain a handful of recipes. Instead, it offers a multigenerational memoir in which the texture of daily life is rendered through memories of food present and food absent. The memories belong to the author, her mother, and her grandmother; the text thus spans virtually the entire Soviet era.

The book begins in the cramped Queens kitchen of the author's mother as they put the finishing touches on a pre-Soviet style feast. The menu is tzarist and opulent. There is, of course, the stereotypical caviar, as well as a cornucopia of home-cooked delights: kvass, lemon-infused vodka, crispy brains in brown butter, an opulent dessert containing a full pound of candied nuts and even — piece de resistance — a kulebiaka.

A Trip Down Soviet Culinary Lane

Just reading about making a kulebiaka made this cook tired. The dish requires a yeast-based pastry dough, wild mushrooms, fish, blinchiki, and perhaps — if you can get one — a sturgeon spine. It takes a long time — and endless pots — to make.

But by the time we get to the eating of the kulebiaka, we've detoured to its description in Tolstoy and Chekhov, relived the ersatz version that regularly constituted a Sunday treat in the author's Brezhnev-era Moscow childhood, and experienced the versions shared by White Russian emigres who befriended the author and her mother after their move to Philadelphia in 1974.

We have learned that the grandmother who is enthusiastically constructing pastry dough in Queens never baked from scratch during her Soviet years. And we know that her mother, an emancipated New Soviet woman, disdained any form of cookery: "Why should I bake," she said indignantly, "when I can be reading a book?"

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Tuesday, Sept. 30


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