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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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ALL ABOUT TOWN

Wednesday, Sept. 3


Although the Peter and Paul Fortress sand sculptures are more central and therefore more visible to the throngs of tourists, the 300th Anniversary Park of St. Petersburgs own collection closes today. The World Collection of Sand Sculptures that have been on display at the park reaches its final day, so fans of the classic beach activity should get there while they can.



Thursday, Sept. 4


Vladimir I. Danchenkov, Head of Baltic Customs, will be in attendance during AmChams Customs and Transportation Committee Meeting convening this afternoon at the organizations office near St. Isaacs Square at 3 p.m.



Friday, Sept. 5


Scrabble lovers and chess masters get their chance to assert their intellectual dominance at the return of the British Book Centers Board Game Evenings tonight. Held weekly on Friday nights, the event gives both board game lovers and those hoping to improve their English the chance to meet, greet and compete. Check out the centers VK page for more details.



Saturday, Sept. 6


Athletes will relish the chance to get the latest gear and try out something new at I Choose Sport, an annual event at Lenexpo forum that plans to welcome more than 30,000 people this week to the international exhibition center. Not only will visitors get to try their hand at various athletic endeavors but they will also be able to peruse equipment that can fulfill their dreams of becoming a champion.


Local KHL team SKA St. Petersburg open their season this evening at home against Lokomotiv Yarovslavl at the Ice Palace arena next to the Prospekt Bolshevikov metro station. See their website for a full schedule and available tickets.



Sunday, Sept. 7


Check out retro and antique cars at Fort Konstantin on Kronstadt Island in the Gulf of Finland at FORTuna, a yearly car festival that highlights the eccentricities of the Soviet automobile industry. A car race, contests and a stunt show will give visitors a chance to rev their engines.



Monday, Sept. 8


This evening marks the opening of the two-week ballet festival High Season at the Mikhailovsky Theater. Check the theaters website for more details about performances and featured dancers.



Tuesday, Sept. 9


Discuss the latest news and issues at the AmCham Hazardous Waste Management Roundtable this morning in the Tango Conference Hall of the Sokos Hotel Palace Bridge on Birzhevoy Pereulok. Starting at 9 a.m., planned topics include the Krasny Bor landfill and waste transportation between Russia and Finland.


Learn more about the citys modern architectural trends at the SPIBA Real Estate and Construction Committees meeting on the topic Contemporary Petersburg Style: What is It? Participants will get the chance to discuss whats in-demand with RBI Holdings Irina Petrova and Lubava Pryanikova, and the current state of the local real estate market. Please confirm your attendance by Sept. 5 through SPIBAs website if you wish to attend.



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