Although Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking is billed as a memoir, it is written with the help of the author’s mother and begins long before Von Bremzen was born, with the start of the Soviet Union. It is an unusual memoir, tracing as it does the history of the Soviet Union, decade by decade, through the meals cooked by one family.
In an entertainingly wry writing style, Von Bremzen relates the changes in Soviet approaches to government over time and the way these changes affected the populace. She begins by explaining how Lenin’s asceticism nearly eliminated Russian cuisine because of the idea that food was decadent (and hardly any food was available).
Von Bremzen ironically and knowingly traces the history of Soviet Russia through famine and glut, for each decade featuring a dish that seems to represent it (although one decade features ration cards). The recipes are at the end.
Von Bremzen relates her own mother’s history as the rebellious daughter of a prominent Soviet military officer, her mother totally rejecting the party line. Larisa was terrified throughout the Stalinist era and longed to leave the country. Anya, herself with a difficult start as a child not allowed to join the Young Pioneers or visit Lenin’s tomb (things she secretly yearned for), had finally found a comfortable place when her mother dragged her off to Philadelphia.
This amusing book is fascinating for people who are interested in Russia, which I have always been. Darkly funny are the countless contrasts between the official views of the country and Von Bremzen’s descriptions of the actual plight of the population. It is difficult to describe the divided viewpoint of the author, who obviously loves Russia and the 60’s vision of what it was, while at the same time being deeply skeptical of everything about it.
This book is unusual, intelligent, and well-written, about a woman’s attempts to reconcile her feelings about her country and upbringing.