I really enjoyed the new book by food writer Anya von Bremzen, Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking: a Memoir of Food and Longing (Doubleday) – had to read it and hand the reading copy on to a colleague who was hanging out for it on the strength of reviews, but I know already I’ll read it again.
This is a poignant and fascinating – and funny – look at Russia’s turbulent twentieth century through the prism of food and cooking and how and what three generations of van Bremzen’s family ate. The great social experiment of communism meant kitchens often became communal – von Bremzen was born while her parent lived in a Moscow apartment where 18 families all shared the kitchen. Food, particularly the having or not having of it, embodied power, kindness, joy and desire, and also great pain and suffering. Von Bremzen writes movingly of the starvation experienced during the Siege of Leningrad, the lengths people went to to survive, and how that 900-day horror reverberated through people’s deepest feelings about food and hunger and satiety, a generation later. I was interested that some of the people von Bremzen speaks with have a certain nostalgia for the Stalin era, confused about quite what they think about Stalin, they know they loved the food from the time and so they have good memories of what appears to be, looking back, a terrible time.
Von Bremzen moved to the USA in 1974, when she was 10, at that time those who left were told they would never be allowed back to the USSR, although she has since returned several times to Russia. She still longs for the traditional dishes of her youth which still don’t taste quite right, even when made by the people who originally cooked them for her.
Her yearning for a time and place gone forever is palpable, if confusing: having grown up in a peaceful, wealthy, western country in the last quarter of the twentieth century, with no experience of food shortages, the magic of the dishes (and the queues) she describes at first escaped me – they are very much of their time and place and culture. And I guess that is why this is such a good book, because in the end you understand that all these things are meaningful, for her and millions of others, food (making, smelling, eating, thinking, talking and writing about it), can carry our hearts and memories.
It made me think about my two grandmothers, one, in Christchurch in the 1930s, sending the kids out to collect the (oh-so-gamey) dead swans abandoned by the recreational hunters – you could feed a family of seven for several nights off a swan – the other, in 1950s colonial Africa, mixing up malted sorghum into a stiff porridge that my mother still enjoys as a treat. The appeal of either escapes me but I have been thinking about the things I remember from my childhood that I suspect others might look askance at: spaghetti on toast (flour on flour?), Vegemite (a yeast extract like Marmite but better) on buttered toast, spoons of malt when Dad was homebrewing and a sip, ‘just to taste’, of the result – not that different after all from the stolid sounding pierogis with which van Bremzen conjures her and her family’s past.