Anya Von Bremzen’s bittersweet memoir of life and food in the Soviet Union, Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking
A James Beard Award-winning writer captures life under the Red socialist banner
Anya Von Bremzen
- Imprint: Crown
- On sale: September 13, 2013
- Price: $26.00
- Pages: 352
- ISBN: 9780307886811
“Celebrated food writer von Bremzen pulls back the curtain on Soviet life in this sweeping, multigenerational memoir.”
—Publishers Weekly, A Top Ten Memoir Pick for Fall
“ Unique and remarkable, this is a book you won’t forget.”
“The funniest and truest book I’ve read about Russia in years.”
“Provocative and delicious…”
“Poignant, vivid… hilarious”
—Francine Du Plessix Gray
“A monumental…book that reads like a great Russian novel”
“A lively, precisely detailed cultural chronicle.”
“I can taste the…melancholy, tragedy, and absurdity that went into every bit of pastry and borscht.”
“To invoke an entire culture and era through an intimate story about a salad or soup—that’s taking food writing to a whole different level.”
Part bittersweet family chronicle, part historical epic, part modern-day kitchen adventure, Anya von Bremzen’s MASTERING THE ART OF SOVIET COOKING: A Memoir of Food and Longing (Crown; September 17, 2013) is wholly original and startlingly beautiful. Novelistic in sweep yet intimately tuned, Anya’s story moves effortlessly from reveries about kotleti (Soviet burgers) to chilling scenes of arrests under Stalin; from heartbreaking ruminations on exile to small haunting images, such as the one of herself, “a nine-year-old fledgling black marketeer in a scratchy brown uniform,” charging her Soviet classmates five kopeks to touch a bottle of Coca-Cola.
Born in 1963, Anya grew up in Moscow, in a Kafkaesque communal apartment where eighteen families shared one kitchen. She spent her childhood singing odes to Lenin, watching her father brew moonshine, and, like most Soviet citizens, longing for a taste of the mythical West. It was a life by turns absurd, drab, naively joyous—and ultimately intolerable to her anti-Soviet mother. When she was ten, Anya and her mother fled the political repression of Brezhnev-era Russia, arriving in Philadelphia with only two tiny suitcases. Today Anya is an accomplished food writer, author of five acclaimed cookbooks and regular contributor to national magazines. And yet, she still inhabits two parallel food universes: one where four-star meals are routine, another where a taste of humble kolbasa transports her back to that “Scarlet Atlantis” known as the USSR. By turns wistful and unflinching, Anya tells the story of three Soviet generations and their complex relationship with totalitarian power—and food.
In MASTERING THE ART OF SOVIET COOKING we meet her grandfather Naum, a glamorous intelligence chief under Stalin; and her grandmother Liza, who made a perilous odyssey to icy, blockaded Leningrad to find Naum during World War II. We also meet Anya’s hard-drinking, cynical father, Sergei, who worked at the cadaver-filled lab attached to Lenin’s Mausoleum; and her beloved mother, Larisa, the romantic dreamer who grew up dreading the voices on the black public loudspeakers broadcasting the glories of the Five-Year Plan. This intimate family narrative unfolds against the panorama of Soviet history: Lenin’s bloody grain requisitioning, World War II hunger and survival, Stalin’s sadistic table manners, Khrushchev’s kitchen debates, Gorbachev’s disastrous anti-alcohol policies, and, ultimately, the collapse of the USSR.
What was it like to live in a country where every edible morsel had a political meaning? MASTERING THE ART OF SOVIET COOKING shows how food—not having it, longing for it, feasting it on it when you were lucky—was central to anyone who lived in the USSR. To explore that connection and make sense of their shared socialist past, Anya and her mother embark on a journey unlike any other: they decide to eat and cook their way through each decade of the Soviet experience, turning Larisa’s kitchen into “a time machine and an incubator of memories.”
Writing in an utterly distinctive voice that’s at once sardonic and poignant, Anya brilliantly captures the strange mix of idealism, terror, self-sacrifice, longing, and cynicism that defined life in the Soviet Union—and makes us reconsider the meaning and power of food in our own lives.
About the Author: Anya von Bremzen is the winner of three James Beard awards; a contributing editor at Travel + Leisure magazine; and the author of five acclaimed cookbooks, among them The New Spanish Table, The Greatest Dishes: Around the World in 80 Recipes, and Please to the Table: The Russian Cookbook (coauthored by John Welchman). She also contributes regularly to Food & Wine and Saveur and has written for The New Yorker, Departures, and the Los Angeles Times. She divides her time between New York City and Istanbul.