Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking: A Memoir of Food and Longing by Anya Von Bremzen
(Crown, 2013, 352 pages)
I was honestly shocked at how much I loved this book. I thought I was picking up a well-reviewed food memoir and what I got was still an amazing food memoir, but it was also an accessible crash course in the history of the USSR. I’m not the best with history and that is doubly true when you ask me anything about the history of the Soviet Union. I could tell you random names and a few words in Russian, but there would be no cohesion to anything that came out of my mouth. Anya Von Bremzen not only made the history of the USSR straight-forward and accessible to the layperson, she also made me want to learn more which might be the last thing I would have expected.
Von Bremzen’s memoir traces her family history from her great-grandparents to the present day. She explains what life was like under Lenin and Stalin and Brezhnev and Gorbachev and Yeltsin and Putin… Whew. Things have changed considerably and it can be seen through the lens of food and the mentality of those who were raised in the different periods covered. Each chapter focuses on a decade and we get a glimpse into what life was like in this vast empire whose people and landscapes and foods varied so considerably. Von Bremzen and her mother left the USSR for the United States when the author was a teenager and the two women have very different feelings about this decision once they arrive and get settled. The book ends with the women in present-day Russia as the author comes to terms with the fact that the Russia she is in now is worlds apart from the land she left (though there are still some remnants that linger…).
Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking was very well-written. There were parts where I laughed to myself and there were pages where I was constantly looking up people and places on my computer. While this wasn’t a quick-read for me I got a lot out of it and looked forward to each time I could pick it up. If you like memoirs, food, history and/or perhaps have a specific interest in the history of the USSR I think you’ll really enjoy this book.