Friday, December 5, 2014

Review of "Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking"

My introduction to Russian cooking was while studying the language at the Defense Language Institute, during the Cold War. My teachers were all expatriates, but their families had all left Russia at the time of the Revolution, and their culinary experiences were nothing like those of the people who lived during the Soviet era. But, like the Russians I met later in life, they were obsessed with food, especially just after the “Great Lent” which they, as Orthodox Christians, observed fully. (no meat, no eggs, no animal products)

Anya Von Bremzen grew up during the worst days of the Cold War, when the Cuban Missile Crisis was making us afraid of all thing Russian. Russia's 'five year plans' were a study in incompetence. The black market was the place to actually buy food almost from the beginning of the “communist dream”. Many of my Russian friends who lived in that time have the same obsessions with food, and are often amazed at American waste and how little we value what we have.

Although Anya's mother, Larisa, is a gifted cook and did her best to make the available food eatable, her flair for cooking is best displayed when she makes a lucky score at the shops or the black market and rounds up the necessary ingredients for a traditional dish. These occasional feasts stand obviously special memories in Anya’s life. Like all Russians, she knows how to shop the black market, how to finagle and finesse But it was no way to live.

When the opportunity to emigrate presents itself, Larisa and Anya (then 10 years old) wasted no time leaving. They leave, almost literally, with nothing but the shirts on their backs and a complete ignorance of what life is really like in the West. Her experiences are touching, sad, but amusing sometimes. Larisa’s guilt over what they find ends up with years of sending home money and gifts to those they left behind.

A lovely book, beautifully written, chock full of interesting tidbits, culinary and historical. However, there are only a few recipes. Buy this for the history, the story of a mother and daughter and their shared love of the best of their homeland.

I received a copy of this book from "Blogging for Books" in exchange for my honest review.