With an ironic nod to Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking, food writer Anya von Bremzen and her mother set about recreating a series of meals emblematic of ten decades of Russian and Soviet cooking rather like Julia Powell’s tribute to her (almost) namesake in Julie and Julia.
Von Bremzen and her mother emigrated to the US in 1974, a move which her mother, born with a dissident’s heart as she often declares, had resisted for some time the final straw being a contemptuous offer by a surly butcher’s assistant of whale meat and udder all that’s left of the day’s meat supply. She and her mother had experienced both ends of the Soviet food spectrum. Von Bremzen’s maternal grandfather was a naval intelligence officer – that’s a spy to you and me – and her father was entrusted with maintaining Lenin’s embalmed corpse. Both positions ensured access to the goodies reserved for the Party elite but her mother and father’s on-again, off-again marriage meant a familiarity with the ubiquitous food queue with very little at the end of it.
The book is stuffed full of interesting snippets of Soviet history, some with a whiff of the apocryphal as von Bremzen admits, some not. I’d love to believe that the Russian Orthodox Church was founded to avoid Islamic strictures against alcohol but it seems a little too good to be true whereas a trip by Anastas Mikoyan, author of The Book of Tasty and Healthy Food, to the US where he became so intoxicated with American food production that he brought back the blueprint for a hamburger machine is easier to swallow. All this is viewed through the lens of von Bremzen’s family history. The final chapter of the book is made up of a set of recipes for the meals she and her mother recreated, from the decadently rich Kulebiaka, a many layered fish pie, of pre-Revolutionary Russia, to Salat Olivier, a 1970s favourite made from mayonnaise, hard-boiled eggs, potatoes, carrots and peas which we knew in the West as Russian Salad, to Chanakhi a Georgian lamb stew, reputedly Stalin’s favourite dish. There is no recipe for the 1940s just a reproduction of the kartochki, a poignant symbol of the hunger of those terrible years when so many Russians starved to death. It’s a fascinating book, clear-eyed but written with a degree of nostalgia spiced with a hefty helping of dry wit. In the end, it’s not so much about cooking as human endurance, family and the history of a state which spanned 11 time zones, encompassing an enormous diversity of ethnicities and beliefs. Von Bremzen succeeds in putting a human face on the impossible vastness of it all.
I’m off to sample the delights of Spanish cooking for a week, walking in the Alpujarras to work up an appetite.