Monday, October 5, 2015

Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking by: A Memoir of Food and Longing Anya Von Bremzen 2013

"This poignant memoir is an education in the richness of eastern European cuisine, and the story of Soviet communism, through the lens of family experience," in a review by Mina Holland in The Guardian 9/15/2013

Anya von Bremzen, a food and travel writer, has written an engaging memoir about life in the Soviet Union. She focuses on food and typical dishes to tell the story of her family and Soviet life in the context of Soviet history. At the end of the memoir she includes a sampling of recipes, including a Georgian recipe for gefilte fish. .

Always aware that she was Jewish on her mother’s side, she realized that because of Soviet political policy, being Jewish was considered an ethnicity and not a religion. She was certainly aware of anti-semitism, but she grew up knowing nothing about the Jewish religion and realizes she knows little about her family’s history. Born in 1963 and immersed in life in Moscow, she goes backward in time to fill in the past. Each chapter focuses on a decade, starting with the first decade of the twentieth century. She narrates a lively history, describing various leaders, their regimes, and their destructive, ego-building pet projects, many involving disastrous farming practices like collectivization and land distribution. The repercussions led to rationing and starvation which led to long lines, hoarding and the attendant corruption in the marketplace. The party insiders lived in better apartments and ate well; those who had money offered bribes and had connections (blat).

The author uses her family to illustrate the impact policy had on ordinary Soviet citizens. She lived in an apartment building – von Bremzen says there’s no word in Russian for privacy – sharing a communal kitchen and a bathroom with a host of others all crammed into apartments with very little living space.

In 1974, as Jewish Soviets they were allowed to emigrate. She and her mother first went to Philadelphia, then Queens, NY where they became part of the immigrant, expatriate community. Still Russian to the core, they adapted to America. She became a student at Juilliard and her mother started out cleaning house but moved on teaching English As A Second Languare. But she points out how quickly nostalgia for aspects of Russian life set in, especially after her first visits to American supermarkets where she felt the quality of the food far inferior to what she ate in the Soviet Union – when that food was available.

The interplay of history, food policy, recipes and convivial meals described through the prism of the author’s family’s experience makes for fascinating reading. It illuminates Soviet history in vital ways and also reveals what Soviet immigrants left behind and the lives they built in America.

To listen to or to read a National Public Radio piece on the plight of Soviet Jews click here.
To watch a video of Anya von Bremzen talking about her memoir click here.

Yankel and Maria Brokhvis
       Tamara Brokhvis – daughter of Yankel and Maria
    Dina – daughter of Tamara; married Arnold
  Senka – son of Dina
       Liza Brokhvis – daughter of Yankel and Maria; married Naum Solomonovich Frumkin
    Yulia Frumkin – daughter of Liza and Naum
     Larisa Frumkin – daughter of  Liza and Naum; married Sergei Von Bremzen
  Anya Von Bremzen – daughter of Larisa and Sergei; author
     Shashka Frumkin – son of Liza and Naum
  Dasha Frumkin – daughter of Shaska

Moldovanka section of Odessa
Arbat section of Moscow
Philadelphia, Pa
Jackson Heights, NY