Anya von Bremzen
Crown Publishers, 2013
This book circled back to me because I gave it to my mother for Christmas. She traveled to the USSR in 1978 and she loves travel and cookbooks. It seemed like a slam dunk present and it was. So much so that she wanted to share it with me. She loved when von Bremzen wrote her family story that takes the reader from the 1910s to the 2000s.
Every chapter is a decade that combines history, family story, and of course reminiscences on food, or in this case, often the lack of it. Don’t expect a reference book anywhere near Julia Child’s iconic Mastering the Art of French Cooking. The title is misleading as an attempt to slide in under Child’s fame, which is too bad because it also is unnecessary.
The book has a merit of its own. It is a generational recap without the messiness of a soul emptying memoir that includes ample politics and history to give a clearer picture of history no one ever learned in high school. Simplistically, the U.S. has a history of only a few centuries that has been defined by westward expansion and the power of individualism. For thousands of years, Russian history has been defined by a long series of despot leaders who took advantage of an uneducated and hungry people.
Von Bremzen comes from a family that at times struggles to survive living in a state-
owned apartment the size of a trailer with several families though her grandfather is in the respected intelligence work during the Cold War. Mother Larisa came from a loving, relatively secure family, though not many American memoirists with the same description could tell of grandma’s walking trip to claim a philandering grandpa and inadvertently spend the night in a battle trench with frozen amputated arms and legs. Von Bremzen’s father grew up as much on the streets as he did in the apartment where his cheery, lovable prostitute mother lived.
Mom Larisa was the dreamer who as a child believed there was more and someday she would experience it. It took until 1974, when von Bremzen was a young teenager, but at last the two of them emigrated to the U.S. The memoir is sketchy at this point but there is good information about the shock of American food that is equally divided between awe and disgust. No longer in the country of potato peel pancakes and millet, she was appalled by bad bread and flavorless strawberries.
More than a book of food and history, this is a peek into Russian character. There is a wicked sense of humor and six interesting paradoxes of “mature socialism”. They start with “There’s no unemployment but no one works,” and ends with “No one is satisfied, but everyone votes yes.”
Don’t read this book for the recipes though there are a few tucked in the back as an afterthought. A few would be worth trying out of curiosity. The nostalgic childhood invitation to Russian food is as if I told you about a childhood 4th of July picnic. I’d love to be there enjoying it with you, but I don’t need to make it. Instead, enjoy the book as a brush-up on modern Russia, food history, and an emigrant’s life who made good.