Q&A with Anya von Bremzen, author of 'Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking', shortlisted for the 2014 Pushkin House russian book prize
Why did you start writing about cooking?
I was born in Russia in 1963, and emigrated to the US at the height of the Brezhnev stagnation in 1974. I trained as a pianist but had a hand injury and shifted into cookery writing by fluke. I translated a cookbook from Italian and thought maybe I should write my own one about Russian food, which was very much in vogue at the time, during glasnost. The idea was to write a book on the food of the 15 republics. It came out in 1990. It was ironic, just when the republics left the Soviet Union, and there was no food. A lavish 600 page on the culinary friendship of nations as the country was collapsing. But it did extremely well.
What inspired you to write Mastering The Art of Soviet Cooking?
I had become a food writer, producing articles for glossy magazines and winning awards for writing about fancy chefs. Meanwhile something was really eating at me about our past, and our relationship to our food – something darker, more existential, more powerful. I wanted to correct the record. Everything I did was coloured by the scarcity of those early Soviet years, the whole tragic values. It was almost a way of atoning.
How would you describe the book?
There are three different narratives. It’s a multi-generational family history, a social history of Soviet food and a cooking chronicle of me and my mother in Queens. We would invite old ladies around to her apartment and talk about Stalin. A lot of stuff was buried inside. I was surprised by the incredibly lively debates. Food is something very mundane that everyone remembers – the smells, the sensations. It’s the idea of the poisoned Madeleine, the cookie of your childhood that is not always an idealised past but very traumatic.
What is the underlying thesis?
I have tried to counter the image of the Great Terror in the Soviet Union with people just being cogs in the terrible machine of the state. I try to personalise their experiences and show how life was experienced in very strong colours with happiness as well as tragedy. There was an intimate, internal Soviet life around the kitchen table. Food was something that really connects and has immediacy.
Should Russian cuisine be considered great internationally?
Russian cuisine was really stopped in its tracks in 1917. Something else replaced it: Soviet cuisine. It was very politically tainted. Really authentic Soviet cuisine always involved feats of improvisation in relation to whatever new scarcity was underway. It was very heroic and I wanted to pay tribute to that. It was much more than a collection of dishes. It was a whole attitude, a way of conjuring up small miracles from a can of tomato paste. My mum still cooks like that today. She looks in fridge, which is empty, yet somehow always manages to cook a meal.
What is the most evocative Russian dish for you?
Salat Olivier, the potato and pickle salad. It has a festive aura. It is something that everyone ate at New Year with Brezhnev on the television. It’s a very happy dish and easy to prepare even if the ingredients were not always easy to find. It was created in the 1860s by the French chef Lucien Olivier in Moscow using crayfish, grouse and cornichons. In Soviet times, they substituted chicken, carrots and canned peas. People make it today still, now there is a whole nostalgia for everything Soviet.
What is the most symbolic contemporary Russian dish?
Sushi. Sometimes with mayonnaise. It’s become a national dish, advertised in the Moscow metro and in hand-outs on the street. It is part of the globalised aspirations of the nouveau riche.
What was the greatest surprise for you in researching the book?
I researched my own family and I was surprised how much things checked out. My grandfather was head of Baltic naval intelligence under Stalin. My great grandmother was a famous feminist in Central Asia, who worked to unveiling Muslim women. We knew about this, they talked about it, but my parents were very anti-Soviet. No-one took it seriously. It was like war chestnuts, an inter-generational thing. Suddenly just reading about it, I regained a lot of respect for the people who lived through the period.
Are you working on a new book?
I’m just starting to contemplate one on the kitchen as a cultural space. The shift from the inter-communal kitchen to the private kitchen under Khrushchev monumentally changed society. I realised the importance of that space. I love eat-in kitchens, but in New York and in Istanbul I have never eaten in them.
What is the connection between politics and food?
Food has become very much a divider. It used to unite, with so many multicultural influences. But it is symbolic of cultural wars, of complicated identities. It is never innocent. Think of borshch. They made 700,000 gallons of it during the Sochi Games – a Ukrainian dish while all these events were happening. And chebureki (fried meat pies), a Crimean Tatar dish that's become Moscow street food. Crimea is about a return to Soviet imperialism. As a Russian, one romanticises Crimea. There is so much cultural heritage, from the Crimean war to the bohemian intelligentsia. One feels proprietary and at the same time appalled by what is going there now. It’s all part of the poisoned Madeleine factor.
Anya von Bremzen is a food and travel writer