Travel + Leisure contributing editor and three-time James Beard Award–winning cookbook author von Bremzen’s (The New Spanish Table, 2005, etc.) nostalgia for a prickly Soviet childhood brings memories of food both delectable and biting.
Toska, “that peculiarly Russian ache of the soul,” periodically stalks the author and her mother, Larisa Frumkin, who emigrated together from the Soviet Union to Philadelphia in 1974, when the author was 10. Although daily existence back in the Soviet Union had been harsh—anti-Semitic harassment, little support from a philandering father, and rough living conditions, including a lack of privacy, food shortages and lines for basic items—mother and daughter have found in food and cooking a way to capture their essential “Soviet homeland,” even if it’s more the idea of it than the way it ever really was. The author and her fervently dissident mother have re-created, in their tiny kitchen, certain foods that seem emblematic of each decade of the Soviet saga, from the pre-revolution time through the Stalinist era, World War II deprivations, Cold War classics and the “mature Socialist” period of the author’s upbringing. For example, the impossibly decadent czarist fish pastry Kulebiaka delineated so seductively by Chekhov and Gogol marks the 1910s; Gefilte fish is the “poisoned Madeleine” of Larisa’s childhood in Odessa, encapsulating a time of anti-religious fervor and familial bitterness; a Georgian dish called Chanakhi celebrates Stalin’s death and the era touted for its “totalitarian joy”; the ersatz ingredients fondly remembered in the 1970s converge happily in the Salat Olivier, smothered with the ubiquitous Soviet mayonnaise Provansal. With anecdotes, history and recipes, the author delivers a lively, precisely detailed cultural chronicle.
With a wink and a grimace, von Bremzen vividly characterizes the “Homo sovieticus.”