Anya von Bremzen’s Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking: A Memoir of Food and Longing is one of the most unexpectedly pleasurable reads this year. Beyond the innately voyeuristic thrill of reading about the details of Soviet life, Mastering is funny, intimate, evocative and rueful. Von Bremzen, known for her cookbooks, has a fond bemusement for the little girl she used to be (the one who would make friends with the children of diplomats so she could pocket contraband like chewing gum and barter it off during school the next day). As a child in Moscow, Von Bremzen longed for food she couldn’t have, but when she and her mother emigrated to Philadelphia in 1974, another, stranger longing emerged: for the smells, food and people she had suddenly left, even if, in the USSR, she never thought she would miss them.
“A complicated, even tortured, relationship with food has long been a hallmark of our national character,” von Bremzen writes, but Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking is about much more than food. “Is it not a special privilege, really, to possess such a rich, weird past?” she asks in the book. I talked to von Bremzen recently about writing the memoir.
Did you share the manuscript with your mom before it went to your editor or how did you deal with writing intimately about close family members?
It’s more a book about her than it is a memoir, really. I would just sit her down and torture her and interrogate her like I was the KGB. ‘Do I have to come again today and talk to you?’ she would say. She has an amazing memory of her emotional life and she really remembers how she felt and she would open up memories. My mom read everything just to make sure it was accurate. ‘A phone call cost two kopeks in 1963, not 10 kopeks,’ for example. The book is being translated into Russian and my father is a darker figure in the book because he abandoned us. He was very funny about it: He and mom are now friends and he asked her, ‘Do I look pretty bad?’ ‘Yeah, you look pretty bad in it.’ ‘But do I come across as a strong literary character?’ ‘Yes, you come across as a strong character.’
One of the things I admire about the book is how specific the details are— you’ve written other books before this one but it felt to me like you might have been wanting to write this book for a while. Is that true?
Yes and no. It’s a troubled past, an epic history that I share with so many other Soviets and ex-Soviets. In a way, it was a book that was inevitable but I also kept putting it off. Everyone was saying, ‘Why don’t you write about Soviet life?’ And finally there came a moment when it had to come out. I felt like I was living a double life because here I was reviewing fancy restaurants, traveling around, and at the same time, this stuff was hovering over me unconsciously. With every meal, there was a shadow. I started researching it a bit and reading more and so by the time I sat down to write the proposal, I realized that I had the stuff in my mind. It was a long proposal, like 30 or 40 pages, that came out in 5 days, and it was sold in 2 days.
There’s a part of your book about Gogol, who had a particularly dramatic relationship to Russian food, but what are some of your other favorite passages about Russian food in Russian literature?
All the writers who had a special love for detail: Chekhov, Gogol, for example. Orgiastic descriptions of food are not innocent in Russian literature; there’s always a moral. They expose the corrupt people. It’s not simply naturalism—there’s a didactic streak there. Goncharov’s Oblomov is about food, food, food. Remember Oblomov’s dream where he’s reminiscing about food in his childhood at his estate. In the end, he dies of gluttony as well as laziness. All kinds of bad things happen to gluttons in Russian literature.
The book has only been out briefly but what kinds of responses are you getting? Have there been any Soviet emigres you’ve heard from, for example?
The intelligentsia have been extremely complimentary because they see their own lives in it. Some of the English reviews have been translated into Russian and are circulating on the Internet. People in Russia, they hate us, it’s astounding. One article about the book had 650 responses, saying things like “the Jews are conspiring against us.” I said to my mom, ‘You really don’t want to read this.’ It’s this attitude of, I know better. But we’ve had a ton of requests for Russian media; one of the biggest news agencies is coming to film with me. There’s a lot of nostalgia for the Soviet Union right now in Russia. I’m nervous about the Russian edition; I have to prepare myself!
You write that “a story about Soviet food is a chronicle of longing, of unrequited desire.” But there’s a lot of joy mixed in with the humiliation and cruelty of the Soviet state—do you still feel like your childhood was one of longing?
The whole point was to show the human side of existence in a totalitarian regime; there’s this perception that it turns you into robots. There was a great deal of intensity and longing and yearning. In fact, life is complicated but there was a huge deal of richness. The complicated layering is bittersweet; there were moments of triumph. Scoring a banana. I was overwhelmed and agog at this taste of something you think you might never have again. The intensity of having something—whether it’s food or a piece of clothing or seeing a foreign film—nothing can really match it.
Claiborne Smith is the features editor at Kirkus Reviews.