Cooking Through the Decades in the USSR
By Alyssa Pirrello
Living in a communal apartment where 18 different families shared one kitchen, Anya von Bremzen grew up during a difficult time in the USSR; even bread was considered a luxury. At age ten, Anya fled with her mother, Larisa, to Philadelphia and never looked back.
Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking tells the story of Anya and Larisa reconnecting with their past by cooking delicies from each decade in Soviet Russia. From the Kulebiaka, a pastry with fish, rice, and mushrooms, that Czars used to eat in 1910 to the traditional blini, Russian pancakes with trimmings, that the duo cooked to represent the 21st century, each recipe opened a window to a different part of Russia’s history.
Winning three James Beard awards, writing five acclaimed cookbooks, and being a contributing editor at Travel & Leisure Magazine, Anya von Bremzen is considered one of the most prominent food writers of her time. Anya has also written for Food & Wine, the New York Times, and the Los Angeles Times. Currently, Anya lives in Queens, New York, and she also has an apartment in Istanbul.
My First Supermarket Experience
Excerpt from her novel Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking:
My First Supermarket Experience was the anchoring narrative of the great Soviet epic of immigration to America. Some escapes from our socialist defisit society actually swooned to the floow (usually in the aisle with toilet paper).
Certain men knelt and wept at the sight of forty-two varieties of salami, while their wives- smelling the strawberries and discovering they lacked any fragrance- cried for opposite reasons. Other emigrants, possessed by the ur-Soviet hoarding instinct, frantically loaded up their shopping carts. Still others ran out empty-handed, choked and paralyzed by the multiplicity of choices.
The Jewish Family Services office where we collected our meager refugee stipend resounded with food stories. The stories constituted an archive of socialists’ misadventures with imperialist abundance. Monya and Raya complained about the flavor of American butter- after smearing floor wax on bread.
The Goldbergs loved the delicious lunch meat cans with cute pictures of kitties, not suspecting the kitties were the intended consumers. Vovchik, the Odessa lothario, slept with his first American shiksa and stormed out indignant when she offered him Triscuits. Desiccated cardboard squares! Why not a steaming plate of borscht?
Mom, who was smarter than Orpheus and never once looked back after heading up the ramp at Sheremteyevo Airport, roamed Pathmark’s acres with childlike glee. “She-ree-ohs.. Ri-she-rohonee… Vel. Vee. Tah…” She murmured these alien names as if they’d been concocted by Proust, lovingly prodding and handling all the foodstuffs in their bright packaging, their promiscuous, throwaway tara.
Meanwhile, I steered the supermarket cart behind her like a zombie. I hated the Pathmark of Northeast Philadelphia. It was a graveyard of my own zagranitsa dream, possessed of a fittingly funerary chill and an otherworldly fluorescence. Shuffling the aisles, I felt entombed in the abundance of food, now drained of its social power and magic.
Who really wanted the eleven-cent bag of bananas if you couldn’t parade it down Kalinin Prospect inside your transparent avoska after standing in a four-hour line, basking in envious stares? What happened when you replaced the heroic Soviet verb dostat’ (to obstain with difficulty) with the banal kupit’ (to buy), a term rarely used back in the USSR?
Shopping at Pathmark was acquisitioning robbed of thrills, drama, ritual. Where did blat come into play, with its savvy maneuvering of social ties, its camaraderie? Where was the envy and social prestige? The reassuring communal ochered’ smell of hangovers and armpits? Nobody and nothing smelled inside Pathmark.
A few weeks into our Philadelphia life, I began to suspect that all those cheery disposable boxes and plastic containers piled on Pathmark’s shelves were a decoy to conceal the dark truth. That American food- I hesitate to say it- wasn’t exactly delicious. Not the Pop Tarts that mom served cold and semi-raw because nobody told her about the toasting part. Not American soiski, hot dogs sour from nitrates. Definitely not the yellow-skinned thirty-nine cent chicken parts bandaged in plastic.
These made me pine for the bluish, Pravda-swaddled chicks Baballa brought back from her elite canteen at Gosstroy. Those had graphic claws, a poignant comb, sad eyes, and stray feathers Grandma burned off with her clunky cigarette lighter, filling the house with a smell like burnt hair. We enjoyed the chicks once a month, as a defisit treat.
Life in America: Not as Great as Expected
When our Jewish Family Services stipend ended, Mom worked cleaning Philadelphia houses, a job she pronounced “fascinating!” Then she landed work as a receptionist at a hospital, which required her to ride three separate buses. Her shift began at noon and brought her home past ten, when I was already in bed.
Tactfully, she spared me the details of standing in all weather at unshielded bus stops. I, in turn, never told her how I felt coming back to an empty, ugly apartment from the dreaded Louis H. Farrell Elementary School, with only our hand-me-down grainy black-and-white TV for company.
When Dinah Shore came on, I wanted to howl. She was the human equivalent of the peanut butter and jelly sandwich that came with my free refugee school lunch. All squishy, pseudofolksy whiteness, with an unnatural, cloying coupling of sugar and salt.
I spent most of my after school hours slumped on our shared matteess, nose in books from the two boxes of them Mom had slow-mailed from Moscow. The bottle-green Chekhov, the gray Dostoyevsky- breaking off from their color-coordinated collected works, I tried to practice Tchaikovsky’s The Seasons on the battered secondhand piano Mom had bought for me with a handout from Clara, her Ameircan aunt.
But the notes under my fingers produced only tears, the wrenching reminder of our old Arbat life. And so I paced in dazed agitation, from the bedroom, past the TV to the piano, to the kitchenette and back. And yet not even in my worst homesick moments could I admit to missing Rodina with any sincerity. Sincerity, it seemed, had been bled out of us by the cynical Brezhnevian seventies. Which added a layer of denial to homesickness.
Rodina-Urodina. A Motherland that rhymed with “ugly hag.” A scarlet-blazed myth that flipped into an ironic gag. Historically, the word- denoting one’s birthplace, from the root rod (origin/kin)- had been the intimate, maternal counterpart to otchizna (fatherland), that resoundingly heroic, martially tinted noun. The Bolsheviks banned Rodina, suspicious of its folkloric entwining with nationalism. Under Stalin it resurfaced in 1934, aligned now with official Soviet patriotism.
In World War II it was mobilized full force- feminized further- as Rodina-Mat, literally “motherland-mother,” to be defended to the last by its sons and daughters. Grassroots patriotism swept the nation. But by my childhood, like all “meaningful” words, Rodina had acquired a cartoonish bathos. Even if treason to the motherland was a criminal offense.
Come to think of it, there wasn’t a single word for the country we’d never see again that I could use with any authentic nostalgia.
Soviet Union? Pining for anything with “Soviet” in it was politically incorrect since the word evoked the lumbering carcass of the official regime. Rossiya (Russia)? That was too tained with the saccharine kitsch of state-certified nationalism: all those swaying birch trees and troika sleds. And so I resorted to sovok or sovdep- bitterly sarcastic slang for the land of the homo sovieticus.
Buy Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking on Amazon.
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