You'd think a book titled Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking would be about, well, Soviet food and how to make it but you'd be mistaken. The title is simply a play on Julia Childs' famous cookbook Mastering the Art of French Cooking as the author Anya von Bremzen is an accomplished food writer. The book is really a memoir of the author's early childhood in the Soviet Union and what it means to be Russian, but it's also a behind the scenes look at daily Soviet life as much of the book relies heavily on Bremzen's Mother's recollections. It's also a decade by decade look at the history of the USSR beginning in the 1910s and culminating in Putin's Russia. All in all, there's a lot going on here and it intertwines quite seamlessly until the last few chapters when appropriately enough the Soviet Union collapses and the book meanders.
With tongue-in-cheek humor the author chronicles sparse Soviet life where indeed existence did revolve around the daily quest for food via hours long food lines for a stale loaf of bread all the while being told by the State how perfect Soviet life was. We learn of the propaganda cookbook, yes propaganda even extended to cookbooks, The Book of Tasty and Heathy Food, chock full of sumptuous pictures of alleged Russian dinners, dinners that were only available to the nomenklatura, or privileged. We learn of Bremzen's black marketeer penchant as a child selling her fellow classmates millimeters of Juicy Fruit gum or a 'touch' of an authentic Coca Cola bottle. There are myriad episodes, often hilarious, other times tragic where Bremzen blends the "historical, political, and personal" of the Soviet citizen.
I found the book a fascinating look inside the USSR. As a child growing up during the Cold War era and as a young adult the USSR was the epitome of bad, something fearful and to be scorned. This book shows how much worse things were on the inside. Ration cards, communal apartments shared with strangers, and stunted childhoods. Bremzen's Mother anxious to flee a dysfunctional country and marriage, takes advantage of exit visa policy and emigrates with her ten-year old daughter to Philadelphia in the mid 70's.
Quite an intriguing, darkly comical, and delicious read. A must read for anyone interested in Russia and the USSR.
A few of the recipes mentioned are included at the end of the book.
I received this book from Blogging For Books for this review.
Talk to you later.