Russians have told so many lies about themselves they hardly know who they are anymore. In the 1990s, President Boris Yeltsin created a federal commission to draft a text describing the “national idea.” These days, President Vladimir Putin talks gibberish about Russia having a “cultural code,” which he seems to imagine is some sort of a spy code for the spirit. They should have started with food. There is no common Russian equivalent for the saying “you are what you eat,” but it is no accident that Russians have hardly any idea of distinctively Russian food—except perhaps bad sushi, which is served in Moscow restaurants that claim to be Japanese as well as in those labeled as Italian, Georgian, French, Russian, or any number of other national cuisines. Then there is mayonnaise, which saturates all traditional holiday dishes. And, most recently, sushi made with mayonnaise.
On an August day in the early 1970s, little Anya von Bremzen, visiting Odessa from Moscow, was instructed by her relatives to watch “true Jewish food” being prepared. The process was interminable, the heat was intolerable, the whole place smelled of fish, and Anya ran away. “I suppose you can’t blame a late-Soviet big-city kid for fleeing the primal shock of gefilte fish,” she writes. Except for a notation in her mother’s passport, and the passport of every relative on her mother’s side of the family, there was nothing Jewish about Anya: she was a Soviet child, which meant she ate pork fat (“Of course we ate pork fat. We loved it.”) and was profoundly cynical. Her new book traces how she, and Soviet culture, got to be that way. Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking is an unfortunate title, for it makes the work sound like a cookbook—von Bremzen has written several excellent ones in the past—but this is something else entirely.
Nor is it, as the subtitle indicates, solely “A Memoir of Food and Longing.” It is a painstakingly researched and beautifully written cultural history but also the best kind of memoir: one with a self-aware narrator who has mastered the art of not taking herself entirely seriously. It is also a breathtaking balancing act inasmuch as it tells the story of von Bremzen’s relationship with her mother, Larisa, a love story told with enough candor to trouble the reader—but not Larisa herself, who emerges as both a character and a collaborator in the book.
The story of Soviet cooking begins with the devastation of the Russian economy during World War I, causing bread shortages and a series of upheavals that culminated with the Bolsheviks in power. Over the first two decades of their rule, the Soviets annihilated not only much of the peasantry that produced Russia’s food but also the bourgeoisie that cooked and consumed it. In the lifetime of the first Soviet generation, the …