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Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking

Salat Olivier.

Salat Olivier–a Brezhnev era favorite.

I bought Anya von Bremzen’s Mastering The Art of Soviet Cooking: A Memoir of Food and Longing about a year ago as a birthday present for my husband, The Russian, but never gave it to him. Instead, it morphed into one of those gifts that was more for me than him, part of my ongoing attempt to understand his complicated love/mostly hate relationship with his former homeland.

The book turned out to be a good choice. Acclaimed food writer von Bremzen and The Russian are rough contemporaries, born four years apart, although she hails from Moscow and he from its rival city, the former Leningrad. They nonetheless shared many similar experiences, from being members of secular Jewish families to waiting on the ubiquitous Soviet era food lines. If von Bremzen’s writing style is any indication, they also share a similar dark sense of humor.

Von Bremzen left the Soviet Union much earlier than The Russian did. She and her mother escaped for Philadelphia in 1974 when von Bremzen was 11. My husband and his parents left for Chicago in 1988 when he was 28. She has been back to visit many times since, whereas the Russian, proudly, has not and probably will not ever return.

Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking poetically weaves food memories with family stories and Russian history, tracing a course (and menu) from the final days of Czar Nicholas II to the Putin era. As von Bremzen notes, “Inevitably, a story about Soviet food is a chronicle of longing, of unrequited desire:”

For any ex-citizen of a three-hundred-million strong superpower, food is never a mere individual matter. In 1917 bread riots sparked the overthrow of the czar, and seventy-four years later, catastrophic food shortages helped push Gorbachev’s floundering empire into the dustbin. In between, seven million people perished from hunger during Stalin’s collectivization; four million more starved during Hitler’s war. Even in calmer times, under Khrushchev and Brezhnev, the daily drama of putting a meal on the table trumped most other concerns…Food anchored the domestic realities of our totalitarian state, supplying a shimmer of desire to a life that was mostly drab, sometimes absurdly comical, on occasion unbearably tragic, but just as often naively optimistic and joyous. Food…defined how Russians endured the present, imagined the future, and connected to the past.

Most of the book’s food stories center around The Book of Tasty and Healthy Food, which von Bremzen describes as “a totalitarian Joy of Cooking.” Written by Anastas Ivanovich Mikoyan, the people’s commissar of the food industry, it was first published in 1939 and reprinted many times thereafter, always reflecting the political flavor of the current regime.

Kotleti--the Soviet hamburger.

Kotleti–the Soviet hamburger: more bread, less meat.

When I mentioned this book to The Russian, he immediately recited its Russian title, Kniga. It was, he noted, seen as both iconic and a bad joke, the abundance suggested by its pages betrayed by the scarcity of edible food in the state stores. Von Bremzen’s recollections are similar. “Long-suffering Homo sovieticus,” she writes “gobbled down” the Kniga’s myth of plenty because he had “been weaned on socialist realism, an artistic doctrine that insisted on depicting reality ‘in its revolutionary development’–past and present swallowed up by a triumphant projection of a Radiant Future,” a radiant future that most ordinary Soviet citizens recognized as nonsense to put it politely.

This radical disconnect between the realities of Soviet life and the fantasy world of Soviet propaganda permeates von Bremzen’s memoir and my husband’s memories. It’s also the source of much Soviet humor. As one cultural critic, Sasha Genin, has noted, “the State had hijacked all the fine, meaningful words. Friendship, homeland, happiness, love, future, consciousness, work–these could only be bracketed with ironic quotation marks.” A popular pickup line went, “Young lady, how about we go build Communism together?” Per von Bremzem, girls found the line hilarious.

Like my husband, von Brezmen grew up during the zastoi (Stagnation), the first Soviet generation to come of age without the traumas of war, purges, or de-Stalinization. Unlike earlier generations who either embraced the regime or “rejected it with equal fervor,” children of the zastoi “belonged to an era when even cats on the street recognized the State’s epic utopian project as farce.”

In return for a ‘yes’ vote (at pseudoelections), the Kremlin gerontocracy kept commodity prices unchanged and guaranteed nominal social stability–steady employment that ‘pretended to pay’ while comrades ‘pretended to work.’ It also turned a semiblind eye to alternative economic and cultural practices–as long as these didn’t blatantly violate official norms…[B]y socialism’s twilight the only classes that took ideology at face value were professional party activists and dissidents. They were an overwhelming minority. Everyone else eked out a daily life in the holes and crevices of the creaking machinery of power.

Several of the book’s passages resonated with me because of my own experiences with The Russian and his fellow immigrants. One of the dishes von Bremzen describes in detail is the notorious salat Olivier, trotted out at every Russian New Year’s Party I’ve ever attended. A mix of diced carrots, potatoes, beets, hard-boiled eggs, salami, and wretched canned peas dressed heavily in “a sharp, creamy dressing,” usually mayonnaise, it’s the go-to Soviet dish for festive occasions.

And who [if they lived in the USSR during the 1970s] doesn’t remember big cut-crystal bowls of salat Olivier at New Year’s celebrations where families gathered in front of their television sets waiting for the Kremlin clock to strike twelve, and for Dear Leonid Ilyich Brezhnev to adjust his reading glasses, rattle his medals, thunderously clear his throat, and then shuffle his papers in a desperate scramble to locate the first line of his New Year’s address.

The first line was always the same: “Dear Compatriots!

“Yep, it was exactly like that,” The Russian said when I read him this passage.

New Year’s also brings up the almost annual debate of whether or not we should have a tree. The Soviet novy god was a secular holiday in an anti-religious society. Almost everyone celebrated. Most households, including my husband’s and von Bremzen’s, set up a New Year’s pine tree complete with New Year’s ornaments. But to a lot of American Jews like me, the New Year’s tree bears an uncomfortable resemblance to the Christmas tree–not something I want in my living room.

Stuffed cabbage--Russian soul food.

Stuffed cabbage–Russian soul food.

I married the Russian thinking that being Jewish meant much the same thing to him as it did to me. I was wrong. For ex-Soviet citizens, “Jewish” is almost entirely an ethnic identity having little or nothing to do with religion. As von Bremzen notes, representatives from Jewish Family Services, who sponsored Soviet émigré families, often “went ballistic at the sight of an evergreen.” While many immigrants didn’t realize their ethnicity was now a religion, their American sponsors likewise didn’t know that Christmas was banned in the USSR, replaced by the secular novy god. We’ve still never had a New Year’s tree.

Von Bremzen first returned to Moscow in the winter of 1987, a few months before my husband would depart for good. By then, Gorbachev had assumed power, ushering in “perestroika (restructuring), glasnost (openness), and the now forgotten early-Gorbachev term uskorenie (acceleration)…” My liberal friends and I, horrified by the Reagan presidency, saw Gorby as a good guy, a voice of reason compared to the belligerent, vehemently anti-communist actor in the White House.

However, I learned early on in my relationship with The Russian that there are two types of things you never say in a roomful of Soviet émigrés–anything bad about Reagan or anything good about Gorbachev. Despite opening up Soviet culture and airing dissident voices, Gorbachev is roundly regarded as a failure. He’s the wishy-washy weakling who caused the Soviet Union to disintegrate by failing to quell secessionist passions. He’s the indecisive flip-flopper who collapsed the economy by continually switching between “socialist planning and capitalist supply and demand.”  And he’s the guy who so badly misread Russian culture that he tried to ban the national spirit, vodka, a miscalculation that lead, of course, to the usual series of jokes.

At the draconian penalties for consuming on the job: The boss is screwing his secretary. Masha, he whispers, go open the door–wide–so people don’t suspect we’re drinking.

At the price hikes: Kid to dad: On TV, they’re saying vodka will become more expensive, Papa. Does it mean you’ll drink less? No son, says Papa, it means you’ll eat less.

Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking is spiked with numerous nuggets of dark humor, a useful reminder of how laughter can help people to survive dark times and recognize the absurdity of their situation, a lesson that can be put to good use in this Time of Trump, when each new bit of political news seems more ridiculous and unbelievable than the last.

Soviet cooking–tasty and healthy food–has made a reappearance in our own North Carolina kitchen now that we’ve moved my husband’s elderly parents here from Chicago. Weekends often find him whipping up a salat Olivier, cabbage soup, or something pickled for transport back to my in-laws’ nearby apartment. It will mostly disappear from our kitchen once they’re gone, but von Bremzen’s memoir has provided a context for their food story, for the challenges involved in procuring and savoring their favorite dishes, and for my husband’s unbidden nostalgia for the food of his youth.


Michelle Togut resides in North Carolina with her husband and pets. She has worked as an adjunct professor of history, editor and writer, and small-firm attorney, among other things. These days, she's trying to sell real estate. For fun, she reads political blogs of all persuasions, practices yoga, drinks wine, hikes, reads, and volunteers for a local animal rescue.

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9 thoughts on “Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking

  1. I enjoyed the mayonnaise out of this post. I might not like Salat Olivier were it served to me (beets and canned peas in mayonnaise? Color me dubious.) but it seems to have powered a nation the way grilled cheese sandwiches power America.

    What resonates for me, an American whose vision of Soviet Russia was that of a land where millions starved amidst massive potential for plenty, is the fact that millions of people did find food to eat, most every day. The cookbook offers that proletarian’s-eye-level understanding of this. It disabuses my prejudice that the long food lines and bitter winters meant poverty for the unfortunate Soviet people: they were not poor, Russia is a nation of plenty and abundance. People ate, corrupt and misguided economic planning and abyssal infrastructure notwithstanding.

    The marvel, then, is what they could have done, what they could have become, had they only figured out how to use the wealth of their land.

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  2. Beautiful piece.

    I assume that next to the Salat Olivier would be a platter of wry bread.

    I would though amend the “Stuffed cabbage – Russian soul food” to “Eastern European soul food”

    My mother was widely credited with making the best gwumpkies any one tasted – that is, by her mother, all her sisters and sisters-in law. The men knew better than to offer any ranking, limiting themselves to “Delicious!”. Even my college friend whose parents were Polish Jews and thought all the food I thought of as Polish as Jewish thought so. She made them in a big pot on top of the stove rather than a baking dish. I’m sure yours are wonderful! What time should we all be over?

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  3. Great story. I’m still laughing.

    First piece from this site I’ve shown to my wife. She’s now adding the site to her list of places to visit.
    Lastly, first piece on Ordinary Times I’ve commented on.

    Thank you for making us so happy this afternoon.

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  4. This was a wonderful essay. There is an art book/cock book of Soviet Cookery out called the CCCP Cook Book that covers Soviet cooking in a less personal style. Many of the recipes look fascinating.

    I find that liking Reagan for being a strong determined leader whose actions led to the collapse of the Soviet Union/Communism and hating Gorbachev for being a weak indecisive leader whose in/actions led to the collapse of the Soviet Union/Communism to be mutually inconsistent positions.

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