Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking

I’ve just started keeping a list of the (good) books I’m reading. Check out the full list!

I grew up in Lexington, Massachusetts in the late 70s and 80s. Our schools did the whole shelter under your desk thing, but consensus amongst my friends was that we were close enough to a bunch of ICBM development facilities that we’d go quickly in the first strike anyways. Kind of creepily fatalistic for a bunch of ten year olds — but honestly probably easier to deal with than the insane active shooter drills kids have to live with today. At least we knew that the Bad Guys were far away and that our leaders were actually working on the problem. OK, maybe their real motivations weren’t universally pure but, once again, I was a kid.

Anyhoo, my point is that the actual Soviet Union was way more of a concept than a reality — if you asked me what daily life was like for folks in Russia I’d probably have guessed some weird mashup of Ivan Denisovich and Rosa Klebb. Which is why I was super-psyched when I stumbled upon Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking a few weeks ago. The author Anya Von Bremzen is just six years older than me, so we were pretty much twinsies separated by the iron curtain. Talk about a great read.

The book is loosely organized around a collection of dinners executed by Anya and her mom: one for each decade, starting with the twilight of Nicholas II and ending with the petro-oligarchs of the current millennium. But it’s really a family memoir and history of the USSR told through the lens of Anya, her mom, and her grandmother. Food plays an outsized role in the telling because, well, there never seems to have been much of it — but it’s not a sob story by any means. A few particularly interesting observations that stuck with me — hopefully they’ll draw you in enough to give it a read!

  •  Topical given the recent passing of Mikhail Gorbachev — it’s not just Putin who didn’t like the guy inside the USSR. Evaporation of the country aside, he seems to have been pretty universally viewed as an inept bungler while actually in power. He disrupted already shaky food distribution networks, his attempts to curb drinking just created another line for folks to stand in, and basically he just seems to have wandered around aimlessly watching stuff happen around him. NOT the perception we had from our vantage point in the West!
  • I 100% have to try and cannot stop thinking about Salat Olivier, which is basically a potato-vegetable-pickle salad with bologna (or chicken I guess, but I’m not turning down a salad with bologna).
  • The soviet staple breaded meat patty kotleta? Actually an ersatz hamburger, borrowed from America after a trip in the 1930s by Anastas Mikoyan, People’s Commissar of the Soviet Food Industry. Apparently they liked Eskimo Pies too.

Cover to cover interesting, perspective-broadening, yummy stuff.