I'm writing this piece exactly 15 years to the day since my grandmother passed away. Her role in my childhood was fundamental. She taught me the alphabet, the art of wearing hats, how to try to be glamorous at all times and how to make the world's best fried potatoes. But no matter how hard I've tried to reproduce the recipe as an adult, it has never ever tasted like the original -perhaps because it was cooked in the USSR, in the 6 sq metre kitchen in my grandma's khrutstcheba.
None of the three ingredients at the core of the recipe exist today. I even bought the smelly rapeseed oil my grandma used in her cooking but the organic potatoes and onions from the Whole Food Market just don't do justice to the memory of the taste of my childhood fried potatoes.
Deep down, I buried my frustration at not being able to make that dish and many other more intricate recipes from my Soviet childhood, until I read "Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking" by the acclaimed food writer, Russian émigré, Anya von Bremzen. She has revived Soviet food nostalgia, leaving me craving my childhood meals of the last years of the USSR. Now I know that my food yearnings are part of the all-pervading Soviet Food Heritage - difficult though that may have been.
We are in Queens, New York. In a tiny kitchen that belongs to Von Bremzen's Mother - akin to Willy Wonka's Chocolate factory only instead of chocolate, she magically recreates recipes from Tsarist Russia or from the Stalin's secret Politburo feasts. As an émigré, one's sense of cultural heritage is particularly acute and one's desire to reconnect with one's country of origin is so exaggerated, it's almost comical. But Anya von Bremzen and her Mother dare to embark on a journey that a non-emigré Russian would never have had the courage to have undertaken. While her Mother cooks, Anya von Bremzen gives Soviet Food Heritage its written form.
She tells the story of her family from the dawn of the USSR right up to Putin's contemporary Russia. Von Bremzen takes the reader on a journey through meals, tastes and smells, exploring the way the Soviet regime shaped its peoples' complicated relationship with food. Mikoyan's sausages, Olivier salad, kulibiaka and many other meals and Soviet produce are placed in their dramatic and Kafkaesque historical context.
"Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking" has a mind-boggling scope. It isn't only about recipes and tastes. It is also about culinary habits, traditions and government policies. Von Bremzen examines the Bolsheviks' vision of kitchen labour, Khrushchev's obsession with corn, the ridiculous concepts of taloni (tickets for food rations) or "Bush's legs" - a nickname for chicken drumsticks imported from America during my childhood. The book reveals the stark contrast between the food shortages suffered by ordinary people and the abundance of Kremlin meals and shops open only for the Politburo namenklatura. You hear the banging of stone-hard vobla (dried fish) against the table, the pouring of vodka in the crystal stoparik, the crackling of the Kosolapij Mishka candy wrapping paper. "Mastering the Art of Soviet cooking" will resonate in the hearts (and stomachs) of many Russians as would a Madeline de Proust.
But this Madeleine is a poisoned one. The food that I, and so many people born in the USSR crave, brings us back to food shortages, repression, gloomy shared communal flats and, overall, the bleak and miserable existence behind the Iron curtain. What are we actually nostalgic about? The answer is a paradox: it's a madeleine of the madeline itself. Mastering the art of Soviet cooking is an impossible concept; it's an oxymoron. Many products don't exist anymore and the recipes just never taste the same. In France, by contrast my friends are able to reproduce the taste of the pancakes or quiche of their great-great grand-mères. It is a luxury we Russians don't enjoy. The hereditary food chain is broken. With the fall of the USSR, the flavours have somehow vanished. One can never imitate Soviet cooking because its main ingredient was the political system that penetrated every dish.
Enough of Russian nostalgia. "Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking" is written in English for a foreign audience who don't have the slightest clue about the tastes and dishes of Soviet times. Everybody knows their foie gras from their béchamel but borsch and kalbasa are totally alien concepts. Would a non-Russian be confused or even put off by the abundance of Soviet slang (not Russian!) and culinary words in this book? Anya von Bremzen masterfully finds English equivalents to the lingua sovietica. Sometimes I wish she had also created a glossary for future reference when I'm desperately trying to explain Soviet meals to my foreign friends.
Without the nostalgia, the book offers an in-depth, carefully researched account of Soviet history through the eyes of a fairly typical Soviet intelligentsia family with almost filmic characters - an alcoholic uncle, endlessly adoring grand-mother, self-sacrificing mother and a fervently Soviet grandfather. The unusual suspect in this account is the food on the table. After you read the book you start to question how any historic account can bypass peoples' eating habits. Now you can truly say, tell me what you eat - and I'll tell you who you are.
As I will never be able to reproduce my childhood recipes when I have my own children, I will at least be able to pass on "Mastering the Art of Soviet cooking" which will bring them as close as it is possible to be, to at least some part of their cultural food heritage.