The French novelist Marcel Proust immortalized the connection between food and memory when the narrator of his novel Remembrances of Things Past bit into a madeleine and was transported to thoughts of his childhood.
But what if that madeleine were poisoned, so to speak?
That is the question underlying Russian American writer Anya von Bremzen’s new memoir, Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking. Though it contains recipes, this is not a cookbook but rather, a history of a family and of Soviet Russia.
“In this book, I bring up the idea of a poisoned madeline,” Bremzen tells Morning Editon host David Greene. “Because what happens if a taste of your childhood evokes memories that are sometimes traumatic, that are sometimes complicated? That the whole layering of emotions is present in every bite that you take?”
Bremzen, a James Beard award-winning food writer, and her mother spent a year recreating menus, cooking their way through decade after decade of Soviet life. The result is a tragic-comic history as seen through the kitchen window.
“Everything we ate in the Soviet Union was grown, produced, distributed, sold — or sometimes not sold — by the party state,” she says. “So, with the food, inevitably, you ingested the ideology.”
And because so much of the Soviet food experience was about deprivation, cooking is also inevitably tied to the concept of longing, she says. “And longing is the sort of crucial thing about the Soviet attitude about food. At one point, I say dreaming about food is a lot more rewarding than eating.”
On cooking in communal kitchens
“The communal apartment, they always said, was the microcosm of Soviet Society. It’s this long vanished institution where all kinds of people were thrown together. You know, there would be a dissident next to an informer, a Jewish family next to an anti-semitic family. Our apartment was enormous. It was carved out of a former warehouse. It was this long, unheated corridor with 18 doors. Behind each door there’s a comedy, a tragedy, alcoholism. You know, there were lunatic old ladies. Next to us there was the family of a black marketeer, an underground millionaire, who ate unspeakable delicacies. And everyone came together in the kitchen. The kitchen was like the public square of this apartment.”
On Russian potato salad (salat Olivier)
“Salat Olivier was one of the sort oficonic Soviet dishes. [It’s] essentially potato salad, drenched in mayonnaise, with pickles [and] with chicken or kielbasa. But the Salat Olivier, the potato salad, was something you ate during New Years in the festive in cut-crystal bowls.”
On an illicit, midnight kitchen remodel
“It happened in every communal apartment. There was always the old lady who was about to die. We had this old lady, Auntie Nousha, who worked at the morgue and always talked about cadavers. And then she died. And she had, I think, about six square meters. A tiny, tiny, tiny room, the size of a closet. So, we bury Auntie Nousha and then the entire building, the entire floor wants her room. And then, since it was next to the kitchen, they decided, OK, they’re just going to expand the kitchen. But of course it was illegal to alter a dwelling space. So, in the middle of the night, in complete secrecy, they broke down the walls, they sanded down the floors. When people woke up in the morning, suddenly the kitchen was six meters larger. It was just an amazing feat. … And then the housing manager from the housing committee comes with a new tenant. And the neighbors said, ‘What room? There is no room.’ “
On celebrating their kitchen coup with salat Olivier
“This was really like a communal effort. I remember the Georgian family produced a bunch of scallion and cilantro. The black marketeer, he was the one who procured all the mayonnaise. He just had a case of mayonnaise, because he was the manager of a food store. So everyone contributed to the construction of the salat Olivier. And it was just the most laden, rich thing that you could ever imagine.”
On the moral implications of eating chocolate in kindergarten
“It wasn’t just any kindergarten. My grandfather was a deputy head of naval intelligence during World War II. So he had some access, connections. And he got me into a boarding kindergarten for offspring of the members of the Central Committee, which was ideologically horrifying for my mother, who was a dissident.”
“I was this very sad, alienated child. And one of the difficult moments were the foods. And they were incredibly delicious, like nothing we had outside the kindergarten. They served these incredibly [prestigious] elite chocolates that were manufactured for the Nomenklatura, the party elite. I remember my absolute shame and dread for wanting to eat these chocolates, and being afraid that my mother would condemn me. And I would eat it, and then I would just feel terrible. It was really like this moral struggle, because again, I felt that I was ingesting ideology with the chocolate — the ideology of the party.”
On moving to Philadelphia, and shopping at American grocery stores
“I remember feeling utterly crushed by all the abundance. Because … I was obsessed with the West as a kid. I fantasized about America. I fantasized about having 64 varieties of salami. But when you see it? And suddenly it’s seeped of political meaning, of pathos, of social prestige, of all these multiple, multiple functions and resonances that food carried for Soviet citizens.”
“I think I lost my sense of taste, our first few months in Philadelphia. Food tasted like nothing to me. All the fantasies, all the expectations, all the desire that you invested into procuring something. You know, standing in long lines, sharing it with the family. Again, it was this rich, layered experience — eating. And then suddenly you could just go and buy anything.”