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Sep 17, 2013 12:29 PM

"Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking"

The author is being interviewed today on "The World" on NPR. It is a memoir and a history of Russia and the USSR via food and the food described in classic Russian literature. Anya von Bremsen (sp?), the author, describes her mother's ecstasy at seeing the abundance of food in American supermarkets when first they immigrated. She wrote an actual cookbook of regional Soviet recipes that was published the year the USSR split apart. She makes an interesting point - that much of the joy people take in foods is fueled by nostalgia and scarcity. That is, the foods we want/enjoy the most are the ones we can't access often, or at all.

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  1. Thanks for the heads up. I'm very much looking forward to getting a chance to listen. Just to be sure, is this the piece?

    I couldn't find a program called "The World" on the website.

    3 Replies
    1. re: MGZ

      Nice piece on the author on the Guardian website last week:

      1. re: Paprikaboy

        Thanks for the link. Between the stories and Sloth's review, I am looking forward to reading the book and playing with the ideas. My family is mostly Polish and Eastern Europe in the 20th Century has long interested me as a (now informal) student of intellectual history. Most folks seem to overlook how much there is to learn about time and place from literature, music, fad, and food.

        It seems that the focus has long been on war, politics, leaders, and significant dates; but, as John E. has suggested below, a great deal of understanding gets lost in focusing on simple notions of knowledge. After all, Solzhenisyn's writings tell much more about post-Revolution Russia than do the volumes of Party-approved literature. In many ways, the collective lives of the multitude of souls dictated the outcome of history more than the acts of any one man (not to discount the impact that, say, Nicholas, Stalin, John Paul II, etc. had upon the lives of such souls).

      2. re: MGZ

        It is a PRI program that appears on many public radio stations.

      3. This book intrigues me as well. I found an excerpt here:

        1. I loved this book and gave it 5 stars on GoodReads. here's my review, FWIW

          The nostalgic longing for the tastes of childhood is taken to a wonderful extreme in this memoir/history/cookboook. It is really about love of family, a strong theme, and personal identification via shared meals and experiences throughout the course of Russian history. The author takes us back to her grandparents' time in the transition from the Czars to Lenin and brings us up to the present where she is now a tourist in her former home country. The vehicle for this journey is the story of Anya's family and anecdotes,from tragic to hilarious, usually revolving around food and the struggle to survive. It is an absorbing tale, well written and touching. Even if many of the recipes sound a bit odd to an American palate, you'll still be curious to try several of the recipes at the back of the book (assuming that is where they are in the official publication, I read an uncorrected proof). It is no surprise that the author went on to become a James Beard award-winning writer, her connections to food and her way with words are quite special. One of the best books about food I've read even though I've only had marginal exposure to the cuisine.

          2 Replies
          1. re: Sloth

            My grandfather was conscripted into the Tsar's army as a Cossack soldier. He did not want to raid the Bolshevik villages and kill every single person living there. He pretended to participate one time. The next time, he hid some peasant clothes in his saddle bag and when they raided a village near the Polish border he kept on riding. He almost killed the horse because he knew he had to go far and fast. He buried the uniform, sold the horse and it took him two years to get to Antwerp and on a ship for America. I found the manifest of the ship he was on through the Ellis Island Foundation. By the way, most people think the Russian Revolution happened in 1917. My grandfather deserted in 1910.

            1. re: John E.

              Great tale. I love such family lore, particularly when about subjects I know from past studies.

              Since this sub-group of food dorks seems interested in other dorky topics, here's a link to an older NPR story about cooking during China's Cultural Revolution:


              We have grown to love the Soy Braised Pork dish considered in the article. Here's a link to a discussion borne out of my trying it out and seeking the right "wine".


          2. Aside from all the amazing family stories (one of the most amazing involved her grandparents during the siege of Leningrad), I thought this book was hilarious. It reminded me of Michael Moore's tone when he looks back on the Capitalist Propaganda of his childhood with cynicism and reverence combined. After all, there were lots of Worlds Fair type spectacles in Russia glorifying all the different regions with kitschy displays of regional costumes and food. It actually made the Soviet Union sound fun (as long as you don't have to worry about purges and severe food shortages).

            Of course, the one recipe that I really do want to try is Stalin's favorite lamb stew.

            3 Replies
            1. re: jcmods

              I have (had) relatives who lived through the entire Soviet era, it was not fun. My grandfather's family were kulaks (rich peasants because they had a coulple of cows) and were all murdered by Stalin.

              My grandmother's family were coal miners and they all lived long enough to eventually die from black lungs.

              My father brought a cousin and his son to Minnesota a year after the break up. The most amazing thing they saw (not counting women driving cars) were the grocery stores abd the vast variety and quantity of food. Actually, the most amazing thing they saw was when my father paid money for a bag of dirt, it was potting soil.

              1. re: John E.

                I'm not saying I really believe it was fun. Just that the author had a way of finding some of the redeeming things about solidarity with neighbors and such.

                1. re: jcmods

                  I guess I'll have to get the book. I have heard a lot of stories about the tragedies of living under the Soviets. Here's one more...

                  I had an aunt who lived to be 96, under both the Tsar and the Soviets. Her husband fought with the partisans against the Germans during WWII. On the last day of the war a group of Soviet soldiers shows up at their house and demand that he join the army. They are local soldiers and everyone knows one another. He tells them that he has been fighting for 5 years and now he needs to stay home to take care of his family. The soldiers tell them that he is correct, he needs to stay at home with his family. They shoot him dead in his front yard, they killed the pig and the chickens and take them away. My father's first cousins, age 9 and 7 had to dig the grave for their father in their backyard. My dad met his aunt and cousins and saw the grave himself when he went to see his parent's home village.

            2. Thank you for posting this greygarious - can't wait to read the memoir! For those unfamiliar with it, von Bremzen's Russian cookbook is "Please To The Table," and I think I've gotten more mileage from that cookbook over the years than any single other. It's an exceptional read, and the recipes work well. Highly recommended.

              4 Replies
              1. re: cayjohan

                Any favorite recipes from Please to the Table? I've got a lot flagged...

                1. re: emily

                  Oh, so many over the past 23 years! I haven't had a clinker yet with that book. I feel bad that I can't toss off too many recommendations; my son has borrowed the book and it hasn't made its way back to the nest yet. Off the top of my head, I've really loved the Cutlets Pozharsky (sp?) and have found it to be a great dinner party dish, especially with a mushroom sauce. The Uzbeki recipe for cooked carrots with cumin was also uncommonly good. And if you've never made borscht, von Bremzen's recipes are a good place to get your feet wet. It's a very nice book - have fun cooking with it!

                  1. re: cayjohan

                    The new book contains her father's Borscht recipe which is supposedly a departure from the every day recipe. All the recipes sound like something I would want to eat, but they are labor intensive.

                    1. re: jcmods

                      So true about the labor-intensive aspects of some of the recipes - but uniformly delicious results. I'm preparing an Amazon order tonight to get the memoir.