Saturday, January 17, 2015

Soviet food memoir

•Anya von Bremzen: Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking:
a memoir of food & longing.
New York: Broadway Books, 2013. 350 pages.
ISBN 978-0307-88683-5.
Eastside Road, January 17, 2015—
THIS IS TRULY an engrossing book, one that grows more interesting, more complex, more successful as it continues: and truly a memoir, focussed on the table both as the author experienced it in her childhood in Moscow and as she imagines it — knows it, in fact, by direct testimony and from books — in her native Russia throughout the twentieth century.

Von Bremzen tells the story in ten chapters, one per decade beginning with the 1910s — "The Last Days of the Czars" - and running through the first decade of the Putin years.

Von Bremzen was born in 1963; her mother in 1934; but the author knew her grandmothers, and tells most of the gripping story of her country's sad history through the eyes and ears of participants. She was only eleven when she emigrated with her mother, arriving in Philadelphia in 1974; but children grew up quickly in the Soviet Union; she had already reluctantly bought into the system; she was even a practiced black market operator by then.

I can't imagine how this book will strike American readers under the age of, say, fifty — it's a little shocking to realize the Soviet Union has been gone for nearly a quarter of a century now. Von Bremzen's book does a good job, I think, of presenting the Soviet century, its tribulations, the impossibility of its ambitions. From the Bolsheviks' impossible dream of a successful technocratic state, through Lenin's impossible challenges of war and famine, through Stalin's increasingly paranoid and inhuman dictatorship, then the increasingly bumbling improvisations of Khrushchev, Brezhnev, Andropov, and the forgotten Chernenko, to the hapless Gorbachev (praised abroad but scorned at home), the history of Russia (for the book centers on Moscow) is inseparable from food shortages, starvation, mismanaged economy, ineptitude on all sides.

Through it all, of course, the survivors managed to eat — something. There might be eighteen families to a kitchen in the communal apartments, but there would be a pot of cabbage soup, perhaps even a few bits of meat floating in it. And, of course, vodka.

Alongside the history of the desperate search for food, and the constant awareness that there had once been better times, even a proud national cuisine, this is an insightful memoir of domestic life in absurdly crowded conditions, in a society with no real hope, where generations of people went missing in war or worse, where science and superstition were equally consulted by a superstitious and suspicious government, where daily life was all too often reduced to the most basic, mechanistic, desperate series of actions.

I think the most valuable aspect of von Bremsen'z book is a subtext that is never really stated: many of the inadequacies of the Soviet century were mirror-images of inadequacies of the American one. Hype and propaganda tried desperately to determine the course of history there as it has all too often here, the difference being that the Soviets tried to organize it toward a rational political economy serving all, and the Americans have organized it toward a profit-making consumer society. Von Bremzen clearly states the irony of the ultimate Soviet failure to attain the American ideal without recourse to the American technique, market capitalism; and she makes it clear that the ordinary Russians were rarely taken in. It remains a mystery to me that anyone could ever have believed that an ideal system could be conceived, let alone successfully put in place.

(The contrast between the two systems comes to life when the author describes her first visit to an American supermarket:
My First Supermarket Experience was the anchoring narrative of the great Soviet epic of immigration to America. Some escapees from our socialist defitsit society actually swooned to the floor (usually in the aisle with toilet paper. Certain men knelt and wept at the sight of forty-two varieties of salami, while their wives—smelling the strawberries and discovering they lacked any fragrance—cried for opposite reasons. Other emigrants, possessed by the ur-Soviet hoarding instinct, frantically loaded up their shopping carts. Still others ran out empty-handed, choked and paralyzed by the multiplicity of choices.

The Jewish Family Services office where we collected our meager refugee stipend resounded with food stories. The stories constituted an archive of socialists' misadventures with imperialist abundance. Monya and Rays complained about the flavor of American butter—after smearing floor wax on bread. The Goldbergs loved the delicious lunch meat cans with cure pictures of kitties, not suspecting the kitties were the intended consumers. Voychik, the Odessa lothario, slept with his first American shiksa and stormed out indignant when she offered him Triscuits. Desiccated cardboard squares! Why not a steaming bowl of borscht?
Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking, p. 199
Toward the end, after the collapse, as the center is gone and the individual nations drift, at first apart, then individually, the story is ever more gripping. Pluralism fails, and artificially drawn borders, around "nations" which had no precedents, reveal their inadequacies. One senses there is no end to the failure of empire.

But Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking is throughout a warm, humane, affecting narrative, often quite funny. Chekhov and Gogol are never far from its stage. The Slavic taste for bitter irony is frequently cited. You get the feeling it has to substitute, at times, for bread:
A popular Stagnation-era gag sums up what historians dub the Brezhnevian social contract. Six paradoxes of Mature Socialism: 1) There's no unemployment, but no one works; 2) no one works, but productivity goes up; 3) productivity goes up, but stores are empty: 4) stores are empty, but fridges are full; 5) fridges are full, but no one is satisfied, 6) no one is satisfied, but everyone votes yes.
ibid., p. 189
And then, finally, shockingly, they vote No, at the polls or on the streets. And then, inevitably, chaos reigns. And then, most likely, a strong man appears to try to nail it all back together, getting rich and powerful in the process, until he too oversteps. And on, and on, and on.

Meanwhile there's kulebiaka and gefilte fish, pilaf and Russian salad, blini and kotleti — the recipes are here, and I have half a mind to try some of them.

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