The Salt
10:03 pm
Mon September 16, 2013

Kitchen Time Machine: A Culinary Romp Through Soviet History

Originally published on Tue September 17, 2013 4:38 am

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."


Interview Highlights

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 of iconic 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."

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

In an epic novel called "In Search of Lost Time," the French novelist Marcel Proust famously had his narrator retrieve a childhood memory from the taste of a treat called a Madeline, dipped in tea. The Russian-American writer Anya von Bremzen set about to recapture here own childhood and family history, through the taste and the memory of food. She and her mother recreated menus, cooking and eating their way through three Soviet generations. The result is her new memoir, "Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking."

She told our colleague David Greene that she drew inspiration for this book from Proust's Madeline.

ANYA VON BREMZEN: In this book, I bring up the idea of a poisoned Madeline. Because what happens if, you know, a taste of your childhood evokes memories that are sometimes traumatic; that are sometimes complicated; that the whole, kind of, layering of emotions is present in every bite that you take? And there was something else: Everything we ate in the Soviet Union was grown, produced, distributed, sold - or sometimes not sold - buy the party state. So, with the food, inevitably you ingested the ideology.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

I wonder if you can take us back to the Soviet Union. You have these memories of cooking with your mom; many of them were in a kitchen in a communal apartment. I wonder, could you describe what that is?

BREMZEN: Well, the communal apartment, they always said it was the microcosm of Soviet society; 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. And it was this long, unheated corridor with 18 doors. And 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, who ate unspeakable delicacies. And everyone came together in the kitchen. The kitchen was like the public square of this apartment.

GREENE: It seems that every dish that you bring up in the book really brings back a memory of your kitchen. Can we talk about Salat Olivier?

BREMZEN: Yes, Salat Olivier was one of the sort of iconic Soviet dishes; essentially potato salad, drenched in mayonnaise, with pickles, with chicken or kielbasa. But the Salat Olivier was something that you ate during New Year in the festive in cut-crystal bowls.

GREENE: There were other festive moments when you remember Salat Olivier. And this goes back to your grandmother's communal kitchen, and there was vicious and jockeying for space among all the families. Tell me how that played out.

BREMZEN: Well, that played out in almost every communal apartment. There was always the old lady who was about to die. So we had this old lady, Auntie Nousha, who worked in the morgue and she loved to talk about cadavers, and then she died. And she had, I think, about six square meters - a tiny, tiny, tiny room. So we buried Auntie Nousha and then 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 floor. When people woke up in the morning, suddenly the kitchen was six meters larger. And then the housing manager comes with a new tenant. And the neighbors said, Room, what room? There is no room.

GREENE: There was no room here. We just have a bigger kitchen.

BREMZEN: Yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

GREENE: So the housing officer leaves. Everyone celebrates. Why was Salat Olivier the dish that was like, OK, we got to have that on the menu, if we're going to celebrate this moment?

BREMZEN: It was festive. Salat Olivier, because of the mayonnaise - which was a little bit hard to get; because of the canned peas, which were also, you know, a deficit, a shortage treat. And this was like a really a communal effort. I remember the Georgian family produced a bunch of scallion. The black marketeer, he was the one who procured all the mayonnaise. So everyone contributed to the construction of the Salat Olivier.

GREENE: You had quite a moral struggle over chocolate when you started kindergarten.

BREMZEN: Yeah, this poisoned Madeline issue. It wasn't just any kindergarten. My grandfather was a deputy head of naval intelligence during World War II. So he had some connections. And he got me into a boarding kindergarten for offspring of the members of the Central Committee, which was ideologically horrifying to my mother who was a dissident.

And I was this very sad, alienated child. And one of the most difficult moments were the foods. They served these incredibly prestige chocolates that were manufactured especially for the Nomenklatura, the party elite.

GREENE: People could not buy this chocolate in the stores. But they could be given to kids with connections, like yourself.

BREMZEN: Yeah. So I remember just my absolute shame and dread at 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.

GREENE: You and your mother arrived in Philadelphia in the 1970s. One of the striking moments to me was the first experience that the two of you had in an American grocery store.

BREMZEN: Well, the first difficulty with getting to the grocery store, because, as we discovered, there were no sidewalks in suburban Philadelphia. We came from the center of Moscow where everyone walked. To get to the supermarket, we actually had to walk on the highway. And then you came to this enormous place, as big as Red Square, crammed with stuff that you did recognize - you had no idea what it was.

My mother was absolutely bewildered and overjoyed by all these foreign packages, all the names that she didn't recognize. And I remember feeling utterly crushed by all the abundance. Because something - I was obsessed with the West as a kid. I fantasized a having 64 varieties of salami.

But when you see it and suddenly it's seeped of political meaning, of social prestige, of all these multiple, multiple functions and resonances that food carried for Soviet citizens. You know, suddenly what was the point of buying a banana if anyone else could buy a banana?

GREENE: You and your mom have been cooking in Queens, in part to try and recapture some of the memories.

BREMZEN: Yes, of bringing back that past in a full, bittersweet, complex flavor through food, brought us closer together. And also, we have a lot of my mother's friends who are in their 70s and 80s. And it's really the last generation that remembers Stalin, World War II. I mean suddenly my mom's kitchen and dining room became a time machine.

GREENE: Anya von Bremzen, thanks so much for talking to us about this.

BREMZEN: It was great to be with you.

INSKEEP: You hear David Greene here on MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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