When Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking: A Memoir of Food and Longing came across my desk, I immediately flipped through the pages, which brought back memories of my undergraduate studies of Russian literature, and of my own travels within Russia.
As some of the best memoirists do, food writer Anya von Bremzen uses her own life as a jumping off point for the larger history. She emigrated with her mother from Moscow as a child in 1974, and graduated from Julliard in the 1980s—but around that time her career took a turn. When she developed a lump on her wrist, which prohibited her from playing piano, she turned to food and, in a surprise turn of events, landed a cookbook deal at age 24.
For Bremzen, food evoked memories of her life in Moscow, but also transported her further back to the time of her mother’s and grandmother’s youth. And throughout her narrative, she gives a wonderful history of the Soviet Union, from the last days of the czars through the putsch of 1991.
I went to Russia the following year, and remember the versions of pelmeni, dumplings, I ate as I traveled from Petersburg to Irkutsk. And while classical music is ever present for pianist Bremzen, for me it’s the voice and guitar playing of the bard Vladimir Visotsky that still echoes in my head.