Russian writer Anya von Bremzen discusses new food memoir

By Anastasia Skliarova

On Tuesday, April 7, Room 216 of Main Hall was abuzz with excited chatter—this was rather unusual for 7 p.m. on a weekday. Stranger still was the number of people in the room; 105 Lawrence students and faculty, Fox Valley community members, and foodies packed a classroom typically reserved for a little group of students and a professor or two.

This turnout was a worthy testament to the promise of a witty and engaging presentation from the evening’s speaker, Moscow-born Anya von Bremzen, who was invited as a guest of the Russian and History departments. Ms. Bremzen has won three James Beard awards, serves as a contributing editor at Travel + Leisure magazine and recently published “Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking: A Memoir of Food and Longing,” an exciting and personal addition to her five other cookbooks.

This memoir served as the underpinning for Bremzen’s talk. She explained that her book spans the incipience of socialism in the USSR, as recounted by her grandmother, through Bremzen and her mother’s eventual emigration in the 1970s and beyond. This generational, matriarchal journey through the Soviet regime relies strongly on Bremzen’s memories of childhood and the foods—or lack thereof—that served as emblems of the era.

The memoir was inspired by Bremzen’s feelings of living a double life. While eating at and writing about the finest restaurants in New York, she would recall the world of regimented, politicized meals left behind. These recollections of a past filled with not only propaganda, but also the pleasantness of the familiar motivated Bremzen and her mother to sit down, cook and write about these food-oriented flashbacks.

Bremzen referred to these moments as “poisoned madeleines,” paying homage to Marcel Proust’s depiction of involuntary memories triggered by a madeleine cookie from his childhood. Bremzen’s memories were poisoned, however, by the tension between the severity of Soviet rule and the undeniable, personal relationship to the food culture that was manufactured by it. Bremzen and her mother could acknowledge the heavy burden of the regime and still love the country that encompassed their bittersweet remembrances.

The meal that marks the beginning of the book’s voyage through the Soviet regime was associated with the decadence of tsarist Russia. The chapter devoted to World War II, on the other hand, featured no special dish—only an image of a ration card that sent chills down the audience members’ spines.

Some listeners peppered Bremzen’s talk with questions about her memory of particular political events or legends about Russian cuisine. Why, for example, was a certain mayonnaise-laden salad so very important to a Soviet family’s heritage? Were the lines for food really that long?

Bremzen also shared details from her extensive research on food in the Soviet Union. One that sticks out is the fact that in 1936, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin sent his food supply commissar to the United States on a culinary mission. He was to find foods that could be made easily and consistently throughout the vast expanse of the Soviet Union.

The commissar came back with an appreciation for the industrial efficiency of American hamburger production, which led to the birth of the Soviet kotleti, which, alas, only vaguely resembled the iconic burger patties that inspired them.

The final chapter of the memoir is entitled “Putin on the Ritz” and depicts the present-day wealth and consumption in Moscow. One of Bremzen’s many gifts is her ability to both solemnly reminiscence upon the Soviet experience and articulate comic moments in history with aplomb, as well as piquant wordplay.

The evening’s presentation was followed—ever so appropriately—by a glorious reception, complete with blini, caviar, tea and cookies. Those in attendance mingled, recounting their personal recollections of the Soviet Union while others listened and gleefully nibbled at the refreshments provided by the Russian department’s own Professor Elizabeth Krizenesky.

The multidisciplinary, interwoven nature of this event seemed to embody a particularly Lawrentian spirit of learning.

Bremzen’s presentation underscored her profound understanding of complex memories and the poignancy of the past. Cooking and talented storytelling beautifully merged to not only comprise Bremzen’s personal exploration of her homeland, but also to offer the lucky audience a glimpse into a multifaceted, multinational and often misunderstood cultural history.

Those interested in reading Bremzen’s book or learning more about cuisine are encouraged to sign up for “Soviet History Through the Kitchen Door,” one of this year’s D-Term courses, which will be taught by Krizenesky and Associate Professor of Russian Studies Peter John Thomas. The class will include not only fascinating lectures and discussions, but also hands-on cooking every day.