Rations versus cuisine.
Publisher: Crown (Random House)
Pages: 294 (324 including recipes)
First Published: 12th September 2013
Date Reviewed: 7th September 2013
Von Bremzen chronicles the culinary history of Russia from the 1910s to the present day, interspersing it with political and social history as well as her own.
Mastering The Art Of Soviet Cooking is an intriguing book that blends to a smooth mixture memoir, history and, of course, food. Set up as a project between the author and her mother to visit each decade of Russia’s history via a meal, the book soon devolves into an overall look at the way food was used and consumed in the USSR.
There is a lot of general Russian history in the book, and it will ‘work’ best for the reader if they approach it already familiar with the beginnings of the Soviet Union. Whilst Von Bremzen explains a lot of the reasons for various choices and so forth, she does not introduce the initial change itself. Beyond this, the history is very well described and the reader will come away with a good amount of knowledge about the role of food in Russia.
Well described, too, is the food itself. Due to the limits present in writing about meals (in other words you are of course only reading about the food without tasting or picturing it) it may not be as memorable as the rest of the content, but Von Bremzen’s success is necessarily in the way she links food to the regime itself. For example she explains how the regular person ate, and then details what those who said ‘everyone is equal’ ate.
It is hard not to become fond of Von Bremzen’s family. As the author’s mother played a part in the creation of the book, this is whom you are likely to be most fond of, especially as Larissa comes across as the sort of person you wish would grace more books. Von Bremzen’s mother saw the reality in situations at a young age, so in her daughter’s story you get to see both versions of the history – what it looked like and what it was, and you get this from day one rather than in hindsight. Von Bremzen’s childhood antics are fun, but it is undoubtedly Larissa who steals the show.
The recipes described are contained at the back of the book, and due to their placement the not-quite-concluded final narrative chapter feels strangely fine. In any other book the lack of a conclusion would be a negative, but it really doesn’t matter here and just goes to show that history is still in the making. Indeed if Von Bremzen had left it just a few more years, a whole other decade would have had to have been included.
The one potential downside is the writing style. Von Bremzen has chosen an extremely colloquial language that on many occasions can be difficult to understand. (This is separate to her use of Russian words which is of course a completely different matter – and everything is translated.) In some ways the text reads as though it were a casual speech rather than a book. Slang words and phrases are used, such as ‘cheapo’ (‘cheap’ is never used), aka, and ‘egg thingies’.
The writing has the potential to be a drawback, as does the amount of political history if the reader is expecting food all the time, but overall Mastering The Art Of Soviet Cooking is an informative book with a fascinating cast of real characters. The recipes are introduced well with enough prior information on them for anyone intrigued to want to give them a go, and there is a fair amount of humour and personality in the book.
A good introduction to Russian food history, Mastering The Art Of Soviet Cooking is likely to appeal to anyone who likes the idea of a meal and memoir mix.
I received this book for review from Crown Publishers.
September 13, 2013, 5:43 am
Very interesting concept… know someone who I think this book would appeal to…
September 13, 2013, 5:26 pm
This sounds like a really interesting concept.
September 14, 2013, 9:09 am
How fascinating – I do love food memoirs, but I know almost zero about Russian food history, so this is definitely going on my wishlist.
September 15, 2013, 10:04 am
It sounds like a really interesting book (though I’m not sure how appealing the actual fare sounds to me!). I wonder if some of the writing issues actually come from the translation? It’s too bad as it sounds like it became rather distracting while you were reading it.