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Anya Von Bremzen – Mastering The Art Of Soviet Cooking

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Rations versus cuisine.

Publisher: Crown (Random House)
Pages: 294 (324 including recipes)
Type: Non-Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-307-88681-1
First Published: 12th September 2013
Date Reviewed: 7th September 2013
Rating: 4/5

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.

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Michael Pollan – The Omnivore’s Dilemma

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You might not become vegetarian after this, but you’ll definitely think twice before consuming most foods again.

Publisher: Bloomsbury
Pages: 411
Type: Non-Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-4088-1218-1
First Published: 2006
Date Reviewed: 1st August 2013
Rating: 5/5

Pollan looks at three methods of creating food – industrial, natural farming, and hunter-gathering, in order to find the ‘perfect’ meal. Following some of the foods from field to table, he explores the effects the different methods have had on our world and our health and aims to make his reader aware of the entirety of what they are eating.

The Omnivore’s Dilemma is an in-depth book written in a casual, friendly, style, that seeks to inform.

Besides the obvious information, the best aspect is undoubtedly Pollan’s style, his approach to the work. Humorous, unbiased in general and open when not, he comes across as both an expert and layman and the book is enjoyable and engrossing.

The biggest ‘takeaway’ from the book is surely Pollan’s detailing of the industrial food industry. Albeit that the book concerns America and therefore may not be so relevant elsewhere, the details of unnaturally fed cattle, of drugged-up animals, petrol-filled pigs, and cruelty, is enough to make you want to put the book down for a moment to clear your mind. Some of what’s written is hard to read, especially when you know your digestive system depends on the very food discussed – both meat and vegetables are described in equal ‘ickiness’.

This is balanced by Pollan’s second study, natural farming. ‘Beyond organic’ (organic as a completely natural method having been debunked earlier), this is where Pollan introduces the reader to the farmers who work entirely with nature. Of particular interest are the sections that deal with natural farming being easier because the farmers are working with nature instead of trying to change it.

The hunter-gather sections aren’t quite as historic as you might expect, but as you learn, it is as good as Pollan can get within the limits of present life.

Pollan isn’t out to turn people into vegetarians, but nor is he comfortable with changing the mindset of vegetarians, either. There is an inherent bias towards the omnivore, naturally, and many vegetarians who are such for reasons of principle, may find the latter sections of the book hard to comprehend. But Pollan doesn’t debunk vegetarianism or denounce it as silly, he provides unapologetic and undefended reasons why and in what circumstances it is okay to be a meat eater.

And he doesn’t ever condemn those who like fast-food, instead simply cautioning against it.

At times the book can be repetitive and Pollan’s choice of words and phrasing is strange, but overall this is a very solid book with a fair amount of research. Easy to read, it is accessible to anyone and should inspire an admiration of Pollan, if not of his work per se, then certainly his approachable style.

The Omnivore’s Dilemma is an important book that contains knowledge everyone ought to have. As much for what it doesn’t say – perforce, as Pollan speaks of not being allowed inside industrial slaughter houses – it is recommended to everyone who so much as ponders what they’re putting in their mouths at meal times.

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Robin Shulman – Eat The City

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Are you sure farming is rural?

Publisher: Crown (Random House)
Pages: 301
Type: Non-Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-307-71905-8
First Published: 2012
Date Reviewed: 17th September 2012
Rating: 4/5

Shulman presents the often deceptively small groups of people who defy the notion of modern urbanisation to grow and produce their own food in the heart of New York City. Covering both traditional gardening and industrial manufacture, Shulman illustrates how history has moved from one extreme to the other and back again, showing that whilst such production may seem shocking to those who live unknowingly amongst it, it is actually part of how New York City first came into being.

Eat The City is a rather in-depth look at those who produce food, both en masse and in small quantities. It spans a range of tastes and traditions, including both solids and liquids. Each food in question is given its own section as Shulman recounts visits to the individuals who make it and refers back to historical records to detail how things used to be done. But far from the historical parts being all about the economic and culinary history, Shulman also looks into family history to explain how those she visits and interviews are culturally linked to the foods they produce.

And for the most part such a method of storytelling works well; the present flows into the past and back again and one feels that they know the individuals assessed as well as Shulman herself. Indeed it is only when right in the midst of the book that the method feels a little overused and you start to wonder whether more time ought to have been spent on the present, regardless of the fact that Shulman aptly describes the manufacturing and growing process. Yet this is more a case of retaining interest than writing style as the book requires the history – it is simply that having the book split into sections and the same method of writing being employed each time becomes wearing. For this reason the book can favour a dip-in approach so that the report doesn’t become heavy. The presence of the history fits Shulman’s aim – present-day is incredibly intriguing, but the context and reasoning even more so.

There is a good mix of vegetables and animals accounted for. The first half of the book favours natural, unaltered, produce, with the second half full of industrial manufacture and traditional methods that have been tainted by modernity, for example fishing. Shulman’s section on fishing is a particularly favourable addition because the entirety of it highlights the dangers of the practise. Whilst you are shown that it is possible to farm organically and safely in the city, fishing has inevitably been literally tainted by the chemicals that are dumped into the surrounding waters. For an overall subject that presents hardship and hard work but with resounding success, the section on fishing is difficult to read because of the knowledge Shulman brings to the table. And it is all the more harrowing given that whilst many poor people are fishing for mercury-filled fish, there are others who have the money to eat well but are unknowingly feeding themselves and their family poison.

Shulman brings the era of Atlantic slavery into the section on sugar, detailing not just the history but how the work has been passed down so that even now the successors of the African slaves grow cane. The difference being, of course, that their gardens are the result of choice. This is just one instance of immigration adding to the workings of the city, as detailed too are the Arab Jewish wines and Caribbean vegetable growers. Shulman’s book is a fantastic look at how a city is shaped by everyone who lives there, be they natives, invaders, or otherwise, and how it is impossible to separate such cultures when everything has become mixed together to become one mass society and way of life.

It must be said that the book is not apologetic. If the beginning sections invite the interest of vegetarians then the latter ones will put them off, and there are interviews on both sides of the GM debate. There are inclusions from newspaper articles on political decisions and overturning when the common man did not meet the specifications of those on high, as well as the disagreements within neighbours of those who wanted land for food and those who opposed it. And there is the ever-imposing divide between man and machine, the foodie and the real estate company, as well as the man and the Industrial Revolution. Because food production, even today, is considered backwards when urbanisation is forwards.

There is not really much to be said in disagreement to the way the book has been written. To be sure there are too many lists, wherein Shulman provides all the different elements of a particular system and the number of commas is at least a dozen over several lines, and there is the instance of a misquotation of Apollo 17 moon walker Eugene Cernan as having said “man oh Manischewitz” when he simply said “Manischewitz”, but these are meticulous points.

If ever there was an interesting tale to be told about a place that appears to be the height of urbanity, then this is it. For the European who can only view the city via Friends, the film The Devil Wears Prada, and Google’s Streetview, New York is perhaps the ultimate in urban business areas with a few residential neighbours thrown in. Indeed whilst what Shulman says may shock the average American citizen (and that in itself is a supposition) the impact will likely be greater on the onlooker.

Eat The City is a unique and inspiring exploration of an idyllic way of life, both surviving and being newly imported into a place that is not assumed to be appropriate for it. It does this whilst including a host of people who are from different walks of life and who have different goals. The traditionalist, the hobbyist, the entrepreneur and the capitalist – Shulman brings them all together as one movement: the everyday citizen, be he rich or poor, who just wants to have a hand in the way his food is produced and bring back production to a local level.

I received this book for review from the Crown Publishing Group.

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