Book Review: Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking

Title: Mastering the Art of Soviet cooking
Author: Anya Von Bremzen
Format: e-ARC from Net Galley
Genre: Food Memoir/History
Rating: 4.5/5

I own two copies of Anya Von Bremzen’s cookbook “Please to the Table” (one to use, one to save in case the first one ever gets damaged). That book contains so much person history that I thought I would be relatively familiar with the content of this book. (I also majored in Russian Regional Studies in college, so I’m pretty familiar with Russian history, which I figured would fill in whatever holes there were.) But of course I was wrong.

This book is heartbreaking in the way that any book looking at an individual’s or a family’s Soviet era history is. Family members become heroes and are then purged from the official and personal historical record. I’ve heard stories like this over and over, from books and from people I know, but they never cease to amaze me. Somehow all those years of studying Russian history and politics come alive when you hear how big events hit one family.

Each chapter covers a decade of Soviet History and what happened to members of the author’s family (and the country as a whole) during that period. For example, Chapter Two looks at the 1920s, covering Lenin’s rise and death (and embalming), Stalin’s appearance, and the Kulaks. It also discusses the rejection of Jewishness required by many Soviets, losing a family member to the Gulags, and how how quickly someone could go from the top to the absolute bottom in the Stalin era. The vignettes bothered me more than I thought they would, maybe because I can see many of my college Russian instructors in those stories. (Many of the professors I worked with as an undergraduate were members of the wave of Jewish emigres from the 1970s. They faced many of those same choices.)

I don’t feel that there’s much for me to add to the discussion of this book, since it’s been literally everywhere in the past two months. (Seriously, I had three people ask me if I’d heard of it. By the third I just started laughing.) But I would highly recommend this book to anyone interested in Russian history, food history, personal memoir, or Judaism. As a caveat, this is a long book (my e-book was 315 pages) , so keep that in mind when recommending.

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