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Memoir Reveals True Taste of Soviet Life

Published: January 21, 2014 (Issue # 1793)



  • Borscht is just one of the many popular Russian meals mentioned in the book with a special recipe provided at the end.
    Photo: Juerg Vollmer / Wikimedia Commons

  • Von Bremen's cookbook-memoir.
    Photo: Random House

Soviet cooking? The adjective "Soviet" frequently brings to mind food lines, food monotony, and food deprivation — but cooking does not readily come to mind.

Soviet homemakers who endured the lines, monotony, and deprivation did, of course, still want to cook, when and if they could. "Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking" recounts their efforts. It is not a cookbook, although it does contain a handful of recipes. Instead, it offers a multigenerational memoir in which the texture of daily life is rendered through memories of food present and food absent. The memories belong to the author, her mother, and her grandmother; the text thus spans virtually the entire Soviet era.

The book begins in the cramped Queens kitchen of the author's mother as they put the finishing touches on a pre-Soviet style feast. The menu is tzarist and opulent. There is, of course, the stereotypical caviar, as well as a cornucopia of home-cooked delights: kvass, lemon-infused vodka, crispy brains in brown butter, an opulent dessert containing a full pound of candied nuts and even — piece de resistance — a kulebiaka.

A Trip Down Soviet Culinary Lane

Just reading about making a kulebiaka made this cook tired. The dish requires a yeast-based pastry dough, wild mushrooms, fish, blinchiki, and perhaps — if you can get one — a sturgeon spine. It takes a long time — and endless pots — to make.

But by the time we get to the eating of the kulebiaka, we've detoured to its description in Tolstoy and Chekhov, relived the ersatz version that regularly constituted a Sunday treat in the author's Brezhnev-era Moscow childhood, and experienced the versions shared by White Russian emigres who befriended the author and her mother after their move to Philadelphia in 1974.

We have learned that the grandmother who is enthusiastically constructing pastry dough in Queens never baked from scratch during her Soviet years. And we know that her mother, an emancipated New Soviet woman, disdained any form of cookery: "Why should I bake," she said indignantly, "when I can be reading a book?"

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Thursday, Apr. 24


Learn more about Denmark during the Danish Business Delegation’s visit to SPIBA this evening starting at 5:30 p.m. at the Danish Culture Institute. Danish Consul general Klaus Sorensen will be in attendance and the buffet following a presentation on Danish companies in Russia will be the perfect opportunity to network with the assembled businessmen.


AmCham’s Human Resources Committee Meeting is scheduled for 9 a.m. this morning in their St. Petersburg office. Check their website for more details.



Friday, Apr. 25


Light Music presents the main events for their Cultural Kitchen project at Loft-Project Etagi today. A B2B event that focuses on Finnish food, arts, travel, music and design, the evening will conclude with a dinner by chef Jyrki Tsutsunen and dancing to music by Aino Venna. The event, which began yesterday with presentations by tourism and cultural institutions, concludes today with a preview of Finland’s Flow festival and other musical events. Invitations are available from www.culturalkitchen.fi.



Saturday, Apr. 26


At 6 p.m. this evening, stylist Liliana Modigliani offers 50 simple ways to up your style quotient with beauty tips at the Galeria shopping center on Ligovsky Prospekt. The event is part of the final day of the shopping mall’s Fashion Saturday sales event, this week focusing on top brands located on the ground floor as well as presentation from fashion experts on sprucing up your spring look.



Sunday, Apr. 27


Families shouldn’t miss Childhood Planet 2014, the trade fair that started yesterday and concludes today at LenExpo. Not only will goods and services be provided for children and families but the event hopes to promote Russian brands and eco-friendly products using the latest technology available in the childcare industry.



Monday, Apr. 28


The Hotel Indigo will be the site of SPIBA’s Acting Skills for HR and Other Managers master class this morning starting at 9 a.m. The event will begin with coffee before moving on to the class itself and conclude with a tour of the recently opened hotel. Confirm attendance by Apr. 24.



Tuesday, Apr. 29


Improve your English at the British Book Center’s Interactive English Lesson tonight at 6 p.m. Students at pre-intermediate and intermediate levels are welcome discuss topics that are selected to help learners master the more difficult aspects of English grammar and vocabulary.