"Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking" by Anya von Bremzen & veal pelmeni
Try explaining your family, your country, or your most powerful memories without talking about food. Impossible, right? It’s no secret that food is a portal into culture — from the ingredients to the kitchens, our cuisines exemplify nuanced cultural dynamics.
In Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking: A Memoir of Food and Longing, Anya von Bremzen employs a deceptively simple construct. She and her mother prepare one emblematic dish to represent each decade in Russian/Soviet history from the 1910s through the 21st Century. The result is a beautifully layered dish of history, anthropology, family lore and some of the most artful food descriptions you’ll ever read.
Soviet history — erratic, blighted, and zealous — is a complicated mass of contradictions. The nation’s many leaders were larger than life and yet highly inconsistent — Stalin was portrayed as hardened and god-like one moment, warm and child-friendly the next. Lenin was accessible yet immortal. Malatov was scheming yet heroic. And Soviet ideology was as in flux as their leadership. Ascetic principles clashed with “land of plenty” propaganda. Influences from other countries were hidden under a thick layer of nationalism.
Von Bremzen explains all of these historical complexities through the impact they had on daily life and daily food — failed social experiments like public mess halls and more quotidian struggles like lines for meager bread rations, the exaltation of ketchup and obsession with preserving old traditions like herring and vodka pairings. She addresses changing tastes, and even the shifts in public acceptance of the most famous, propaganda-laden cookbook, “The Book of Tasty and Healthy Food.” Your mouth will water with lust one moment, and your stomach will churn with sympathy the next.
As if this were not enough to chew on, Von Bremzen shares with us her lurid family history — from a staunchly Communist-party supporting spy grandfather to a fiercely feminist great-grandmother and a flawed, shifty, deteriorating father. Their experiences add a texture to the work that make it sing with reality and depth. And we also enjoy a window into her modern-day life in the United States as Von Bremzen and her mother cook for their Russian émigré friends. The Soviet yarns shared around a New York table are illuminating, entertaining, and heartbreaking.
Admittedly, I have a special interest in this particular history given my own family history and stint living in St. Petersburg in the early 2000s. But whether you’re a guzzler or a “mindful eater,” a history buff or a history-class-snoozer, this book will most likely knock your socks off. It’s a tale of resilience, of love, of pain, and strange concoctions. Who doesn’t like that?
During my time as a Russia-dweller, the food was not a highlight. I became accustomed to bugs as a bonus source of protein (they look like raisins in your kasha if you squint!), rushed through mystery meats, and had a highly unhappy belly most of the time. But a few culinary delights shone through — one of them being the humble, comforting Russian dumpling, pelmeni (peel-myen-ee).
- about 1 cup of water
- 1 egg
- 1 teaspoon salt
- about 3 1/3 cups of flour
- about 1 pound of ground meat (veal, pork, or beef recommended)
- 1 onion, minced
- salt and pepper
- 1 clove of garlic, minced (optional)
- a pat of butter
- a dollop of smetana or sour cream (optional)
To make the dough, sift your flour onto a clean countertop, forming a mound. Form a little canyon in the top and crack your egg into it. Add the salt. Slowly mix together, incorporating the flour a bit at a time. As you do so, add the water very gradually. Knead for about 15-20 minutes — I know, it’s rough, but you can do it!
The filling is easy-peasy — just mix it all together!
Now roll your dough into a long snake, about an inch in diameter. Cut into a bunch of small pieces, about 1 inch long. Roll your dough cubes into a thin disk (as thin as possible without poking holes in there). Place a dollop of filling into each circle. Fold over the dough into a half circle, pinching the edges. Now curl them up so that the corners are kissing and your overall shape is circular.
Pelmeni is an amazing thing to have in the freezer, so feel free to freeze a few now.
Boil a big ol’ pot of water with salt. Once boiling, plop in your pelmeni and cook until they float, about 5 minutes.
Season your pelmeni simply, with butter, salt and pepper. If you want to be super duper Russian, top with smetana (difficult to find in the US) or sour cream.