This is part cookbook, part memoir, part history, and part biography. Because tasting food evokes memories, and memories need to be explained. Anya von Bremzen and her mother are émigrés living in New York. Home was Moscow, which they left in 1974 when Anya was five. Living in the United States, the two eventually thrive, and are drawn into the Russian émigré community. Anya, having grown up in the home of shortages, becomes a cook and food writer. And with her mother, concocts the idea of throwing a series of themed dinner parties that reflect the development of Russian/Soviet cuisine from 1910 until the 21st century. Herein starts the journey.
The first dinner is inspired by literature: Chekhov describing the delicacies of a pre-revolution dinner. Anya and her mother are inspired to recreate it. Thus the book moves forward, a chapter per decade, with the main meal described and developed. But New York is not Moscow, and American ingredients are not Russian ingredients. Mayonnaise is decidedly sweeter in the US than Russia. Then there is the personal history of Anya’s family, her mother’s family from Odessa and her father’s from Moscow. Mother grew up the daughter of a nomenklatura but longed for the freedoms outside the Soviet system. Anya rebelled against her mother’s rebellion and longed for Soviet conformity.
The biography is mostly of Larissa Frumkin, Anya’s maternal grandmother and the history is the changes of Soviet life as it related to the Frumkin and von Bremzen families. Woven in is the story of a dish that signifies the key elements of that decade, how it relates to the family and the USSR.
Obviously, this is not your traditional cookbook, with only nine recipes for the ten decades (the omission is explained). For those who think Russian cooking is simply potatoes and cabbage soup, be disabused. Von Bremzen does a masterful job of weaving her story, her mother’s story, the food and socio-political nuances into a delightful read. Think Chocolat but with a stricter range of ingredients: Шоколад perhaps. She made me want to go to a Russian restaurant and pig out on more than just blini.
Supplied by Random House New Zealand
Reviewed by Steve