ARUN RATH, HOST:
Food writer Anya von Bremzen's new memoir is called "Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking." If that title brings to mind crop failures, ration cards and bread lines, well, think again. Poverty and shortages are in there, but so are delicious meals and even more delectable prose. Here's Ellah Allfrey with a review.
ELLAH ALLFREY, BYLINE: For years, I've wondered about gefilte fish. It's one of those dishes that appear in novels about Jewish families, almost always at times of celebration or domestic crisis. Well, here's one way to make it: skin a whole pike, mince the flesh, mix with vegetables and bread. Put the whole thing back into the skin, sew it up and poach for three hours. Garnish with horseradish.
There's more. For anyone who's ever wondered about that Russian salad you find at hotel buffets or was curious about the ingredients in an authentic borscht, Anya von Bremzen provides all this and more in her new book. It's a memoir about life and love and food and also about the harsh realities of a Soviet childhood. Food might have been scarce, but Anya's interest in it started early. She describes wandering around Moscow as a child. She buys her family's Sunday treat, drinks birch tree juice, makes strategic friendships with vendors who dabble in the black market.
Years later, living in Queens, the author and her mother embark on a mission. They will cook a series of banquets, each commemorating a decade of Russian history, from the last czar, through to the present day. The feasts are, of course, a way to remember home, and at the same time to celebrate their escape. My favorite moment was when they attempted to make pastry called a kulebiaka. It's a decadent dish from before the Revolution. A 12-tiered skyscraper, starting with the ground floor of burbot liver and topped with layers of fish, meat, game, mushrooms and rice, all wrapped up in dough, up, up, up to a penthouse of calf's brains in brown butter.
Then the banquets progress to the austerity of the 1920s through to the bling-obsessed Putin era. It's a clever, elegant structure that allows the author to write a history of her country with stories of her family. In their new home, Anya's mother embraces the bountiful blandness of Wonder Bread and Oscar Meyer bologna. But for the daughter, it's as if food has lost its meaning.
And while the later chapters in America may lack some of the magic of the childhood described in the book's early pages, I found myself compelled to read to the end, if only for that definitive recipe for Russian salad.
RATH: The book is "Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking" by Anya von Bremzen. Our reviewer is editor and critic Ellah Allfrey.