Off the shelf: Life in the Old Country: the flavor of Russia, a taste of ashes

I’m feeling haunted by two new genre-defying explorations of Communist-era Eastern Europe.

Anya von Bremzen is an award-winning food writer and cookbook author, but those who buy her new book, “Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking,” in hopes of developing kitchen skills are in for a disappointment. The book is really about understanding the difficult art of Soviet living, as experienced by four generations of the author’s family. 

Food serves as the book’s organizing principle, with changes in the nation reflected in what is found in its pantries, dining rooms and dreams. The decadent foods described in the classic novels of the 19th century give way to the often austere diet of the post-revolution period, with its concomitant scarcities, long lines and rationing. As von Bremzen writes, “a story about Soviet food is a chronicle of longing.” 

Each chapter begins with von Bremzen and her mother choosing and preparing a dish that best encapsulates a decade of Soviet history. For those who want to take this history lesson to their own kitchens, there is, in fact, a short addendum containing recipes for each of these emblematic dishes. Poignantly, there is no recipe to represent the decade of the 1940s. Instead, there is a reproduction of a ration card from Leningrad, where the wartime siege caused hundreds of thousands to die of starvation.

Von Bremzen left the Soviet Union in 1974 as a 10-year-old, settling with her mother in Philadelphia. As a result, a portion of the book addresses adjusting to life as a Soviet émigré in America. As a youngster, von Bremzen was thrown off by the plentitude of American markets, reflected in the strangeness of replacing “the heroic Soviet verb ‘dostat’ (to obtain with difficulty) with the banal ‘kupit’ (to buy), a term barely used back in the USSR.” Her mother serves as a consistent foil to von Bremzen’s occasional lapses into nostalgia, recalling the conditions of Soviet life with little fondness. 

Von Bremzen’s mother is Jewish, and a portion of the book is devoted to exploring Jewish identity in the Soviet Union, “a Jewishness so drastically redefined for my mother’s and my generations by the fervent Bolshevik identity policies forged in the 1920s.” 

True to the book’s food-centered conceit, it is gefilte fish that represents the family’s ambivalent relationship to being Jewish.  

In the 1920s, her great-grandmother prepared gefilte fish for every Shabbat meal. Then, von Bremzen’s grandmother, as a teenager who had recently joined the Communist Party’s youth division, pronounced, “Mother, your fish is vile religious food. I will never eat it again.” And so it was that Jewish foods disappeared from their family meals.

Von Bremzen recalls her first encounter with the emblematic dish as a child visiting family in Odessa. Overwhelmed by the smells, the sights and the questions as she stood in the kitchen watching her older relatives prepare the fish, she ran out of the building, gasping for air. The thought came to her later that  “I had run away from my Jewishness.”

As an adult in America, von Bremen has made peace with her identity. And her practice of making gefilte fish painstakingly by hand with her mother has become a “small way of atoning for that August day in Odessa.”

Although not suggested by the title, Marci Shore’s “The Taste of Ashes: The Afterlife of Totalitarianism in Eastern Europe” is also largely a memoir. Shore teaches at Yale, but the book is an unusual one to emerge from the pen of an academic historian. Unabashedly subjective, it records Shore’s growth in understanding the complex field of modern Eastern Europe (primarily Poland and the former Czechoslovakia) as an outsider, as well as her awe in encountering a world where the ghosts of history endure so vividly.

A central part of Shore’s path has been simply to talk to people, in hopes of uncovering the often suppressed memories and beliefs surrounding the Communist past and the uneasy transition to an open society. She learns fast that varying political and ethnic backgrounds can lead to very different narratives.

Shore maintains particular interest in the ways Jews and non-Jews view the past differently — particularly World War II — and in the difficulty of arriving at historical truths amid warring ideologies and contested events. For example, while acknowledging that the frequent Polish stereotype of Jews as Bolsheviks is a myth, Shore addresses the reality that quite a few Jews did embrace communism in the aftermath of the Nazi era. 

In fact, some Jews, such as Jakub Berman, the head of Poland’s hated secret police, achieved positions of significant power in the Stalin-backed regimes (often only to be purged as Jews became increasingly unwelcome participants in government). There remains great ambivalence, disagreement and embarrassment about this phenomenon through the present day, and one of Shore’s skills is to get her interviewees to discuss it. 

Disturbing and enlightening, Shore’s book of many voices paints an enormously complex picture that befits its subject.

“Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking: A Memoir of Food and Longing” by Anya von Bremzen (352 pages, Crown, $26)

“The Taste of Ashes: The Afterlife of Totalitarianism in Eastern Europe” by Marci Shore (384 pages, Crown, $27)


Howard Freedman is the director of the Jewish Community Library, a program of Jewish LearningWorks, in San Francisco. All books mentioned in this column may be borrowed from the library.

Howard Freedman
Howard Freedman

Howard Freedman is the director of the Jewish Community Library, a program of Jewish LearningWorks, in San Francisco. All books mentioned in his column may be borrowed from the library.