Podcast Episode 72: Author Anya von Bremzen on Eating in Soviet Russia
Three-time James Beard Award-winning author Anya von Bremzen talks about what food was like growing up in Soviet Russia. We discuss Russian mayonnaise, communal apartments and the black market.
Listen to this podcast now:
In this episode of the Find Dining Podcast, three-time James Beard Award-winning author Offer: Anya von Bremzen talks about what food was like growing up in Soviet Russia. We discuss Russian mayonnaise, communal apartments and the black market.
- Read Anya von Bremzen's Offer: 0307886816 Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking: A Memoir of Food and Longing
- The director of one of Moscow's most famous grocery stores was executed for economic crimes
- Offer: 0761145974 The Silver Palate Cookbook paved the way for Anya's books
- Anya's Offer: 0894807536 Please to the Table: The Russian Cookbook won a James Beard Award and launched her career.
- The title of Anya's latest book is a nod to Julia Child's classic cookbook, Offer: 0375413405 Mastering the Art of French Cooking
- Marcel Proust links memories to madeline cookies in Offer: 1840221461 Remembrance of Things Past
Food for Thought:
- Q: Which American classic was invented in Tijuana in 1924?
- A: The Caesar Salad.
Out of the Frying Pan:
- Best Place to Find Great Russian Restaurants: Ask the hotel at the concierge or read Anya's columns in Food & Wine or Travel + Leisure
- Signature Russian Dishes to Try: Pirozhki and Blini
- Favorite Restaurant in Moscow: Cafe Pushkin
- Favorite Recipe in the her Book: Uzbek Palov (Pilaf)
- Favorite Dish from Childhood: Pelmeni (Siberian Dumplings)
- Favorite Cookbook Authors: Paula Wolfert and Diana Kennedy
- What to Read While Traveling Russia: "The Siren" by Anton Chekhov
Seth: This is Episode Number 72 of the Find Dining Podcast. Welcome to Russia.
Hello and welcome to Taste Trekkers Find Dining Podcast. I’m your host. My name is Seth Resler. And this is the podcast for foodies who love travel and travelers who love food. Each week, we go to a different city or different place and we talk to a local culinary experts, somebody who really knows the food scene. Lately, we’ve been going international. It’s been great and we’re going international again this week. We are going to be talking all about Russia.
I want to let you know before we start that you can find this podcast on iTunes, subscribe there and while you’re there, leave a review, that helps other people discover the show. You can also find the episodes on YouTube. We’re posting them all there.
Now, I want to introduce our guest. We are talking this week to Anya von Bremzen. She’s an accomplished food writer. She’s won three James Beard Awards. That’s impressive. She’s a contributing editor over at
Travel + Leisure Magazine and she’s author of five cookbooks including
The New Spanish Table,
The Greatest Dishes: Around the World in 80 Recipes and
Please to the Table: The Russian Cookbook. She’s got a new book out, it’s called
Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking: A Memoir of Food and Longing.
Anya, thank you so much for joining us.
Anya: Thanks so much for having me. Great to be here.
Seth: Oh, this is the first time we’ve talked about Russia and, of course, with the Olympics in Sochi, it’s great to be talking to somebody who really knows about Russian food. So this is exciting.
Anya: I’m excited, too.
Seth: We are going to find out about your personal history and then we are going to talk about your brand new book and after that, we’re going to end as we always do with a game called Out of the Frying Pan. But before we get to any of that, I know you’ve got a trivia question for me. So tell me what it is.
Anya: Here we go. Which American classic was invented in Tijuana, Mexico in 1924?
Seth: Which American classic was actually invented in Tijuana, Mexico?
Anya: In 1924.
Seth: We should point out that you write about foods from a lot of places, not just Russia, right?
Seth: Which – Tijuana, Mexico. I don’t know. I always remember that one of my best friends as a kid went to Tijuana and they tried to sell him a bullet proof briefcase that was made out of cardboard and that’s pretty much all I know about Tijuana.
Anya: Did it work?
Seth: Yeah, I don’t think it really works.
Anya: Not exactly.
Seth: I don’t know. I’m going to think about that as I always do. You know, I always need some time to think about it before I get the question wrong.
Anya: Don’t cheat and Google anything.
Seth: I never cheat. I will say that I never – that’s why I get them all wrong because I never cheat. We’ll come back to that. In the meantime, let’s talk about you because you have a fascinating personal story. I mean, you grew up in Soviet Russia in Moscow and you were 10 when you came to Philadelphia with your mother in 1974. And your book is really telling the story of Soviet Russia through food. Talk to me a little bit about what it was like to grow up in Russia and particularly through food.
Anya: Well, you know, I’m probably the only American food writer who’s grown up in a communal apartment where a kitchen was a shared by 18 other families. I have no idea what an avocado was until I came to America and I must have had a banana three times in my life. So it’s kind of both ironic and fitting that I dedicated myself to food as my career because in Russia, it was such an object of longing and desire and attention because of the constant shortages and the lines that we had to endure for the most basic commodities.
Food just loomed so large in everyone’s mind and, you know, food was a ritual of coming together for families. You know, you’re always stood in the line to get something special. Food was a status symbol. Food, you know, divided people. It united people. It really has existential meaning. The funny thing is that as every Soviet back in the ‘70s, I was absolutely obsessed with the West, you know. Occasionally, I would get a pack of Juicy Fruit gum by loitering around an international hotel and, you know, kind of harassing foreigners and that was black marketer it.
And my school, you know, I would bring a pack of gum, a ruler, a penknife and in the girl’s bathroom, I would just cut up the gum into tiny strips and I could get like five kopek for a strip of gum.
Anya: It was unbelievable. Yeah, I mean, just a smell of the gum or, you know, the sight of a bottle of Coca-Cola that I would put like tea in, it would just be such a turn on.
Seth: What were the foods that embodied the west, you know, in your mind back then?
Anya: You know, we had no idea. It was just – it was mainly the packaging. We lived in a neighborhood where there were a lot of foreigners and I was at embassy sometimes with the kids. And then, you know, I remember Cadburys bars and think that chocolate was something very British. Also M&Ms. Mainly just kind of foods that you could…and just add booze of course.
Anya: Because what Russian did, they will get like a bottle of some foreign whiskey and they would just keep the bottle and put tea inside just to show off, you know, so it was labels. We have absolutely no idea, that’s why I was saying we had no idea what the food actually tasted like. And once we came to Philadelphia and I got a firsthand experience of eating American foods, I was really, really disappointed. That was absolutely crushing to me because you get all this weird things like an Oreo cookie, for instance…
Anya: Like to a Russian girl, you know, a black cookie, like who would make a black cookie that tastes like something synthetic and like what was Wonder Bread.
Anya: Like the soft squishy bread, you know, offered in Russian in a fragrance dense white bread. And you remember there were 74 in suburban Philadelphia. So like you wouldn’t probably want to eat this food either. So, yeah, there was this big kind of trauma and crushing disappointment of my life that after, you know, dreaming about this fantasy foreign food, when I encountered it, it kind of meant nothing to me.
Seth: You’ve talked about your first experience in an American grocery store, tell me a little bit about that.
Anya: Well, in Russia, you know you had to line up for everything. Everything was crowded. And then we arrived in Philadelphia and there are no sidewalks, we don’t have a car so we have to schlep to the local Pathmarks. Literally, like walking along a highway. And then you came into this Pathmark and then it was as huge as Red Square in Moscow. It was filled with absolutely everything. There were like 24 kinds of sausages, grapes and cherries in winter, all those cans that we didn’t recognize. And my mom would just roam the aisles, you know, touching all the packages, kind of reading the labels for whatever she didn’t understand.
And I felt like for me my American dream has crashed with all this abundance because it didn’t mean anything anymore. You know, food for me kind of lost its status and prestige and the desirability because you could just go and buy anything in the store any time of day, like who wanted that.
Seth: So you appreciate it less when it becomes so common?
Anya: I think so and then since you came, for instance, in Tokyo in Japan which is a fashion conscious culture, what they do was desirable, they had desirable foods they ration them…like you get 20 cakes a day, you know, at a really prestigious bakery. So people would line at 6:00 AM just to get a piece of the cake. So the good of it, you know, they know that desire and demands creates a hype.
Anya: That’s not just in Russia.
Seth: And if anything, it’s actually gotten worst in the sense that, you know, now nobody knows what foods are in season when because you can get everything year round. The stuff that’s in the grocery store has actually increased quite a bit since the ‘70s.
Anya: But now people know better. I mean, they will be paying, you know, we all pay three times the price of a supermarket ingredient for kale at the farmer’s market.
Anya: And we know to buy seasonal and we know to appreciate produce that’s special. So in a way, it’s the same situation. And, yeah, sometimes I come to my local farmer’s market by 10:30 AM and the fish that I want is already sold out, so like I get up at 8:00 to have the great fishmonger. The guys bring the fish straight from Long Island, but they sell out. I kind of feel like I’m back to this attitudes about food that I grew up with.
Seth: But you appreciate that, you know, having to get up early to go buy these foods because, in a way, it sort of forces you to really appreciate the value of them.
Anya: Exactly. It makes it special.
Seth: Right. Talk to me about the communal apartment. You mentioned that there were 18 families and you’re all sharing one kitchen, so what is meal time look like in that circumstance?
Anya: Well, there were several counters. A few families would share one counter and in it were like three stoves. It’s very common, institution, the communal apartment, Lenin started it after the 1970s by appropriating rich people’s apartment and squeezing as many poor people – or people of all classes into one place, you know, where they shared bathrooms and kitchens.
You know, it was like a microcosm of the Soviet societies. There will be Jewish people and anti-Semitic people. There’ll be like some old religious babushka and religion is sorta semi-banned so she bake an Easter cake, for instance, because, you know, neighbors was spy on her and report her and people who likes Russian food. And the fascinating thing is that we have an old lady who would steal soup meat from people’s pots, so people would put padlock and scribbled skull and bone signs on their pots.
And, you know, so the communal is nice and trying to catch her in action, it will be a big – there will be knife fights in the kitchen. People who were drunk, you know, mom like wouldn’t let me go in. It was something else.
Seth: Wow. That’s amazing. Now, what kind of foods or dishes are you preparing then as a kid growing up? I mean, what are the meals that you remembered eating back then?
Anya: You know, we ate traditional Russian food. We ate borscht, you know, the lovely beet soup. Lots of soups because the winters were so long. We ate Shchi, cabbage soup. People baked a lot maybe like savory pies with cabbage, you know, a lot of composed salads like salad Olivier, a delicious potato salad with pickles.
Seth: Yeah, tell me about that.
Anya: Well, it’s a festive dish. Actually, now that the Olympics will start, people will make it a lot and we have it a lot during New Year. It’s a basic potato salad but with the addition of pickles and boiled eggs and you always had to have canned peas. It’s just actually just anything. And this came in a tangy dressing of Soviet mayonnaise that was really delicious. That was another thing, when we came and discovered Hellmann’s and the American mayonnaise seemed so thick and flowing.
Seth: What’s Russian mayonnaise like?
Anya: It was much tarter and like a little bit more pungent and a little bit more loose and liquid.
Seth: Got you.
Anya: It’s more like Japanese mayonnaise. It’s really in fashion right now.
Seth: And were these all ingredients that were easily available as a kid or were these hard to get? I mean, was it hard to make a Russian salad?
Anya: You know, there was always something that was hard to get like some canned peas were very prestigious and they were hard to get, so you always have to line up for it. Mayonnaise, you could get it at stores but again there was a line. That’s what made the salad so festive. It was special occasion because if it’s something you could just make from anything in your fridge, it wouldn’t be that special.
Seth: Got you. So it was the big deal when you put this together.
Anya: Yeah, and people would serve it and cut crystal bowls during the holidays and still, tradition still exists.
Seth: And you talk about the lines that were at the grocery stores. Was there a black market for food as well?
Anya: Yes, absolutely. Our neighbor in the communal apartment, our next neighbor was in fact a black marketeer. He was a director of a food store and he will sell a lot of the stuff obviously to the side. Yeah, black market was huge. And it was basically acquired through connection. You couldn’t just go up to a store, not to someone from a black market. No, you have to know people.
Seth: Is that dangerous to be selling food on the black market? I mean, is that something that they really cracked down on or was it pretty lax?
Anya: Yes, it was considered an economic crime and, you know, anybody could really get several years in jail, that’s why our neighbor shared our horrible apartment. I mean, he could have – he have so much money, he could have a car and a big apartment of his own. But then you flaunt wealth and then you get arrested.
Seth: Got you. So it was almost disguised for him.
Anya: Actually, there was a famous case right after Gorbachev in the ‘80s of a director of a supermarket, the most prestigious supermarket emporium, I would say, in Moscow, she got firing squad. She got a death sentence, also, for economic crimes.
Seth: Wow. What was it like going to the grocery store in Russia back then? What would a Moscow grocery store look like?
Anya: Well that grocery store, for instance, called Yeliseevskiy, the director of which got executed, it wasn’t terribly opulent. It was left over from the Czars estate, so it had chandeliers, it has stained glass. It was really incredible. I mean, it was pretty full of stuff. There were just some of the annoying thing that you have to line up for the counter, pick out what you wanted to say, you know, give me a pound of this, slice me half a pound of cheese. Then you have to line up for the cashier to pay for it and you had to line up back at the counter to get your package. So, you know, you would stand on three lines.
Seth: Oh, wow. So it was a long affair. I mean, going to the grocery store was something that you had to plan your day around.
Anya: Yes, and unfortunately for women, and there were many women who do the shopping and the cooking, their days were pretty difficult. You know, you would take the bus back from your work, it’s already 5 or 6 o’clock, if it’s winter, it’s completely dark. Then you would line up in one store and then you go to another store for something else and line up again. By the time you got home, it’s 7:00 and you have to cook dinner for your family.
Seth: Wow, that’s a lot of work.
Anya: And Soviet women have full careers.
Seth: They do. So they’re working all day long on top of all this.
Anya: It’s important job, you know, not just – I mean, there were women who are like directors on nuclear facility, directors of hospitals, you know, important responsible jobs and then they still have to do the house labor and men did nothing.
Seth: And what was your mother, what did she do?
Anya: My mother was a teacher. She taught English and she worked at night. She taught an evening classes, so by the time she got time, it will be already 10 o’clock.
Seth: Wow. So tell me about her decision to come to America and to bring you.
Anya: Well, she felt that Soviet life – because of the harsh daily realities and because of the anti-Semitism and, you know, the oppressive regime, she felt that was really unbearable for her. And in 1974, she decided to leave, my father decided not to come so it was just the two of us. It was difficult.
Seth: Right. And you come to Philadelphia. And how do you wind up writing about food?
Anya: It was really a fluke. I wasn’t expecting it at all. I was trying to become a concert pianist because I was a music student in Russia and then I graduated from the Julliard School when we moved to New York. And I had a professional injury where I had to stop playing for a while and relearn my technique. And just to make money, I was translating cookbooks from Italian, which I learned when we were in Rome. And I said, this is a great thing. I could maybe do my own cookbook.
And my then boyfriend and I decided to do a Russian cookbook. We found a literary agent. She sent to all her publishers and it was like 1990 right after Perestroika. And the publishers would say, “A what, a book about bread lines?” Finally, the last publisher that said yes. I was working on publishing who just published the Offer: 0761145974 The Silver Palate Cookbook. It was like the iconic type zeitgeist cookbook of the ‘80s. And they were very interested. And the book came out, it was called Offer: 0894807536 Please to the Table: The Russian Cookbook and it’s won the very first James Beard Award for the best international cookbook. And suddenly, I have a new career.
Seth: And that’s amazing to do that on your first cookbook to win that and especially a cookbook that, you know, publishers were turning down. Now, I have to imagine that the appetite for cookbooks has changed. I mean, now, it seems like people are interested in learning about cuisines from different regions but it was different in the ‘90s.
Anya: It was still quite different, yeah. The foodie, the whole American foodie movement was just beginning and, in fact, the
Silver Palate was very important because it showed you how to entertain in this new style. You know, everyone was making pesto from this and that and gruyere and wild mushrooms. The boutique interesting ingredients were just becoming popular. And, yes, there were cookbook about Chinese cuisine, about Indian cuisine but it was just the beginning.
Anya: And it was really not a prestigious thing. Now, people asking what I do and I said, I write about food and then one says, “Oh, I want your job.” Back then, people asked me and I said I wrote about food and they’ve got, “Ah,” it was like is carried no cache whatsoever.
Seth: Right. Well, that was a good place to be. We’re going to come back in just a moment. We’re going to talk about your new book which is fascinating. It’s called Offer: 0307886816 Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking: A Memoir of Food and Longing. And we’re also going to get an answer to your trivia question and then we’re going to play a game called Out of the Frying Pan. That’s coming up in just a second.
Before we get back to Anya, I just want to mention, if you haven’t already done so, please head over to Taste Trekkers and check out the blog. We just launched it a couple of weeks ago. It’s fantastic. We’ve got recommendations on all sorts of dishes and places you should try, if you go to certain places whether it’s burgers in Toronto, whether it’s green chili pork dishes in Phoenix, whether it’s places that every tourist should check out in New York City and we’re just getting started. We’re absolutely excited about the blog. We hope you’ll check it out. You can find it at TasteTrekkers.com/blog and please enjoy.
We are talking to Anya von Bremzen. She is an incredibly accomplished food writer, three James Beard Awards for her food writing. She’s contributing editor at
Travel + Leisure Magazine. She’s got five cookbooks under her name including the
Greatest Dishes!: Around the World in 80 Recipes,
The New Spanish Table,
Please to the Table: The Russian Cookbook and a brand new book that we’re going to talk about in just a moment here,
Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking: A Memoir of Food and Longing.
Anya, you had a trivia question for me which was not about Russia. It’s not about the Soviet Union. So give it to me one more time.
Anya: Which American classic was invented in Tijuana, Mexico in 1924?
Seth: American classic, this is a dish?
Anya: Yes, a dish.
Seth: Okay. And it’s something you eat, so it’s not a drink.
Anya: It’s probably something you eat.
Anya: It’s not a margarita.
Seth: American classic in 1924 in Tijuana. You know, I think the hotdog, for some reason, I think was the St. Louis Fair. I can’t imagine it’s pizza. Hamburger I think it was Denver.
Anya: No, it’s not a hamburger.
Seth: It’s not the hamburger?
Seth: Other American – peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
Seth: I don’t know. What is it?
Anya: Oh, should I tell you?
Seth: Sure, yes, because I’m not gonna...
Anya: Caesar Salad.
Seth: The Caesar Salad was Tijuana?
Seth: Caesar has never been to Tijuana.
Anya: It was during prohibition and everyone was going to Tijuana obviously to drink.
Anya: The group came in to a place called Caesar’s Palace owned by Sicilian immigrant named Caesar Cardini and the actual salads were the entrees and Cardini is just panicked. It was a holiday weekend, the place was packed and the supplies was dwindling. So he dashed back to the kitchen. He grabbed some hard Romaine, a couple of eggs and a garlic clove and then he grabbed a chunk of good parmesan and a handful of croutons, plus lemons, olive oil and a bottle of Worcestershire and then he sort of crushed everything up to the dining room and he kind of dissolved the mix and voila, there was Caesar Salad.
Seth: I have heard that story before. I didn’t realize it happened in Tijuana.
Anya: Yeah, it happened in Tijuana.
Seth: Because there’s still a Cardini’s salad dressing, right, still exist to this day.
Seth: Good to know. All right, I’m writing this down, Caesar’s Palace which I always thought was in Vegas, it turns out in Tijuana.
Anya: There was one in Vegas, too. It’s name is one Caesar’s Palace.
Seth: All right. Let’s talk about the new book. The new book is
Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking: A Memoir of Food and Longing. And I know that you’re sort of telling the story of three generations of Soviet history through food. I mean, tell me a little bit about the concept behind the book.
Anya: Well, I always wanted to write a memoir about food because as I already explained, food has such existential importance in Soviet days. And I was working as a restaurant critique, you know, going around the world, tasting all this incredible stuff, I was always flashing back to the deprivations and the difficulties and to live kind of – other relationship with food. So, in a way, it was inevitable that the story of our struggle for food had to come out. And I was wondering how to structure and my mom was my frequent co-conspirator in the kitchen.
And my bestfriend, she suggested, “What is the structure of a book as a series of metaphoric meals that’s span the entire Soviet century?” So we decided to organize it decade by decade. So it goes from 1910, 1920, 1930 all the way to today’s Russia. So each chapter is a decade of Soviet life. And we also decided to cook our way through Soviet history. So the story – part of the book is a family memoir because I have a fascinating family. My mother’s father was a Deputy Chief of Naval Intelligence under Stalin. I had a great grandmother who was a feminist in Central Asia under the Bolsheviks, so you know, the family’s story is incredibly interesting.
So a mix of family story, social history about food and about the meaning of food in the Soviet Union. And the framing device, the framing narrative is my mom and I in her kitchen, in Queens, New York cooking our way through all these emblematic dishes of the different Soviet decades.
So you got this epic history of the country with Stalin’s GULAG and purges, World War II which took 20 million lives, Khrushchev, Brezhnev. So in the back draft is the Soviet history but it’s told in a way that is accessible and easy for people to understand and to follow because I feel that food is something that unites us all and food makes history personal.
Seth: Absolutely. And I want to ask about something in particular. I mean, your previous book had been a Russian cookbook but this is the art of Soviet cooking and I know you authors choose your words carefully. Why Soviet and not Russian? Like what’s the distinction and what’s the impact here?
Anya: Well, because we’re talking about the Soviet’s history and, you know, Soviet after the 1917 revolution, the country became Soviet Union and Russia was one of the 15 Socialist Republic. There was also Ukraine, Georgia, Armenia. And Russian cooking is associated with the Czars and Bourgeois consumption. And the Soviet history and Soviet cooking was something completely different and it was very politicized. And this book is not a cookbook, you know. It has recipes in the end but it really is a memoir and it is memoir about Soviet life. So the title is an ironic nod to Julia Child’s
Mastering the Art of French Cooking. But the whole idea of mastering the art of Soviet cooking is funny. It’s very ironic.
Anya: Well, because Soviet Union was often shortages. There was no food at some point, but also the whole idea of mastering is something very Soviet, you know, masters of the universe, masters of the space program and a lot of the book is very, very funny.
Seth: Right. And when you talk about the different countries in the Soviet Union, do they all have their own unique culinary histories or are they fairly similar? Do they blend together? Do they assimilate? What’s the relationship there?
Anya: Well, they’re kind of clustered by regions and this is something that I wrote about in
Please to the Table and the cookbook, the Slovak cuisines, Ukrainian, Russian and Byelorussian and they have a lot of similarities, a lot also differences. You know, it’s like differences in Spanish and Portuguese cooking.
Anya: They’re similar but they’re different. Then you have the cuisines of the Caucasus in the mountains and, you know, Sochi where the Olympics will be held that’s near there and also a much more spicy cuisines with a lot of grills and these are the cuisines of the Republic of Georgia, Armenia and Azerbijan. Then farther east, you have the Central Asian “stans”, Uzbekistan, Afghanistan and their cuisine is more like Middle Eastern slightly Indian, you know, bordering China and Afghanistan all the way there. By the way now, they’re all separate countries.
Anya: They have all separated and became independent nations as the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. But during Soviet, they were considered Soviet Republic.
Seth: So the book starts in the 1920s.
Anya: The book starts in 1910, it’s 19-teens were the last days of the Czars. And my mom and I and a group of friends will say goodbye to the lavish cuisine of the Czars, the very extravagant Russian pie of Kulebiaka which is layers of fish, mushrooms and rice and there was a third decadence dish, you know, emblematic of the lavish Russian cuisine in Moscow before the revolution. And then the revolution wipes up all the food and there’s old restaurants are closed. People are fired. And that cuisine is essentially lost.
So the last chapter is kind of a tragic comic farewell that indulges cuisines of our great-great grandparents. And then it goes 1920, 1930, Stalin and there’s a very poignant chapter for 1940s about World War II and rationing cards and starvation.
Seth: Talk to me about World War II, I mean what was it like in World War II and, you know, the food in particular?
Anya: Well, obviously, everything was rationed. You had rationing cards, some people who didn’t have rationing cards pretty much didn’t survive. I have an episode in the book of my 7-year old mother is sent by her parents – by her mother, you know, the father fought, obviously, he was in the Intelligence, she goes to a store with a rationing coupon for the whole month and they get stolen. And she feels like she can’t go home because it means they will starve for the entire month. It was like the first of the month and people just grabbed her rationing card. It was very scary. In the end, they ended up selling my grandfather’s suits for a sack of grain and that’s how they survived.
Anya: But it was extremely difficult for people. You really try to grow as much as you can even in cities the people grew things in Sochi parks. They kind of went to the self-sufficient economy and there was the enormous black-market. You know, people sold off – for instance, in Leningrad which was under siege by the Nazis for 900 days and where close to a million people starved because the city was surrounded and no supplies could get in.
People sold their precious antiques, their grand pianos, their clothes. They sold everything for just one loaf of clay-like bread. It was unbearably tragic. People of my mother’s generation, they cherished food especially.
Anya: Because they remember real starvation.
Seth: Right. And then what happens as we get into the ‘50s and ‘60s, you know, sort of the post war decades?
Anya: When Stalin died, Khrushchev comes in and so the ‘60s, the year I was born was another huge grand failure was Khrushchev was obsessed with corn which doesn’t really grow in Russia. He got it from an Iowa farmer and he thought corn would be the miracle for Russian cattle. So they started – you know, he went to this campaign to plant corn in northern climates where it’s not supposed to grow. And, you know, we became neglected. There was a grand crisis in 1963. They had to actually import grain from Canada, which was a huge humiliation. And Khrushchev was – partially, because of this, Khrushchev pushed out of office.
Anya: So food has this like very immediate political impact.
Seth: What are the crops that are natural to Russia and to the Soviet Union? I mean, what are the things that do grow there?
Anya: Well, it’s a huge country with a lot of different climates.
Anya: But in northern parts of the country is rye, oat and wheat of course.
Seth: So do they go back to planting those crops there?
Anya: Yes, they always planted them but, you know, he had another crazy idea. I mean, Khrushchev was kind of a little bit of a clown when it came to agriculture. You know, he wanted to plant wheat in the steps of Central Asia, so that wasn’t working out very well. He tried all those agriculture innovation and they all backfired very dramatically.
Anya: And the planting of crops in the steps was called a Virgin Lands Campaign. They went to these arid lands and they thought they would, you know, but there’s a very Soviet attitude. We could like force nature to do what we wanted to do. Well, of course, that doesn’t happen.
Seth: So what happens after Khrushchev?
Anya: Brezhnev came in and era of Brezhnev was this massive black-market, a massive double economy. We call it the Era of empty store shelves and full fridges. Everyone has somehow got by and survived. There was a huge system called blood, blood of connections and privileges where people just somehow got by just by knowing people.
Anya: And then come Gorbachev, and Perestroika and the Soviet Union collapsed. And so each of the decades describes a history and the food and my own family story.
Seth: And so that brings us up to the Putin Era which I know you talked about in there as well. What can people expect if they go to Russia now?
Anya: Oh, it’s like going to Tokyo or London. Moscow is the glitziest of ostentatious cities, imaginable. It makes America’s supermarkets look impoverished. I mean, there’s absolutely everything with every kind of Italian prosciutto, every kind of Spanish jamon, every kind of French cheese, everything is with a sushi. Sushi is like the national dish.
Seth: Are these foods that are largely imported or are these foods that…?
Anya: Everything is imported.
Anya: Even the onions are imported.
Seth: So is there a lot of pride in the culinary culture of Russia?
Anya: No, I think it’s considered more prestigious to eat foreign food with just some kind of oligarchy mentality. But, you know, Soviet Union, the Soviet culture did destroy. They destroyed the agriculture. They destroyed the cuisine to a large extent. They started reviving old styles pre-revolutionary cuisine. But, you know, that was 70-year interruption. It’s hard to really redirect it. And now, imported food, it’s very, very globalized. As I said sushi is a national dish.
Seth: Now, one of the things that was interesting to me is that you talked about part of your reason for writing a book was almost to the sense of living like a double life, you know, having sort of two mentalities. Can you tell me a little bit about that?
Anya: Oh, yes. On the one hand, I was eating at the best restaurants and reporting and all the culinary trends, you know, for magazines like
Travel + Leisure and
Food & Wine. At the same time, I have this very difficult past and I come from a culture where food is fetishized and where it’s connected a lot of times to hunger, to sacrifice. So I felt the story needed to come out.
Seth: And talk to me a little bit about the idea of the poisoned Madeleine, the poisoned flavors.
Anya: Yeah, Madeleine is something that the French writer Marcel Proust describes as emotional trigger of memories, you know, and to him it was the Madeleine cookie. But for us, a nostalgia for a country and for a regime that was so ideologically complicated in thought is never straightforward. I can miss the food of childhood but you have to remember the state that produced it and the state that we fled. So I came up with a term poisoned Madeleine. It was a memory, the nostalgia is extremely complicated and rich and interesting. I mean, I think we all have read many books about, you know, the wonderful pie of our grandmother but, you know, when the grandmother is represented by the Soviet state, it becomes more complicated and more interesting.
Seth: And I think chocolate was one of the things that you talked about where you have sort of these mixed emotions, right?
Anya: Obviously yes because, again, chocolate was a prestige item that Soviets where very proud of and a lot of the chocolates, you could still get them now. They would feature the Kremlin on wrapper or they were produced by the Red October Chocolate Factory. That was something very Soviet. But at the same time, you know, we like the taste but how do you separate the ideology and the politics from the actual food.
Seth: There was another phrase that I saw that you used that I thought was very interesting. You talked about ketchup and you call it the decadent capitalist condiment. That was really interesting. I mean, is ketchup one of those things that really represents western taste?
Anya: Yes, in many ways. Ketchup has been in Russia for long time. Stalin’s food commissar, Mr. Stalin had a food commissar, in the 1930s went to America on the road trip and he borrowed a lot of American novelties or American food for Russia such as cornflakes, for instance, and ketchup, I mean, even in 1930s, there were advertisements for, you know, the spicy American condiment that every American housewife keeps in her cupboard, ketchup. But then Stalin in the 1950s, it became very xenophobic and America became like number one enemy, so they changed ketchup to spicy tomato sauce. So you couldn’t actually use the word ketchup. And then it came back again, but it was, yes, it was something always associated with America. We loved it.
Seth: Well, this is fascinating. I mean, I love the idea of history being wrapped up in food and the geography being wrapped up in food and the way you tell it is absolutely fantastic and like you said, it’s not a cookbook, there are recipes in there but it’s really a memoir. I mean, it’s really a story of you and your family and it’s really fascinating. So congratulations on the book.
Anya: Thank you so much.
Seth: All right. Are you ready to play a little game?
Seth: This game is called Out of the Frying Pan. Here’s how it works, I’m going to ask you a series of rapid fire questions. Just tell me the first thing that comes to mind. Are you ready?
Seth: All right. If I’m traveling to Russia like let’s say I’m traveling to Moscow or to Sochi for the Winter Olympics, how do I find good restaurants? Do I go online? Do I go to blogs? Is there a book? How do you find great restaurants in Russia?
Anya: I think it’s better to ask insiders. I wouldn’t trust the blogs or the press in Russia.
Anya: I just ask.
Seth: So when you get there, I mean, are we talking about the concierge at hotel? Are you talking about the cab drivers? Are you talking about stopping people on the street? Who do you ask?
Anya: Well, you can’t really talk to cab driver because they talk Russian. Yeah, I think I would ask the concierge at the hotel.
Anya: Or read my articles, I published sort of great stuff in
Travel + Leisure and Food & Wine magazines about restaurants in Russia.
Anya: Go to this website at Anya Von Bremzen to the search.
Seth: Is there a dish that I should try when I’m in Russia? Is there like a signature dish that I should definitely have while I’m there?
Anya: Absolutely, you should try the Pirozhki, the savory pastries that are sold on the streets. I love the ones with cabbage filling. You can get them with new filling as well. I love the fried ones. And also most Russian cities have a chain called Teremok which sells Blini on the streets. So when you passed on the streets and you see good looking Blini, I would definitely try them.
Seth: Do you have a favorite restaurant when you go back to Moscow?
Anya: I love Café Pushkin. It serves fantastic Russian cuisine. It’s a reconstruction of a 19th century mansion. It’s got three floors and I was on the first floor, it’s the bistro floor. It’s like a French brasserie translated into Russian. It’s open all the time. It’s always crowded and the food is always delicious. Café Pushkin in Moscow.
Seth: Of all the dishes that you made in the course of making this book, did you have a favorite?
Anya: I love food from Central Asia especially from Uzbekistan. My favorite recipe in the book is called Uzbek Palov with lamb and carrots and cumin. It’s easy to make. It’s a great one pot meal and I make it all the time.
Seth: Do you have a favorite dish from your childhood, from your first 10 years in Russia? Is there one that sticks out in your memory?
Anya: I love Pelmeni, the Siberian dumplings. They usually are frozen at supermarkets and that was one thing that you didn’t have to line up for. You could always count on it. And they were kind of cheap and bad but I adore them, it was like a wicked – it gives you pleasure.
Seth: Nice. If I were to sit down and have a meal in Russia as an American, what would I notice that is different about the, not just the food itself, but the way a meal is conducted in Russia. Is there anything different about the way Russians eat than there is about the way we do here?
Anya: Well, if you go to a restaurant, the one thing that would shock you are the prices. They’re about three times what you’d pay here. It’s really like Dubai or something.
Anya: And also that Russians are very rude to the waitress. It’s still a Soviet tradition and I hope they get nicer, otherwise, it’s very westernized.
Seth: Do you tip in Russia?
Anya: Yes, absolutely, the more the better and the Oligarchs, the rich people, they would tip 100 easily.
Seth: Okay, good. And we should point out that you live in New York City and you’re saying that’s expensive over there.
Anya: Oh, yes. It’s twice as much as New York, even more. Sometimes, three times.
Seth: Ooh, so that’s saying something. You, being a fantastic food writer yourself, do you have any favorite food books or food authors that you like to read?
Seth: Nice. And then if there’s a Russian book, not necessarily about cooking but just, you know, Russian author that you would like to read while making a culinary journey around Russia, who would it be and what would the book be?
Anya: I read short stories by Anton Chekhov because they’re full of wonderful foods especially the one called “The Siren” which is all about food.
Seth: All right. And the last question, make a prediction about the culinary scene and the food scene in Russia. What do you think is going to happen in the next 5, 10 years?
Anya: I think it’s really on ketchup when the west already has in major sentence like Moscow and St. Petersburg. But I think I’m looking finally they’re rediscovering their own cuisine and their own homegrown products. It’s a small trend but it’s becoming bigger and bigger. So I think you’re now going to find a lot of difference at least some attitudes between, say, New York, London and Moscow.
Seth: All right. Well, thank you so much for coming on. It was great to have. Like I said, you are the first person to come on and tell us all about Russia and its fascinating history and you tell it incredibly well. So congratulations on the new book. It’s called
Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking: A Memoir of Food and Longing. And if people want to follow you either online or on social media or read some more of your work, where can they do that?
Anya: I’m on @VonBremzen on Twitter, V-O-N B-R-E-M-Z-E-N or they can log on to
Travel + Leisure or
Food & Wine magazine websites and just search my name. I also have a fanpage on Facebook called Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking.
Seth: All right. So we’ll check it out. Well, thank you so much for coming on and talking to us. I really appreciate it.
Anya: It’s been a pleasure. Thanks for having me.
Seth: My name is Seth Resler. Couple of show notes before we go, first of all, you can find links to many of the things that we talked about in this interview over at TasteTrekkers.com. You can also follow us on social media. While you’re there, we’re on Twitter, @TasteTrekkers; we’re on Facebook and Pinterest and Instagram and all kinds of things. You can also subscribe to this podcast in iTunes, leave a review while you’re there, it helps other people find the show and tell other people about the podcast. Please shoot somebody an email or post an episode to Facebook and share it over social media and let people know how much you enjoy listening to it. Like I said, these episodes are also up on YouTube. And finally, if you want to be a guest on the show, please just head over to TasteTrekkers.com. Click the Contact Us link and send us an email. We would love to have you on.
Thanks so much for listening.