Whether you’re newly arrived or a veteran citizen, a recipe from ‘Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking’ works for Thanksgiving.
Almost 40 years ago, just in time for the holidays, the young Anya von Bremzen and her refusenik mother Larisa Frumkin stepped onto American soil. The experience fell far short of any émigré fantasy, but became fodder for a high-flown food career and a book, “Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking” (Crown), published earlier this fall. Even today, von Bremzen remembers the hardships and weird pleasures of that first Chanukah and Thanksgiving in the Philadelphia suburbs.
She was happy with Chanukah gelt and a menorah, gifts from their American Jewish sponsors, but relentlessly begged her mother to carry on a beloved, secular New Year’s custom in the Soviet Union, basically a Christmas tree. Despite her fear that their sponsors would glimpse the tree and misunderstand, Larisa yielded; 11-year-old von Bremzen proceeded to make tree ornaments out of the foil-wrapped Chanukah chocolates.
Thanksgiving was even more tortured. Von Bremzen and Frumkin were living in a threadbare apartment, sleeping on a mattress they’d found on the curb, when Frumkin realized the rest of the country was caught up in a festival involving a huge roasted bird. She took herself off to Pathmark and brought home a frozen turkey that she had no idea how to cook, and that never fully thawed before she gave up the attempt.
“We were just sitting, sitting, sitting,” von Bremzen, now 50, told The Jewish Week in her Forest Hills apartment, with Frumkin at her side and homemade delicacies in the spirit of the new book on her table. “It was depressing. I don’t think we really knew what Thanksgiving was, but we knew it was a celebration, and there we were in our empty apartment with our garbage mattress.”
“Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking” is replete with such memories. Much like the cuisine of its title, culled from the foodways of the 15 former Soviet socialist republics, the book is a hybrid, a stew of national and family history, gastronomy and memoir. Food is the frame: the content proceeds from the 1910s to the 21st century, each chapter a reflection on the events of a period and their effect on the tables of the family and the nation. Except for the 1940s, illustrated with a ration card, an appendix of sorts offers a recipe per decade, such as kulebiaka, a decadent fish pastry beloved by pre-revolution aristocrats, and the gooey “Russian Salad” of mayonnaise, potatoes and canned peas ubiquitous in the stagnating Soviet state of the 1970s.
In some ways, von Bremzen and Frumkin’s tale is typical of that of their fellow émigrés. Readers of “When They Come For Us, We’ll Be Gone,” Gal Beckerman’s account of the struggle behind and beyond the Iron Curtain to secure Soviet Jews’ right to emigrate, will be familiar with what Frumkin had to go through to get herself and her daughter out. The capricious and cruel OVIR, or Office of Visas and Registration, which let some Jews go and blacklisted others; the operatic good-byes and the official limits on luggage all get their mention.
“In the 1970s, under Brezhnev, there was this malignant anti-Semitism throughout the whole society,” von Bremzen said. “The first people who wanted to emigrate were Zionists.”
But von Bremzen and Frumkin were not Zionists. Therein lies their story’s departure from that chronicled in “When They Come For Us, We’ll Be Gone.” Most of those heroes huddled in Hebrew classes or labored over samizdat in pursuit of passionate interest in either Israel or Judaism or both. Von Bremzen and Frumkin were not in those circles; rather, “Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking” gives the flavor of life for those many Soviet Jews who enjoyed professional success, education and relative material comfort. They were ignorant of their ancestors’ religion, and indifferent to their ignorance.
“There was no Judaism anymore. It was an ethno-national category,” von Bremzen said. “We had no idea what Jewish religion really entailed. Some old people read the Talmud and ate matzah hidden in a basket.”
Von Bremzen’s father, to whom her mother was married for decades, although they cohabited briefly and sporadically, wasn’t Jewish and didn’t accompany them to the United States. His ancestors, von Bremzen writes, were German aristocrats who married Caspian merchants’ daughters.
Her maternal grandfather, Naum Frumkin, enjoyed special status that contributed much to the family’s comfortable position in Soviet society. A dashing Soviet spy, he climbed the ranks to Baltic intelligence chief despite his ethno-national category. His exploits included a narrow escape from Tallinn, Estonia, during the Nazi invasion and the ability to obtain delicacies like chocolate and caviar during wartime. A phone call from him to a crony enabled Von Bremzen to attend a state school for the party elite where she ate well. She also later worked as a child actor in the Soviet film industry and became a gifted pianist. She studied at The Juilliard School here and contemplated a musical career.
Then again, both Frumkin and her mother, the blonde and Russian-looking Liza, refused to camouflage their Jewishness. Frumkin refused to back down, von Bremzen said, even when she was called yevreechka, the female equivalent of “kike” in the communal kitchen the pair shared with 17 other families for years.
“I wouldn’t give up my Jewishness for anything else,” Frumkin, 79, said between bites of her Soviet minced patties, kotleti, with Georgian cranberry relish, and devilled eggs topped with salmon caviar. “But when Anya was growing up, she could choose, because her father was Russian and I was Jewish. I was thinking very intensely that when she chooses Russian it will be easier for her life, but she will betray me, and if she chooses Jewish I would be ok but there would be many obstacles in her way. It was one of the many reasons we left.”
For the younger and then the older von Bremzen, food became a kind of replacement religion. As a child, she turned the sweets distributed at her fancy kindergarten into totems, stashing them inside her underwear bag. As a young immigrant, she despaired of the industrial comestibles, like the Pop-Tarts that her mother didn’t know to toast, that dominated American supermarket shelves in the 1970s. Later, the memory of her dense native bread would trigger waves of nostalgia.
“Inevitably, a story of Soviet food is a chronicle of longing, of unrequited desire,” she writes in one of the book’s central sentences.
And as an adult, she found a way to sublimate that desire. When a wrist injury ended her piano career in the late-’80s, she picked up work translating an Italian cookbook into English, and enjoyed it. (She’d picked up Italian on her way from Moscow to Philadelphia.) The thought occurred to von Bremzen that the Soviet Union, by then on its way to becoming what’s known today as the FSU, was much in the news and that she could combine her knowledge of the language and land and the cooking skills she’d picked up from her mother into a book about Soviet cuisine across all 11 of its time zones. The result, written with her boyfriend at the time, was “Please to the Table: The Russian Cookbook,” which won a James Beard Award in 1991.
She’s since won two more Beard Awards, writes regularly for the glossiest of food mags, like Saveur, and is a contributing editor at Travel + Leisure magazine.
But because of the culinary contrast between her past and present, she struggles with a feeling of cognitive dissonance. She can never forget that she’s the product of a state that used food, or the lack of it, as a weapon and a propaganda tool. It was that confusing feeling, she says, that inspired her latest book.
“What would be the point of confessing my constant feeling of inhabiting two parallel food universes: one where degustation menus at places like Per Se or Noma are routine; the other where a simple banana — a once-a-year treat back in the USSR — still holds an almost talismanic sway over my psyche?” she writes. “The stories I’ve kept to myself are the stuff of this book. Ultimately, they’re why I really write about food.”
Yet today, von Bremzen and her émigré friends have cause to long for the FSU, even now that the quality of American bread has improved and they know how to celebrate Thanksgiving. Frumkin’s kotleti, the recipe for which can be found here, is their version of roasted turkey. The Georgian cranberry sauce (you can find that recipe here) stands in for the supermarket version that used to disconcertingly retain the shape of the can. The kotleti, out of whose juicy middle butter drips, is far from kosher, although they can easily be made so.
Chanukah still doesn’t loom very large on her friends’ calendars. Maybe that’s part of the reason why neither von Bremzen herself nor “Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking” have become sought after on the synagogue speaking circuit.
Frumkin loves Kol Nidre and lectures on art in local synagogues, but like many Soviet émigrés, Von Bremzen’s is not and has never been a synagogue-centered community. Still, that feeling of connection is something she remembers fondly from her childhood.
“People miss [the FSU] now,” she said. “They miss the sense that everyone was in the same boat. The rewards were very rich. In terms of the food, it was almost an existential experience. The longing and desire and triumph that you invested into simple things gave life this kind of incredible intensity.”