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The Taste of the Soviet Union

The Taste of the Soviet Union

Interview with Anya Von Bremzen, the author of a cooking memoir in the USSR. From Stalin's codified food cannon, the Yalta conference, to today's nostalgia.

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Anya Von Bremzen grew up in the Soviet Union, her grandfather a renowned Intelligence officer. In her new book, Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking: a Memoir of Food and Longing (Random House, September 2013) she tells the story not only of the food, recipes, and delicacies of her childhood, but of the socio-political background to them: from Stalin’s over-stuffed table at Yalta amidst the starvation of his people, to the integration of satellite state specialties and the thrill of Western treats. Fine Dining Lovers spoke with the James Beard Award-winning author about the foods of the Soviet Union.

How different was the cuisine in Russia (aside from the difficult access to ingredients) during Communism as opposed to post-Communism?
Bolsheviks wanted to destroy bourgeois Russian cuisine, replacing it with something democratic and rational, that could feed masses. The person who codified the Soviet food cannon in mid 1930s was Stalin's food supply commissar, Anastas Mikoyan. His goal was to standardize recipes and industrialize food production. Some simpler Russian dishes remained, like blini and pirozhki (savory pastries), but the kind of decadent Russian cuisine described by Gogol or Chekhov was lost. As were many traditional peasant dishes, because of the mass migration to cities and the destruction of agriculture and traditional peasant lifestyle by collectivization.

Were any foods ideologically associated with Communism or with the Soviet Union (as distinct from centuries-old Russian dishes?)
Dishes from the ethnic Soviet republics became very popular: Georgian chicken tabaka (fried under a press); Azeri lyulya kebab (skewered meatballs), Ukrainian borscht--all became staples of the Soviet catering cannon. Ideologically, the State pushed for proletarian staples, like kotleti (meat patties) or kholdtets (jellied beef).

Was there a dramatic difference in the diets and recipes of various social groups within Communist Russia?
In the recipes, no; everything was supposed to be prepared according to GOST (State standard). In the quality of ingredients the difference was dramatic. I attended the kindergarten for kids of Central Committee members (my granddad was a famous intelligence officer). There, we were served the same-looking candies as other kids but they tasted shockingly better. Recently I learned that the Red October Chocolate factory indeed manufactured different classes of the same products: one for the proletariat, the other for the Party. So, yes, in our "classless" society the diet was incredibly stratified. And of course grifters and black marketeers ate the best food.

Did you come across any menus from major state events, for instance when Stalin hosted foreign dignitaries?
For the Yalta Conference in 1945, at the end of World War II, a "Potemkin village" had been erected in the war-devastated Crimea for the meeting of Stalin, Churchill, and Roosevelt. At the main banquet hosted by Stalin, they served white fish in champagne sauce; Central Asian quail pilaf; and kebabs from the Caucasus. While the rest of the country still starved.

How many Communist Soviet-era brands are still available and popular today in Russia?
Tons! A new nostalgia for the USSR brought a huge revival of Soviet brands. And bitter battles in court for the right to branding Soviet products (since everything was State-owned and not legally branded). At the glitzy GUM department store in Moscow, there is a vast retro-Soviet supermarket, filled with products advertised as "the taste of our childhood." Dozens of products with their "original" packaging are coming back. Even the Soviet-era clunky soda machines are hip now.

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