In 1936, Stalin sent his food industry commissar on a culinary road trip through America. Anastas Mikoyan, a mustachioed Armenian, spent two months touring fish canneries, ice cream manufacturers and fruit-processing plants, and scrutinizing mayonnaise, popcorn and beer. The modest hamburger dazzled: “For a busy man it is very convenient,” he reported. When Mikoyan returned home with a new mastery of mass capitalist food production, he set about to re-engineer the Soviet palate. Eight million copies of his Book of Tasty and Healthy Food—equal parts cookbook and guide to socialist living—were dispersed throughout the Soviet Union.
In her new book, Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking, James Beard Award-winning food writer Anya von Bremzen and her mother spend a year recreating Mikoyan’s dishes. The result is part memoir (of von Bremzen’s own Moscow childhood), part Iron Curtain history, part cheeky nod to Julia Child and part gluttonous homage to blini and gefilte fish, gluey millet and mayonnaise-drenched potato salad. Clearly, the book is well-timed. Twenty-two years after the fall of Communism, Moscow is experiencing a foodie turn, and chefs from across the former Soviet Union are reviving near-extinct regional cuisines. ’Tis the season for Soviet fare.
Von Bremzen’s culinary history of “homo sovieticus” begins in 1910 with the “crispy brains in brown butter” and “extravagant Russian fish pie” of tsarist days (painstakingly recreated in modern-day Queens, N.Y., where von Bremzen and her mother live). It quickly hops to revolutionary 1917, when “classical Russian food culture vanished, almost without a trace.” In came rationing and bread lines—and a kind of culinary asceticism. “The very notion of pleasure from flavoursome food was reviled as capitalist degeneracy,” von Bremzen writes. Restaurants were shuttered and talented chefs fired, replaced by public canteens and inexperienced cook comrades. By the 1920s, workers were lucky to get a bit of vobla, “petrified dried Caspian roach fish.” Then came the five-year plans, more famine, war rationing, “Stalin’s table manners,” “Khrushchev’s kitchen debates,” “Gorbachev’s disastrous anti-alcohol policies”—all swimming in lots and lots of mayonnaise. In the ’60s, the author’s mother read aloud from Proust. “What did it taste like,” the young von Bremzen mused, “that exotic capitalist madeleine?”
Only in the 1990s did Russia re-welcome a fledgling restaurant scene. But those restaurants, frequented by the oligarchs, were prized less for food and more for glamour. “These dishes,” wrote food critic Jay Rayner in The Man Who Ate the World, “were to subtlety what Paris Hilton is to chastity. It was pantomime food, slapstick modelled in protein and carbs.” Any “historical” food was “a weird, modern caricature that only Walt Disney could have been proud of.”
That is changing. A growing middle class has brought a gastronomic renaissance to Moscow. Ethnic eateries have flooded in. London-esque pop-ups and Brooklyn-like cafés pepper main streets. In May, the state-backed news agency RIA Novosti reported a sixfold increase in spending at restaurants over the past decade. There’s also an effort to bring back traditional cooking—without the kitsch and gaudiness of the early aughts. Anatoly Komm, a Russian molecular chef featured in Restaurant magazine’s World’s 50 Best Restaurants list, has garnered acclaim for his sunflower oil served in capsules—a nod to Soviet-era fake caviar. Zakaska bars—specializing in vodka shots and oily herring—are voguish again in Poland, where chef Wojciech Amaro has pledged “to get rid of this stereotype that Polish food is about perogies and fried pork chops in batter . . . The day will come when people around the world will be saying, ‘Let’s have Polish tonight.’ ” Kazakh restaurant mogul Askar Baitassov makes a similar claim of Central Asian cuisine.
The Book of Tasty and Healthy Food, for its part, has been reissued more than a dozen times and is still in print. But, for von Bremzen, the book draws out a “nostalgia for flavours” that is based more on fiction than on first-hand feasting. “Inevitably,” she writes, “a story about Soviet food is a chronicle of longing, of unrequited desire.”