Imagine Leo Tolstoy and Marie Antoinette collaborating on an autobiographical cookbook edited by Salvador Dali.
If you judge her by most of her magazine stories, Anya Von Bremzen is not the kind of journalist you’d ever expect to find in a conflict zone. She writes exquisite features about food; she’s discriminating in her criticism and exacting in her tastes. She was trained to be a concert pianist at Juilliard and her bedazzling large frame glasses and plummy accent stereotype her more as a bonne vivante than adrenaline junkie. Indeed, she is one of the great secret salonnières of New York City, playing host to some of the most intelligent (yet informal) soirées— full of joie de vivre and eau de vie—in this metropolis of smart parties.
But Anya is Russian and hence congenitally an anarchist. Or at least someone who knows how to make her way through anarchy. Very few people have learned how to spray mace by practicing on a pig while researching a book amid a dangerously collapsing Soviet Union. Fewer still have then had the use that knowledge on live humans in the middle of a mad, near mob scene in Novgorod.
In late May and June, I was riveted by her staccato Facebook posts as she recounted how her annual vacation in Istanbul, where she owns an apartment, had been swallowed up by the protests against Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s plans to squeeze the green civility out of Taksim Square, the city’s main plaza, by turning it into even more of a transportation and pedestrian hub. Anya was almost exuberant, in spite of the police response to the demonstrators: “Inhaling tear gas right inside our Istanbul apartment, people chanting, cars honking, our neighborhood enveloped in a toxic cloud. Istanbul Spring…” “Amazing moment, our entire street and many neighborhoods, everyone honking, pounding on pots and pans and drums, chanting anti-Erdogan slogans, blinking their house lights.” And she joined in the pot-banging herself against the Islamist premier. She has always adored Kemal Ataturk, the founder of post-Ottoman, secularist Turkey, and—long before the protests—has had a portrait-banner of him hanging in her apartment in Queens. She remains concerned about Istanbul now that everyone is back from summer vacations and ready to take to the streets again. Her apartment is not far from where the marches take place.
Imagine Leo Tolstoy and Marie Antoinette writing a cookbook edited by Salvador Dali.
But the unresolved Istanbul Spring is just a distraction from what Anya has been up to over the last couple of years: a book with the intriguing, wait-for-the-punch-line title “Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking.” As given away in the subtitle, however, the punchline is no joke: “A Memoir of Food and Longing.” I really should not repeat the name of Marcel Proust, because Anya’s work has already been compared to his. But there is no way a reclusive, hypochondriac French sybarite could have written “Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking.” Let’s pose it this way: Imagine Leo Tolstoy and Marie Antoinette collaborating on an autobiographical cookbook edited by Salvador Dali—where many of the madeleines are, at the least, noxious. That’s the only way you can approximate the surreal scope of Anya’s book: the rise and fall of a glorious but ruthless empire perpetually on the verge of starvation.
With the book’s official publication date coming up on September 17, I decided to take Anya and her mother Larisa to dinner to celebrate. It was Larisa’s obsession with cooking—an antidote to the ideological tyranny of the times—that Anya absorbed while growing up in Moscow. Much of the book is told through her mother’s life and courage and heartbreak. I chose to take them to Lincoln Ristorante for several reasons: the weird juxtaposition of a 19th century American president with high-end Italian cuisine in a space-age palace in the middle of New York City’s premiere cultural center. All of that seemed to at least speak to Anya and Larisa’s journey from their proletariat rodina—or homeland—to the alien comforts of the West and the American zagranitsa—the word for the world beyond the USSR. What better place to discuss, as Anya says, “Soviet deprivation and rationing.” Besides, Juilliard, her alma mater, is just across the street; Italian is one of the 600 languages she speaks (Rome was a way station on the way to America when Anya was 11); and, despite being one of the country’s premier restaurant mavens, she had never been to Chef Jonathan Benno’s restaurant.
The climax of Fashion Week in New York City made it a busy night at Lincoln and the service was a little distracted (a high-maintenance restaurant critic—who was not Anya–was among the other customers) but the food was spectacularly good and the portions generous. A chicory salad was particularly refreshing and Larisa’s agnolotti and truffles was a big hit. Anya enjoyed one of Lincoln’s build-it-yourself negronis while I sipped Prosecco with her boyfriend, the science fiction writer Barry Yourgrau. Barry, a wine connoisseur, agreed with me that we should order a bottle of the Venica & Venica Pinot Grigio from Friuli. It’s always surprisingly complex, but it was also a very personal choice: the winemaker Giampaolo Venica and his family are mutual friends of ours.
Drinking is, of course, a highly personal and sensitive subject in Russia. Larisa, for example, does not drink, which probably made her even more of an outsider in that alcoholic empire. In the book, Anya provides a quick yet fascinating course in the subtleties of drinking and appreciating vodka and Russian hooch or samogon. For example, to celebrate Anya’s return visit to Russia in 1987, her father distilled a walnut-infused brew in her mother’s old pressure cooker to produce something akin to a rich whiskey. She also writes of how medical alcohol could mellow into a heady deliciousness when steeped with lingonberries. She recalls the way her grandmother approached the ritual of drinking, with both finesse and flash—she could pour exact 50-gram portions of vodka among other skills.
In the Soviet Union, you could also be an alkonaut and be out of this world.
I wonder if the U.S.S.R. was constantly inebriated because the memory of the transformative effect of good liquor was perpetuated by the pervasiveness of bad—there was always something there to remind you of how wonderful it could be. (I have personal experience of the good: Anya often has contraband hooch from old friends in Russia that she takes out of her fridge to entertain guests at her parties.) A magical euphemism for an alcoholic was “alkimist”—a cognate of alchemist. You could also be an alkonaut and be out of this world. Anya tells the story of how a band of Russians went out of their way to reach a dying friend who was forbidden drink by his doctors, all in order to give him a quarter liter of vodka and a pickle. After the man’s immediate death, the friends rejoiced that he did not die sober.
Despite the allure of alcohol, the book is really about the role of food in the real world and in the psyche—how complex, idiosyncratic universes and perceptions can emerge from scarcity, want and desire. Candy can be both life-changing and a way to win social standing. The extravagantly rich Russian fish pie Kulebiaka remained an object of desire even though it devolved from Tsarist splendor to a proletariat reliquary. In the book, Anya and Larisa recreate it in a kitchen in Queens.
In a recent issue of the New Yorker, Daniel Boulud attempts to do the same with the French version of it—Coulibiac—without really knowing its full Russian origins. He finally gives up on the recipe passed down from the august Auguste Escoffier and tries to come up with a version of his own while the article’s writer, Bill Buford, goes off to discover the Tsarist recipe to flabbergast Boulud. At Lincoln, Anya notes that the recipe she and her mother used instructed them to tier the pie with blinis to help absorb and amplify the dish’s buttery juices. It was one of the most complicated things they had ever prepared in a kitchen. Larisa looked at the photograph of Boulud’s French-style Coulibiac almost quizzically but with polite silence.
History and eating are a dialectic in Anya’s book.
In any event, the Tsars—for whom many French chefs longed to work—may have inspired more than one bit of French culinary history. Russian Cossacks in post-Napoleonic Paris, impatient with the speed of service at the local restaurants, were said to have pounded tables and shouted “bystro, bystro” (Quickly, quickly) providing the name for a quintessential French eatery.
History and eating are a dialectic in Anya’s book—the emotions invested in cooking and gathering food inevitably butting up against the Kafkaesque totalitarianism that citizens of the Soviet Union had to live with or get around. The evening at Lincoln was an acceptable frame to discuss Anya and Larisa’s epic. It certainly was tastier than living through Lenin, Stalin, Khrushchev, Brezhnev and Gorbachev (not to mention purges, pogroms, the Nazis and World War II). But I can’t wait for the next iteration of Anya’s salon in deepest Queens to delve into a perfect pour of Russian eau de vie and slip into another round of alchemical memories of her lost empire.