Tasting the Soviet Past


Note:  Students in Stephen Norris’s class HST 375, A History of the Soviet Union, prepared classic Soviet dishes and brought them to Miami’s Western Lodge for an April feast.   Inspired by Anya Von Bremzen’s memoir, Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking, which the students read, and using recipes from it and from the 1939 Book of Tasty and Healthy Food published by the Ministry of Food Industry, students got to think about how food might be a window into the Soviet past.   Students then had to write a reflection paper about the exercise.  Below are five responses.

Soviet History Through the Stovetop

By Anna Osatuke

On Tuesday, April 26, Amber, Ethan, and I set out to make a fresh and nourishing fish soup. We had the ingredients: one knobby celery root, two substantial carrots, one fragrant parsnip, a pert, green, squeaky leek, a shiny yellow onion, and a kilogram each of cleaned smelt, and pinkly tender basa fillets.

We arrived at the kitchen around six in the evening, just as the sky was darkening from an impending thunderstorm. We turned on the Russian pop band Zveri, and took to chopping and peeling—I tackled the celery root with a potato peeler, while Amber and Ethan made half-moons of the parsnip and carrots, and worked until both were brought to tears by the onion. In an enameled, brass eared pot, decorated with plump eggplants and kitschy pears, we made the koreniye, the roasted root vegetables that give every Russian soup its soul. We sniffed the vegetables and added spices, until the koreniye were good enough to eat alone, sprinkled with dill, black pepper, and dried celery leaves.

Waiting until the onions developed a golden blush, we had tea and coffee with cookies; between sips, Ethan scratched the gregarious cat, Mr. Pancake, up his spine, to the junction where skull meets ear. Mr. Pancake snorted audibly in appreciation. We spoke about our pets, upcoming assignments, summer plans, and family. We compared finals schedules, and our procrastination habits. Then, to our soup, we added the smelt.

The soup was assembled in full when the sky was completely black; the thunderstorm came and went, creating massive puddles. The basa fillets, golden and crispy, sat with their arms neatly folded in a small pink-topped Tupperware container. The smelts were languishing in warm broth, giving their essence up into the soup. Our cups of coffee and of tea had a centimeter of cool, sweet, liquid left, which would remain untouched for the rest of the night. It was, in a word, soulful: dushevno. We parted ways.

In cooking our ukha, it seems we were creating those very memories that Anya Von Bremzen returns to through her recipes. Russian recipes are not fussy, and they require several sets of hands, a stovetop, and ample time. Vegetables don’t need a precise hand, a timer, or high-strung nerves to prepare; a fish, once cleaned, can be tossed into broth at one’s leisure. Russian recipes are recipes for good moods.

Wednesday, we reconvened in Western Lodge, where Ethan helped me carry bottles of fizzy, live kvass into the bustling kitchen. In between stirring pots on the stove, and watching puffs of steam escape the oven through the heating coils, I chatted with classmates about how they felt while preparing the food. Over kasha gurieva and roasted potatoes, Antony and I had a conversation about our mothers’ cooking—he recalled his mother’s plof and tangy, fermented blini, while my mom’s modus operandi was always a massive bowl of salat olivye, and blini made sweet with fresh milk. The food was bland, sweet, salty, and nourishing, and the dimmed lights and relaxed atmosphere of Western Lodge complemented it perfectly. The food project may not have implanted memories of Soviet persecution in our minds, but cooking and eating the food of the Russian, Ukrainian, Belorussian, and those with a Soviet past, certainly exposed students to certain culinary affinities particular to the region: the never-ending hunger for dill, the fear of anything spicy, the paramount importance sugar and fattiness in sweets—and the reverence in which lemon is held. Our class is now familiar with Soviet cooking, both in the emotional, historic sense through Von Bremzen’s memoirs, and in the intimate, bustling setting of our kitchens and Western Lodge.

In her memoir, Anya Von Bremzen likens nostalgia for Soviet food to poisoned madeleines, tainted by the Soviet ideology that, to Von Bremzen, imbues every kotleta and spoonful of shchi. Our class captured the unique tastes of Russian foods, and ideally, these tastes will create nostalgia for busy days in college, when we took a deliberate break from our schedules to cook our dill-and-onions dishes.

Eating the salat olivye, I could see students’ hands roughly chopping pickles, eggs, and potatoes for the first time. It warmed my heart to know that the dishes I have eaten, like Anya Von Bremzen, at holidays, at milestones, and at moments when something warm and comforting was required—these dishes were becoming something, too, for Miami Students. Something different, but linked, nonetheless, to a feeling of companionship: the most essential function of good Soviet cooking.

Anna Osatuke is a junior majoring in Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies


Making People out of Soviet Citizens—and Giving Them a Past in the Process

By Matthew Gauthier

I tasted the Soviet past—in the form of beef goulash—and it tasted like… like… well, it tasted like my mother’s beef stew. I don’t know why this surprised me, but it did.

And another shock: I made my own Soviet dish—a nice, (semi-) fresh beet salad—but was surprised by the relaxed process of making it. We heated the oven up to 400 degrees, put the beets in, and that was pretty much it. An hour later we took them out and spent five minutes chopping and mixing them and were done.

Sitting there, waiting for the beets to cook through, I remember thinking to myself did Soviet citizens have time to just sit around for an hour waiting on their beets? It didn’t really occur to me that they would have had down time like that—shouldn’t they have been out building communism or something?

It’s the same with the beef goulash. I guess I just expected the food of perhaps the grandest and most radical experiment ever conducted on a national scale to taste different. I mean the Soviet Union’s very existence was simply unimaginable right up until it happened. And its existence shaped the history of the 20th century perhaps more than any other single factor.

And its citizens ate pretty much the same food as me? And they had enough down time to cook a beet all the way through? Yeah, pretty much.

I guess what this experience taught me was that Soviet citizens—those mythical creatures who’ve been so analyzed, who’ve been the evidence for so many a historical argument, who were (in my own words[1]) totally physically dominated by the state and who had their entire language for forming their identities replaced by Bolshevik ideology—were, at the end of the day, still people. Just like the rest of us.

In her memoir about food and the Soviet Union, Anya von Bremzen notes that for her, and for many other Soviet citizens, “[f]ood anchored the domestic realities of our totalitarian state, supplying a shimmer of desire to a life that was mostly drab, sometimes absurdly comical, on occasion unbearably tragic, but just as often naively optimistic and joyous.”[2] For us readers today, an exercise with Soviet food can serve to remind us of these latter facts, that Soviet life was not just “unbearably tragic,” but was many other things.

“[M]ostly drab, sometimes absurdly comical, on occasion unbearably tragic, but just as often naively optimistic and joyful”—that describes life in general, not just Soviet life for Soviet citizens. And while reading accounts of the Gulag, and of the Siege of Leningrad, and a host of other horrors endured by Soviet citizens is important, it is also important to remember that they were still people, and as such their lives were never singularly defined. They were capable of experiencing many different feelings—including optimism and joy.

Working with food helps introduce a little of that humanity into the humanities. It sounds simplistic, but it humanizes the “Soviet experience” by reminding us that Soviet citizens experienced life just like we do—sometimes in tragedy and sometimes in joy. This allows us to see Soviet citizens as more than just perpetual victims of one form of oppression or another. It allows us to see them as complex figures.

Our multi-layered understanding then allows (now-former-) Soviet citizens to deal with the complexity of their memories. In speaking about her early years in America, von Bremzen recalls dealing with “an ideological cloud darkening [her] nostalgia.” She felt a longing for the foods of her home, but also had to deal with the fact that these foods “were produced by the reviled Party-state [she and her mother] had fled.” Poisoned madeleines, she calls them, an “epic disjunction, [an] unruly collision of collectivist myths and personal antimyths.”

How can you have nostalgia for a world of unabating tragedy? Or better—what does it mean if you do have nostalgia for such a world? Such questions can distress former Soviet citizens like von Bremzen. Their fond memories of the past clash with the only accepted depiction of Soviet life: endless tragedy.

But an exercise in Soviet food reminds us of the similarity of Soviet citizens to ourselves. They mixed meat and potatoes and vegetables just like we do, only they did it while living in a communist empire—and they called it goulash, not beef stew. In realizing our similarity, we open new and complex avenues for understanding their experiences. And in expanding our understanding—including accepting that Soviet citizens could have at times experienced joy—we allow for former Soviet citizens to feel nostalgic without feeling guilty. We allow them the privilege, one that we take for granted, of looking fondly upon the past, of having their very own past to use as they wish.

[1] Matthew Gauthier, “What about Tensile Strength? Soviet Totalitarianism and the Physical Domination of Citizens” and “Speaking Bolshevik: Experiences and Claims to Identity in the Soviet Union.”

[2] Anya von Bremzen, Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking: A Memoir of Food and Longing (New York: Broadway Books, 2014), 4.

[3] von Bremzen, Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking, 5.

Matt Gauthier is a junior majoring in History


Can You Taste the Soviet Past?

By Antony Vorobyov

The experiences of Soviet citizens are unique in a variety of ways. From lifestyle to cultural practices, the Soviet experiment extended itself into the foundation of Soviet citizenship and society. While the Soviet Union was politically infused with visions of a utopian future, a majority of Soviet citizens were obligated to adapt and adjust to the changing political climate of the Soviet Union. The narratives between the political hierarchy and Soviet citizens differed drastically over time, and the experiences of citizens were often more unfavorable than publically declared. Cultural artifacts shed light onto the personal lifestyles of Soviet citizens. In her memoir, Anya Von Bremzen discusses how food played an intrinsic role in understanding the Soviet experience. Beneath the false propaganda, she writes, “society was splintering into distinct, often opposing milieus, subcultures, and tightly knit networks of friends, each with its own coded vocabulary, cultural references, and political mindset—and, yes, recipes—that signaled how its members felt about the official discourse” (Bremzen 182).

The food and recipes of Soviet culture represent the changing political climate of the Soviet Union throughout history, as well as provide insight into the personal experiences of citizens. Working two-fold between nostalgia and remembrance, Bremzen articulates how food “defined how Russians endured the present, imagined the future, and connected to their past” (4). The Soviet past can be interpreted through the cooking and consuming of Soviet dishes. Soviet cooking identifies more than the national origins of foods and dishes. Cooking and consuming Soviet food allows us to better understand aspects of Soviet past by engaging us with a more idiosyncratic and personable experience.

The dish our group was assigned to prepare was kotleti, a Russian version of the American hamburger. Kotleti became a staple food of the Soviet Union due to their extreme forms of personalization, and popularization through Mikoyan store-bought kotleti. While originally made from beef, kotleti can be made from turkey, pork, chicken, fish, minced carrots, beets, and potatoes. Kotleti are further customizable in taste and spice.  According to Bremzen, “the entire USSR pretty much lived on these cheap, delicious fried patties, and when comrades didn’t make them from scratch, they bought them at stores” (308). The process of preparing kotleti contributed to our understanding of Soviet citizenship.

Kotleti, like most Russian food, is uncomplicated and simple to prepare, consisting of only a few ingredients. The simplicity of kotleti resembles a plethora of Soviet dishes. Soviet recipes are innately elementary and symbolize their cultural significance within the context of the Soviet experiment. “Food equaled utilitarian fuel, pure and simple. The new Soviet citizen was to be liberated from fussy dining and other such distractions from his grand modernizing project” (Bremzen 38). Our group spent less than ten minutes at the local Kroger collecting the necessary ingredients for kotleti. In addition to the minimal time spent searching and purchasing the food, everything was very easy to find and accessible. Purchasing the products and standing in line at the register were the closest our group would feel Soviet. However, our experience was made more genuine during the cooking process.

Preparing kotleti is a process that highlights the very definition of simplicity. The recipe provided by Bremzen has a total of 3 steps including combining ingredients, breading the mixture, and flying the kotleti. While prepping the ingredients and combining them into one homogenous mixture, our group experienced the cramped space of a communal kitchen. Work stations were designated by the limited counter space, with little room to move about the kitchen. Bremzen describes communal cooking in her memoir as part of a larger communal prototype which “stood at the very heart of Lenin and company’s enterprise” (38). Working together to prepare the kotleti while hindered by the small space of the kitchen gave our group perspective on the annoyances of shared communal spaces. Even simple dishes required systematic coordination in order to not get in your neighbor’s way. “People cooked, too, in communal kitchens; cooked greasy borscht, shchi, kotleti, and kasha” (Bremzen 180). Our group also spent time bonding during the prep time of our dish, playing the card game durak to further an authentic Soviet experience. Eating the dish, sharing it with our friends, and discussing the accuracy of the dishes and their relation to interpreting the Soviet past.

Eating our dish with our friends and other students who participated in this venture gave a fresh new perspective on food in relation to history and culture. Consuming our dishes became a social activity, and we were able to further compare and contrast our cooking experiences to those of Bremzen’s. A fellow Russian heritage learner and I shared personal stories from our families over pelmeni and salat olivier. We even deliberated which dishes would be served with which specific holidays or festivities. Eating Soviet food was part of a shared experience that connected all Soviet citizens, building an identity that was uniquely Soviet. My conversation with my fellow Russian heritage learner suggested that some aspects of Soviet culture were passed down from our parents. Bremzen identifies how Soviet food culture found its way into many facets of Soviet society: “Memories of wartime rationing cards and grotesque shared kitchens in communal apartments. Of Lenin’s bloody grain requisitioning and Stalin’s table manners. Of Khrushchev’s kitchen debates and Gorbachev’s disastrous anti-alcohol policies” (Bremzen 6).

Preparing kotleti granted us perspectives on the Soviet past and the experiences of citizens. The few ingredients in kotleti represent an adapted food culture to scarcity and shortage. While few ingredients were used, the kotleti came out agreeable and appetizing. Struggling for space was an intimate challenge our group had to endure. Dividing up the kitchen presented us with a glimpse into the shared communal spaces Soviet citizens had to endure. Furthermore, consuming the kotleti and sharing other Soviet dishes with our fellow classmates demonstrated how Soviet experiences are shaped by food. Cooking and consuming Soviet dishes furthered an understanding of Soviet past through firsthand participation.

Antony Vorobyov is a senior with a double major in Media and Culture and Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies


Looking Into the Past With Soviet Food

By Mahaley Evans

Anya Von Bremzen’s Moldovan cornbread with feta: “Cornbread for Khrushchev”

Last semester, I understood Russian food as the Russian empire personified. When faced with the question, “Can you taste the past?” I argued that one could taste the past through the whole experience of making and eating Russian foods. This semester, after weeks of class discussion and readings, I have gained an understanding of the Soviet Union. And incidentally, I find that Soviet food is the Soviet Union personified. With some background knowledge, I can understand why the foods were all one dull color, why the majority employed the same 5 ingredients, and why they may not have had the most glamorous resources. As Stephen Lovell depicts in his Short History, the Soviet Union began and ended with food shortages. In making Anya Von Bremzen’s “Cornbread for Khrushchev,” taking into account a number of components, I learned how one can experience or feel the past.

The first component in experiencing the past is awareness of historical context. Aiding my experience was a semester’s worth of class and Anya Von Bremzen’s memoir Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking. These resources provided me with the appropriate background knowledge to situate this recipe into the larger picture of the Soviet Union. Another important component to the experience is the process: the preparation, the labor, and the execution. Our group experienced the process differently than a real Soviet family may have, because we went to a fully-stocked grocery store, picked the exact items from the recipe, and went home and made the cornbread relatively seamlessly. In a capitalist country, we could not fully understand the circumstances that would lead one to make this cornbread dish, nor could we experience the state of the grocery store or the contents of the aisles. But we did keep in mind our recently-learned historical context to remain grounded and aware during the process. The physical labor that went into the prepping and baking of our dish was also experienced differently than its real context. I imagined that the person making this dish in the Soviet Union would have had a number of tasks alongside the cornbread. In my mind, I actually pictured a woman like Natalya Baranskaya who never had a spare moment to herself and was either running to work, running back home, or in this case running around the house. While my group experienced a more relaxed environment, our awareness of history helped in understanding the reality. Finally, taste is the last component in the experience of making Soviet food. While Anya Von Bremzen described her “Cornbread for Khrushchev” as “fantastically moist and extra savory,” our final product was far from moist and savory (Von Bremzen, 314). Though this could represent a flaw in our preparation or a fault in the recipe, I consider it as a representation of how subjective cooking is, and furthermore how subjective life in the Soviet Union was. One didn’t always know how their dish would turn out, just as they didn’t always know if they’d be able to get bread the next week. With these components in mind, it is certainly possible to experience the past.

In Von Bremzen’s memoir, this recipe does not fit into her own family’s cuisine. This recipe is Moldovan and Von Bremzen is Russian. The two socialist republics experienced Soviet life in different ways, and food represents just one of those differences. Von Bremzen’s mother resented Khrushchev’s campaign for corn because to her, it did not make sense. Bread was sacred, and using corn to make it “verged on sacrilege” (Von Bremzen, 314). Von Bremzen explains, however, that in the southwestern USSR, Georgians, Ukrainians, and Moldovans used corn daily and used it in a variety of dishes. The Soviet Union inherited the Russian empire conglomeration of ethnicities and nationalities, and this discrepancy in corn-usage illuminates the differences between the various ethnic groups living under the umbrella of the Soviet Union.  Von Bremzen’s mother had also lived through the “breadless 1963” and was certainly shaped by her experiences with food shortages. Khrushchev campaigned for corn out of his inability to provide bread, so her mother’s attitude towards corn was a result of her resentment of Khrushchev and the inadequacies of the Soviet state (Von Bremzen, 147). Her reaction also represents the generational gap that existed in the Soviet Union, with each generation being shaped by their respective era.

The notion of “tasting the past” is complex only because the Soviet Union was complex. Its makeup was complex, with several different ethnic groups; its dynamic was complex, with a characteristic disconnect between the government (namely the nomenklatura) and the people; and as a result, its food can be considered a manifestation of this complex state. Tasting the past, however, is only one component in experiencing the past through food making.

Mahaley Evans is a senior majoring in History.


The Tastes and Smells of Soviet History

By Emily Hartman

            When you say you are studying history, most people automatically think about reading primary sources, going to a museum and perhaps handling a historical artifact, or even listening to an audio recording of an important speech. Very rarely does anyone think of studying history by trying to recreate parts of the past in a way like cooking a staple food from a certain period. All too often, our ideas of how we experience history are trapped with our senses of sight, hearing, and touch. This leaves out two of our other senses, taste and smell. It may seem odd to think that we could experience history using these two senses considering they are so subjective and can change so rapidly. However, human experience is created by a combination of all the senses- therefore human history can be recreated through using all of the senses, even taste and smell. One such way to recreate these senses in a historical way is through cooking the food of the era you want to study. Through the process of cooking and eating Soviet food, we were able to experience a part of Soviet history that those who only study articles, artifacts, and audio recordings cannot. This food exercise allows us an intimate look into the historical realities of everyday lives of Soviet citizens.

Food is important in every society, but as Anya Von Bremzen states in her memoir Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking: A Memoir of Food and Longing, “food was an abiding theme of Soviet history” (Von Bremzen, 4). The availability (or unavailability) of food was a part of life that changed throughout Soviet history. This dramatically changed the way Soviet history played out; both the start and the end of the Soviet Union were marked by food shortages. (Von Bremzen) Part of this assignment was going and buying the materials to make our food. My group was assigned to cook Shchi with Cabbage, to begin we had to get a few simple ingredients such as beef, cabbage, and carrots and we were easily able to obtain them. We learn in history books how stressful it was to put food on the table in the Soviet Union, but it really deepens that knowledge and allows you to feel the past more clearly by comparing how easy it was for us to get such simple and common ingredients and how difficult that was historically for Soviet citizens.

Furthermore, the process of cooking and then tasting the food allowed us to gain a deeper and fuller knowledge of Soviet history.  Each group was in charge of cooking their particular dish and did so together. They shared the kitchen similar to the way that Soviet citizens shared their communal kitchens. This communal feeling was also felt when all of the dishes were brought out and heated up during class time. All of the different smells, many unfamiliar to myself, were wafting together in a way that I imagine was typical of a communal kitchen. Just reading about communal kitchens, I never gained a sense of what it would actually be like, but this experiment allowed me to somewhat experience what a Soviet communal kitchen would smell like.

The most intriguing and helpful part of this whole experience was the actual tasting of the food. As mentioned before, every culture has its own food and Soviet culture is no different. The different foods I tasted such as Beet Salad, Salat Olivier, Beef Goulash, and Shchi with Cabbage were staples of Soviet cuisine and therefore were a part of their culture and made up their history. By being able to taste the unique Soviet flavors that were cooked into each dish we were able to experience an intimate, every day part of Soviet history. Von Bremzen stated that “food anchored the domestic realities of [the] totalitarian state.. [and] food… defined how Russians endured the present, imagined the future, and connected to their past” (Von Bremzen, 4).  By tasting each dish, we were able to get a sense of what it was like to be a Soviet citizen. We literally tasted history in the fact that these dishes were staples of the era and Soviet citizens ate them every day.

Overall, this experience was one that gave me a deeper understanding of Soviet history. These different foods were a reflection of Soviet culture and gave me a glimpse into a society that now resides purely in history. These recipes are just as much a part of history as any speech, image, or artifact is. Through the process of experiencing cooking and eating the food we are able to get a feel for a daily part of all Soviet citizen’s lives.

Emily Hartman is a junior majoring in Speech Pathology and Audiology.

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