"There's something sacred about food," Anya von Bremzen says.
Hers is a reverence informed by both deprivation and decadence. As a child of Moscow in the '70s, she waited with her mother in Soviet-era food lines. Now, as a travel and food writer, she wanders the globe, eating lavishly, collecting James Beard awards, writing cookbooks and throwing dinner parties in her apartments in New York and Istanbul.
Her latest--Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking ($26), with a wry wink to Julia Child--is her most personal. The book's subtitle, "A Memoir of Food and Longing," suggests the irony and complexity of a culinary remembrance of a youth when culinary delight was scarce. On the subject of borscht, she writes that it was "less a soup than a kind of Soviet quotidian destiny: something to be endured along with Moscow tap water and the endless grayness of socialist winter."
"I learned to cook from my mom almost by osmosis," von Bremzen says, sitting at a small table in her mother Larisa Frumkin's book-filled apartment in Jackson Heights, Queens. "Our first kitchen was this ghastly kitchen in a communal apartment in Moscow, where 18 families shared one kitchen and everyone was stealing soup meat from each other. There were so many knife fights, children weren't allowed in. When we moved into our own apartment, it was such bliss having our own private kitchen that I would just spend the whole time watching what my mom was cooking."
"She was always at my side, always asking all kinds of questions about literature or music--but never about cooking," Frumkin says. With a motherly smile, she adds: "She was probably interested in what I was doing, because much later it just happened to be her profession."
The book contains recipes mother and daughter cooked up to conjure Russian memories, including that potato-and-pickles '70s Soviet stalwart, Salat Olivier (known throughout the rest of the world as "Russian salad").
We asked the two to make us a family favorite they've cooked together through the years. They suggested pirozhki, two ways: one, a typical Russian variety baked and stuffed with cabbage (see the recipe), the other an inspired emigré's adaptation utilizing that all-American invention, Pillsbury buttermilk biscuits in a can.
"After the revolution," von Bremzen says, "a lot of the food disappeared, but you could still make pirozhki as the dough is very simple and cabbage was something you could always find. The baked ones are the classics, but who doesn't like fried dough?"