November 07, 2013
Communications and Marketing
For author Anya von Bremzen, working to become a James Beard award-winning food writer was not a priority as a young girl growing up in the Soviet Union. Waiting in line for a loaf of bread, however, was.
That was one of the lessons she related to a packed auditorium on Monday, Nov. 4 at the New Hampshire Institute of Politics & Political Library. Students, faculty, staff, and community members heard about von Bremzen's life in relation to food: from a childhood in the Soviet Union to her time in the United States. Author of "Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking: a Memoir of Food and Longing," von Bremzen inquired of her audience, "Did I become a food writer because, or in spite of, my past?"
Born in 1963 in the former USSR during a time of crop failure, food became an idealized desire to von Bremzen and her family that continued throughout their lives. Like so many others at this time, this desire sparked an obsession inside von Bremzen and her mother with the West.
"My mother was strongly anti-Soviet and venerated poetry and literature of the West. She loved to read Hemingway and would imagine the foreign dishes explained in his novels that she could never have."
During the country's bread shortage, she lived with her family in a communal apartment with 18 other families. "There is no word for privacy in Russian," she joked, explaining that when under the rule of a totalitarian regime simple things became subject. Things like food.
"Religion was not banned by the state, but it was not highly regarded either," said von Bremzen. "If the state found out you were religious in any way they would take away housing completely and you would be thrown out onto the street, or worse."
A person's diet often gave away their religious beliefs and neighbors would turn them in to gain favor with the state. Bremzen's mother dreamed of having a kitchen of her own where she could cook for herself and her family free from judgment and fear of being anti-Soviet.
Eventually, von Bremzen immigrated with her family to the United States. She got her start in the food world by translating an Italian cookbook into English. So began her quest to publish a Russian cookbook. Her first success, "Please to the Table: The Russian Cookbook" was published with over four hundred recipes. It was highly acclaimed and earned the first-ever James Beard award.
As her popularity grew, von Bremzen expanded her food study, traveling all over the world. By the 80s a new wave of food, called fusion was taking over the world's kitchens. This style combined fine dining with ethnic flavor, challenging the old conventions of cooking, and changing food forever.
"It was a great time to be a food writer," said von Bremzen, "so many new ideas and exciting changes!"
Perhaps, this metamorphosis of cooking interested von Bremzen because it embodied her own development into a professional food enthusiast. She came from a strictly Soviet diet that required waiting in bread line for hours and now she is able to write about the best cuisine on the planet.
Riotous applause ensued as von Bremzen concluded her discussion; the audience's engagement was evidenced by the number of hands raised to ask the author questions. Senior nursing major Morgan Mott expressed her enjoyment of Bremzen's talk.
"I thought it was so interesting how the political events of her lifetime shaped her understanding of food. From her childhood behind the Iron Curtain, to her life in America, and to her travels all over the world, she uses food as a way to explore and learn about other cultures, as well as to maintain connections to her Slavic roots."
This story was written by Michael Morse '14.