Gazing back across the decades, I can't decide whether I write about food because of, or in spite of, my Soviet childhood. I was born in Moscow in 1963, a year that was marked by a catastrophic shortage of grain. All throughout her pregnancy, my mother, Larisa, stood in mile-long lines for damp, clay-like bread, while all around her, citizens muttered jokes about Nikita Khrushchev, the buffoonish Soviet premier blamed for every agricultural failure. "What does the 1963 harvest look like?" went one of the gags. "Like Nikita's hairdo [bald]."
Under the strain and stress of those breadlines, Khrushchev was pushed out of office, while my parents' marriage collapsed. Yet another shortage—of housing—caused Mom and me to stay on for three more years with Dad and his mother, Alla, in her dank single room in a communal apartment where 18 families shared a kitchen. My earliest food memories include the elaborate padlocks that neighbors fastened on their pots to prevent the theft of their soup meat. Another memory: my short, skinny mom tearfully apologizing to a family of black-marketeers—our next-door neighbors—for pilfering chicken tenders from a tray they had left out. And never will I forget the intense, burning envy I felt when the black-marketeers' little brat Yura slowly, methodically peeled bananas right under my nose, as I stood inhaling the creamy, tropical scent of a fruit I myself got to eat just once a year. But the communal apartment was a kind of microcosm of Soviet society in all its good, as well as evil, and I retain equally vivid memories of the ethereal cabbage pastries that were conjured up from a stick of margarine, an egg and some flour by the tiny pensioner babushka who babysat me from time to time.
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My mother never really taught me to cook. I learned through osmosis when we finally moved to a prefab-concrete private apartment on the outskirts of Moscow. From my perch near the window, I watched Mom grind the tough Soviet-issue goulash meat that she'd stretch with plenty of bread, shape into quarter-size meatballs and float in thin broth. "Potage printanier," she'd announce brightly, always tagging her dishes with some outrageously foreign name borrowed from Balzac or Goethe. When we ran out of money and had to make do with bread cubes fried up with eggs, Mom concocted fairy tales about a king's golden eggs, and our boxy, 50-square-foot kitchen became a royal chamber. What my mother transmitted to me was her unflagging belief in the transformative power of food, her conviction that cooking could transfigure our drab Soviet lives and transport us to some magical Elsewhere. My mother was also possessed by what I now would call "compulsive hospitality syndrome": the irrational need to share her cooking with others. It was her personal trait, but also a national one, particular to our era of geopolitical isolation and scarcity. Back in the USSR, food was a way to convey status and pride, offer an existential comfort and relieve the political grayness.
Our third Moscow apartment boasted a location so central, uninvited tea guzzlers would stream in around the clock. "Was just passing by… Saw the light in your kitchen window… " These words sent Mom into a frenzy as she raided our fridge for any scraps to turn into improvised feasts. She lived for those moments when friends dropped by for a quick bite while sharing, in conspiratorial whispers, opinions about the latest banned book. Ear pressed to the tightly shut kitchen door, I heard names like Nabokov and Solzhenitsyn. "Stop eavesdropping," yelled Mom, handing me an avoska, the iconic Soviet expandable mesh bag into which one could fit a small tractor. "Run to the store for some chocolates—Little Squirrels or Mishka the Clumsy Bear!" Back from shopping, I'd discover that Mom had already prepared a stufato or olla podrida from a few forlorn potatoes and a can of tushonka (tinned meat). For dessert, she frantically speed-sliced our tart northern apples into an old cast-iron skillet. Capped with a simple batter of eggs, flour and sugar that puffed up in the oven, that fruit became a delicious Guest-at-the-Doorstep Apple-Berry Charlotte. I didn't exactly share Mom's passion for visitors. But if a guest showed up when she wasn't home, at age nine I already knew the routine. Oven on. Tea to brew in our orange teapot with white polka dots. And I had a dessert of my own: a packet of farmers' cheese mixed with condensed milk from a white-and-blue can, then dotted with sticky-sweet rose-petal jam from socialist Bulgaria. "Crème Chantilly," I dubbed my creation, because just like Mom, I believed that a fanciful name could transform a flavor.
After we immigrated to the United States in 1974, Mom changed her recipes but not her compulsively hospitable ways. The dining table in the cramped New York apartment she now lives in seats 14—often stretched to 20—and she shops as if preparing for the Siege of Moscow. As for me, a hand injury in the 1980s ended my dream of becoming a concert pianist. I found a career traveling and writing about food and turned my own yearnings and fantasies into recipes I bring back from abroad. Now it's my turn to teach Mom about food.
I showed her how to marinate lamb in my favorite pomegranate molasses from Istanbul before putting it on the grill, and how to heighten the flavor of her salmon gravlax with smoked salt. I added berries and melted butter to the rudimentary batter of her apple charlotte. Mom is proud of my career, but deep down, she harbors a competitive streak in the kitchen. "Ah, just like our Russian cold borscht!" she said with a sly curl of the lip as she tasted my roasted beet and cherry gazpacho (a recipe that I adapted from the Spanish chef Dani Garcia). Then she proceeded to swap cherries for raspberries, pump up the beet flavor and christen her new creation "borschtpacho." And when I decided to make blini for a joint dinner party—using my carefully tested, slow-rising yeast batter—she countered by improvising her own batch, made quickly with buckwheat flour. "No rising, no fussing. Just as delicious!"
I'm a different cook and host than my mother is. My dining table seats no more than eight. I weigh flour and shop for organic peaches at farmers' markets. And yet, often, I can't shake the feeling that she and I are one and the same in the kitchen; bound by a common past in which a Coke bottle someone brought us from America glowed in our minds like a talisman from the mythical, unattainable West. Mom may brand me a misanthrope when I don't let her drag four extra guests to my table; even so, if a week passes during which I don't host a dinner party, I feel robbed of something vital. I calculate serving portions, but then scramble to the market at the last minute gripped by a panic that my guests won't have enough to eat. Here's another strange thing: When Mom and I open a blue-and-white can of condensed milk from our local Russian deli, memories come tumbling out, and our scarlet-blazed socialist past begins to resemble its own fairy tale, so comic and so tragic.
Moscow-born Anya von Bremzen is the author of five cookbooks, including Please To The Table: The Russian Cookbook.