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.