Back in the U.S.S.R.
Raised on a Soviet diet of frankfurters and canned peas, a writer returns to a Moscow where expensive French cheeses and Japanese soba noodles are everywhere. Over cocktails at a stylish café, she wonders whether to feel excited or guilty.
My mother and I return to Moscow after 10 years in New York, to see family who stayed behind. But before we even unpack, we run straight to the mall. It's not that we're desperate for the aviator sunglasses fashionable Russians are wearing this month. It's just that the mall, with its glaring lights, seems to announce the new order of things. Passing through a bazaar of Western designer labels, a gelato bar pushing flavors like Milan Passion and a multiplex plastered with images of Harrison Ford, we enter the vast Seventh Continent supermarket. And it is here, surrounded by dozens of kinds of salami, English teas and Japanese soba, that we realize our Moscow has become a place we barely recognize.
"All my life, Russia has been a country of struggle and shortages," Mother says, surveying the Seventh Continent deli counter displaying cheeses flown in from France, glistening smoked whitefish and the kind of pornographically beautiful hams we had only read about in Chekhov and Gogol. In the next aisle, women in Fendi furs huddle together, exchanging tips for cooking pasta from a boutique producer in Apulia. I expect this march of progress to delight Mom, but she seems crestfallen and contemptuous. My reaction is giddy awe mixed with disbelief: Could this be Moscow, where only 15 years ago buying a scrawny hen entailed Kafkaesque nightmares?
"Just like in the prerevolutionary days," an ancient woman in a tattered gray overcoat whispers in front of the caviar display. At the turn of the last century, when this woman was probably born, Russian cuisine was approaching its platonic ideal. Moscow's streets were crowded with restaurants and traktiry (taverns) serving tiny sturgeon poached in Champagne and blini slathered with caviar. Then came the 1917 Revolution. In just a few decades, enforced collectivizations almost wiped out Soviet agriculture, while rampant corruption made two-hour lines for basic essentials a daily ritual. As a girl there in the '60s, I only once tasted a real banana, and to this day I'm excited when I see clusters of the yellow fruit.
The next day, over banana cheesecake and cappuccinos at a mod coffee joint called Shokoladnitsa, Mother and I reminisce about our 1970s diet of borscht and frankfurters. Meals were relieved occasionally by éclairs or a can of something "prestigious" (like cod-liver pâté) procured by my paternal grandmother from her fancy job as a high-ranking federal planner—God knows of what—and triumphantly carried home in that iconic Soviet mesh bag called avoska, from the word avos, meaning "with any luck." A crumpled avoska resided in every Russian's pocket, a stubborn expression of hope that Moroccan oranges or Baltic sprats might suddenly appear at some drab corner store.
While most of the country lined up for fat-studded bologna and frozen cod, high-up Communist Party members shopped at private depots for smoked sturgeon and wild-boar salami. Thanks to a connection secured by my grandfather—a Communist spy who interrogated Hermann Göring at the Nuremberg trials—I went to kindergarten with children of Central Committee members and got a glimpse of their daily diets. My favorite memory is of a mountainous nanny chasing a Party offspring: "Eat, you infectious little microbe!" she roared, shoving a roll with a layer of caviar thicker than cake frosting down an unfortunate four-year-old's throat.
Through all this, Mother was irrepressible. She read 19th-century Russian cookbooks and clipped entertaining tips from yellowed copies of contraband Family Circle. "Today, I'll make pot-au-feu," she'd announce brightly, swearing that it was a French version of shchi, a Russian cabbage soup. So what if her "pizza" tasted suspiciously like pirog (meat pie), or that her cakes were improvised from a can of condensed milk. Food was the focus of our lives, a particularly Soviet form of commodity fetishism and a daily rite of togetherness.
Finally, in 1974, reluctant to commit the rest of her life to the drab Soviet routine, Mom emigrated to Philadelphia, where she had a friend, with me and two small suitcases. (My father promised to follow but divorced her and promptly remarried.) We weren't allowed to return until the late '80s, when Gorbachev reopened the border. Soon we were standing in the shabby reception hall at Moscow's Sheremetyevo Airport, greeted by our relatives' weepy faces peering from behind bouquets of frostbitten carnations. For such an occasion, I expected a banquet. But while Gorbachev made Western headlines hobnobbing with Thatcher and Reagan, the Russian economy was collapsing. As suppliers hoarded their goods awaiting reforms and free-market prices, the shelves were empty of everything except for pyramids of canned seaweed. Our first family reunion was fêted with potatoes, sauerkraut and salamis we'd stuffed in our suitcases.
These frugal feasts are a distant memory when Mom and I meet my cousins Dasha and Masha for martinis at Café Pushkin. Moscow's most popular restaurant takes up three floors of a mansion that looks antique but was built recently. Mother is fascinated by the dotingly nostalgic menu rendered in 19th-century prose and appalled by the prices. Masha, a struggling artist, pities the waiter, while Dasha, a well-off cosmetician, giggles at my rapturous description of the Seventh Continent. "Hey, Amerikanka, don't you even have supermarkets in New York?" she taunts.
Over the next week, I diligently check out Moscow's new restaurants. The pace is so frantic it seems the city is making up for 80 years of not eating out. There are theme restaurants with waiters dressed like cult Soviet film characters and places playing to the intelligentsia's nostalgia for the past, like Club Petrovich, where the setting evokes a communal apartment and the menu centers on kitschy Soviet fare, like herring under a fur coat (actually a salad of grated beets). And for the children, there's O.G.I., an expanding empire of sweet cafés-cum-nightclubs-cum-cultural-centers run by twentysomething literary publishers. "We were sick of the relentless hipness and fashion police, so we created a place for kids who read Gabriel García Márquez," one of them told me.
One night, at a swank Italian restaurant called Syr (Russian for cheese), which offers fancy antipasti and a huge cheese cart, I catch up with Arkady Novikov, Moscow's restaurant tycoon. Novikov, who is in his early forties and largely responsible for the city's restaurant revival, is brainstorming: Perhaps he'll do a neo-Victorian place and then maybe something called Basic Instinct that will be, well, basic. Novikov's other hit is Vanil, which has a sleek neo-industrial decor, a view of Christ the Savior Cathedral's shiny domes and an elite young crowd that discusses Hong Kong's best foot masseurs over unagi rolls and lacquered duck confit. My favorite Novikov venture is Uzbekistan, a Louis XIV-meets-Ghengis Khan extravaganza with wispy blonde waitresses in Central Asian tunics and pure Uzbek home cooking, like cumin-spiced soup with pumpkin and a definitive plov (Central Asian lamb pilaf).
For all the expensive places, the city's biggest dining trend is a new breed of smartly designed all-you-can-eat chains. Mother and I return again and again to Yolki-Palki, which roughly translates as "jeepers creepers." Decorated like a Russian log cabin, it has a vast buffet of folksy traditional dishes: kasha with mushrooms, herring on sourdough and delicious Siberian meat dumplings. It all tastes much like it did in the U.S.S.R. days—only meatier; the price for lunch is 10 dollars.
Mom adores Yolki-Palki, but otherwise she's hard on the new Moscow. Finally she explains why. Right after World War II, when she was nine, her father the spy took her to a private food store. "Here we were, buying slabs of beef," she remembers, "while the population was starving. I carried the guilt through my life." In the past, the government kept Party privileges hidden; now signs of wealth are everywhere. Raised on the notion of a classless society, Mother finds this hard to stomach. (Plus, she can't fathom why Russian women find Putin sexy.) My own emotions are conflicted. As a food critic and travel writer, I can't help being caught up in the boomtown buzz. But I have my own guilt. Every time I ordered foie gras or bought a fancy bottle of olive oil, I felt remorseful, knowing that the sum could feed a Russian family for a week.
After a few days, Mother and I have had enough of the restaurants, glitzy malls and hideous new monuments. We hide in the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts and seek refuge at the home of friends. They make us frankfurters with canned peas and bake yeasty cabbage pies. Dad and I go to the Dorogomilovsky farmer's market where as a child I gawked at the Uzbek women with tiny braids hawking Central Asian melons we couldn't afford. They are still here. We drink black tea and vodka from water glasses. Mother thaws. She starts writing down recipes, stealing restaurant menus and buying new Russian cookbooks.
Back in New York, Mom makes lavish historic Russian meals for her émigré friends. "I could open a restaurant in Moscow," she announces, "like Café Pushkin but cheap!" Me, I'm slowly getting used to foie gras without guilt.
Anya von Bremzen is the author, with John Welchman, of Please to the Table: The Russian Cookbook and the forthcoming The Greatest Dishes!: Around the World in 80 Recipes.