Food and Longing

Just heard the most fascinating short interview on NPR’s Morning Edition.  Anya von Bremzen grew up in Soviet Russia, where she shared a huge warehouse apartment with eighteen other families.

Behind each door there’s a comedy, a tragedy, alcoholism. You know, there were lunatic old ladies. Next to us there was the family of a black marketeer, an underground millionaire, who ate unspeakable delicacies. And everyone came together in the kitchen. The kitchen was like the public square of this apartment.

When one ancient neighbor died, they decided to illegally tear down the walls of her tiny apartment and enlarge the kitchen.

[I]n the middle of the night, in complete secrecy, they broke down the walls, they sanded down the floors. When people woke up in the morning, suddenly the kitchen was six meters larger. It was just an amazing feat. … And then the housing manager from the housing committee comes with a new tenant. And the neighbors said, ‘What room? There is no room.’

To celebrate their triumph, the tenants came together to make a feast, including a special potato salad with such costly treats as mayonnaise and canned peas.

Bremzen describes the experience of moving to America, to Philadelphia.  Her mother was overjoyed at the abundance of cheap food.  But Bremzen, who had fantasized so long about living in the West, says,

 I fantasized about having 64 varieties of salami. But when you see it? And suddenly it’s seeped of political meaning, of pathos, of social prestige, of all these multiple, multiple functions and resonances that food carried for Soviet citizens.”

When I heard this line, I was skeptical.  People are very fond of ruminating about the mystical power of food to convey meaning and memory, ala Proust, but I wondered if a young person could actually be capable of perceiving any of that.  But then she said  (and I’m paraphrasing, because the transcript doesn’t reproduce exactly what was on the air)

What’s the point of eating a banana, if just anyone can have a banana?

Most people I know are a little weird about food, but this struck me as so terribly sad.  And isn’t this true of so many of our longings?  We think we want the thing itself, but maybe we just want to be the one who has something.

Anyway, you can hear the whole interview.  I will definitely be reading Bremzen’s memoir, Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking:  A Memoir of Food and Longing, where she describes coming together with her mother to cook her way through the joys and pathos of three generations of Russian cooking.

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