This 1990s Cooking Bible is as Relevant as Ever
Three decades before khachapuri was cool, Anya von Bremzen was extolling its virtues in “Please to the Table.”
Open Please to the Table to a random page, and you might land on a recipe for chicken Kiev, Armenian lamb dumplings, Uzbek cilantro buns, or Latvian cornmeal mush. Such dishes may appear to have nothing in common, but as this seminal cookbook on the cuisines of the Soviet Union reminds us, they once belonged to a rich culinary patchwork quilt that stretched 8.6 million square miles, from the Baltic Sea to Central Asia.
That quilt came unstitched three decades ago with the collapse of the USSR, but the 400-some recipes in Please to the Table—the SAVEUR Cookbook Club pick for April and May—read as current as ever with dishes like rye cookies, tahdig, Georgian khachapuri, and foraged bitter-green salads in the mix.
Shepherding us through the complex, variegated territories of the former Soviet Union is Anya von Bremzen, who was born in Moscow in 1963, and John Welchman, her coauthor. If von Bremzen’s name rings a bell, that’s because her byline has appeared in all the major food and travel magazines, as well as on award-winning books including The New Spanish Table and Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking, her memoir.
Almost as enticing as the recipes in Please to the Table are the essays and anecdotes peppered throughout, which offer colorful glimpses into topics ranging from geography and religion to the etymology of kasha (it originally meant “feast”) and the proper way to serve Uzbek pilaf (rice buried under the meat in serving bowls; tea and pickles on the side). Literature buffs will be pleased to find a bevy of food-related excerpts from greats like Pushkin, Dumas, and Chekhov interspersed among the recipes.
Von Bremzen is a cookbook writer with an emphasis on the writer. Her prose is snappy and evocative, especially when she’s on a jag about gastro-cultural curiosities. In the chapter on Russian cuisine, for instance, she recounts the cross-cultural horror story of a Russian friend who was invited to an American’s apartment, only to be offered a bowl of ice cream. “It sometimes takes years for Soviet emigrés in the United States to understand that a casual invitation to someone’s home doesn’t necessarily mean a full-scale meal,” she writes. Later, in an explainer on Armenian cuisine (the book is organized by main ingredient with explainers interspersed throughout), she paints such a vivid picture of her first breakfast in Yerevan that you can almost smell it through the page: “We were greeted with eggs scrambled with ripe tomatoes and green peppers, local sheep’s cheese (chanakh), a delicious spicy sausage called sudjuk, and generous cupfuls of strong black coffee. And there were freshly prepared stuffed vegetables (dolma) awaiting us for later.”
Even the sample menus in the margins manage to be transportive. You can keep your Pinterest moodboards and Instagram recipe reels—I’ll be getting my cooking inspo on page 452 with “A Rustic Luncheon for Eight," which reads: “herring in sour cream sauce, my mother’s marinated mushrooms, beet caviar with walnuts and prunes, pumpernickel bread, vodka, schi, meat-filled pirog, Russian cranberry mousse.”
Last week I had the privilege of chatting with von Bremzen about what it took to produce this 659-page behemoth and how the cuisines explored in the book have changed since its first print run.
BK: You’ve lived a fascinating and rather peripatetic life. Tell me about it.
AvB: I was born in Moscow in 1963 during the Brezhnev years. It was a time of Iron Curtain stagnation. Like every Soviet kid, I wanted jeans and foreign commodities and was obsessed with the idea of being abroad, being a foreigner. My mom and I immigrated to the U.S. in 1974 because she hated the regime and was Jewish. She felt trapped. Being Jewish in the USSR then, you weren’t persecuted but you were discriminated against.
We wound up in Philadelphia, but weirdly I wanted to be perceived as a foreigner still. This early fantasy of not belonging was very powerful to me, and immigration was hard. I felt homesick because our past was so complicated. We were cooped up in the Soviet Union under a terrible, repressive regime, and when we emigrated, it was without the right to return. We were traitors of the homeland. To our friends and family, it was like dying with a right to correspondence.
BK: In Please to the Table, there are recipes for a staggering variety of dishes from across the former Soviet Union. Give me the lay of the land.
AvB: When I was growing up, the mindset was, you can’t see Paris or Rome, so why don’t you have a holiday in Odessa or Uzbekistan or Georgia? For us, these were exotic destinations. As a child, you could call me a propagandist because I was obsessed with this idea of the Soviet Union and fascinated by its diversity. At the market in Moscow, you’d see Georgians with mustaches in hats and Uzbek ladies in braids that sold very expensive produce that could cost a month’s salary.
BK: Were you always a cook?
AvB: God, no! I trained to be a concert pianist and went to Juliard. It was rigorous. But I got a hand injury in my 20s that forced me to look for another career. I spoke Italian from spending some time in Italy, and I wound up translating a cookbook from Italian to English. It made me think—shit, maybe I should write my own cookbook. My boyfriend was a British travel writer and a sort of academic type, and he and I wrote the proposal together in 1988. It got a James Beard Award the year they had started giving them, and the book [was] one of Amazon’s top 100 cookbooks.
BK: 1988 was right when the Soviet Union started to disintegrate.
AvB: Yes, and everyone was saying, right, a book about bread lines and shortages and herring? But I wanted to explore the whole diversity of Soviet cuisine. There were these Cold War stereotypes of gray clothing and people starving. Many Americans imagined the whole Soviet Union as a gulag, but the truth was, some of the food there was actually amazing. I think I was one of the first people to write about Georgian or Uzbek cuisine in such detail. In the end, Workman Publishing, which had just come out with The Silver Palate, bought the proposal.
BK: What surprised you most in researching the book?
AvB: Driving through Ukraine on Christmas, our car broke down. We wound up sleeping in a kind stranger’s hut, and there was this amazing salad of white beets, cracklings, and wild mushrooms.
It was a long time ago now, but I remember other little things as well, like how in Uzbekistan they made pilaf with yellow carrots and quince and steamed cilantro buns that tasted almost Chinese. Other discoveries were Tatar wedding pie and an Azerbaijani pilaf with a chestnut and pumpkin crust.
BK: A little birdie told me you’re working on a book about food and national identity.
AvB: Yes, but I don’t have a name for it yet. It will look at how national identity is a social construct. We assume cuisines are primordial like languages, but we forget that nation states basically didn’t exist before the 19th century. The idea of cultural appropriation in food assumes an essentialist vision of a national cuisine, which is in fact a hybrid construction that is fluid. Take the current gastro-nationalist fight about borscht, for example, between Russia and Ukraine—it says a lot more about the state of geopolitics than the provenance of a dish that has been eaten in a wide geographical region. Dishes often existed long before current national borders did. So arguments about "whose hummus" or “whose baklava” are really about other issues.
BK: So, food played—and continues to play—a role in post-Soviet nation-building?
AvB: Yes, but even today, there’s a pan-Soviet cuisine enjoyed across the region: Everyone makes salade olivier and vinegret [pickled vegetable salad] and kotlety [beef and buckwheat patties]. In Uzbekistan, the old Soviet dishes—herring, etc.—are still prestigious.
BK: How has the way people eat in the region changed since you wrote the book?
AvB: There are more ingredients available now. Some old breeds of goats and cows and vegetables are being revived. That’s different from the Soviet way, which favored monoculture—Uzbekistan made cotton, Moldova made wine. It’s a long conversation.
And there is a new national consciousness around food that is not dictated by Moscow. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, food became more proprietary and gastro-nationalistic. Suddenly there were arguments in Samarkand over whose pilaf was better—the Uzbeks’ or the Tajiks’. Georgians were going on about Abkhazians having no cuisine and no culture. In Armenia, there’s an NGO that goes into the mountains to find 19th-century recipes; ditto for Azerbaijan, where they’re writing books about how Armenians plagiarized their cuisine. The thing is, cuisines don’t stand still—well, maybe except for in Brighton Beach in Brooklyn, where the food is still very 70s.
BK: What Please to the Table recipes do you keep coming back to?
AvB: My mom’s borscht, of course, which is super quick and delicious. It’s the version she is teaching people to make in her new League of Kitchens online class. I also love the rice pilaf with almonds and orange zest—it’s my go-to side dish for everything. I make the Uzbek lamb and rice plov often. It’s a classic. Then there’s the beef stroganoff recipe, which is so good because it calls for filet mignon.
BK: What are some popular springtime dishes or traditions?
AvB: Winter was always so long, and the taste of the first dill or cucumber was always so special. People make cold borscht and soups this time of year. Maslenitsa, the blini and butter festival, just passed. There’s a whole section on Easter cooking in the book—we do a cheese mold that’s eaten with kulich coffee cake, but you can sub panettone. People love it.
BK: For American food lovers planning post-pandemic travel, what country in the region should be at the top of the list?
AvB: I was in Azerbaijan four years ago, and it has mind-boggling food. It’s sort of Persian with some Soviet influences. They have a million types of pilaf, some with tahdig. Many dishes are bright green with herbs—green stews and green meatballs and green omelets with green sauces. It all tastes so fresh. And because Azerbaijan has oil money, there’s a restaurant culture, and you can walk along the Caspian Sea and stop into tea houses where they serve teas with jams made from yellow cherries and figs.
BK: Can I pick a bone? The title of the book is Please to the Table: The Russian Cookbook. That seems a bit narrow, right?
AvB: It’s true: The book goes from Lithuania to Central Asia and gives you the full scope of the former empire. When I published it, I thought, I can’t call it a Soviet cookbook, so this was the next-best thing. But then I got angry letters from Ukranians and Armenians. Who knows, maybe you could put “USSR” in a cookbook title now and it would be a retro cool thing.