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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  • Who was it who said that jealousy is wanting your neighbor’s banana, but envy is being resentful that your neighboar has a banana? Groucho Marx, I think.
    Also — In America, you listen to National Public Radio. In Soviet Russia, National Public Radio listens to YOU!

    • Dan F.

      well played victor

  • richard

    Reminds me of the overcrowded house scene in the movie Dr. Zhivago.

  • MLP

    I read an article in the Reader’s Digest back in the 70s about a Soviet visitor in Washington DC. This Russian was unimpressed by the city, the traffic, the clothes of the American people, assuming all of it was merely a show put on for his benefit. It wasn’t until they took him to a common grocery store that they got a reaction from him; when he saw the piles of fresh food piled up for anyone to buy, and no lines of starving people fighting over it, that hardened Communist broke down and cried.

  • Growing up in America in a family so poor we had to eat what we could grow, in the midst of cheap food plenty; I feel exactly the same way. I am now relatively rich (ok, my career is a bit unstable, but I’ve exceeded earning $50k/year for the last 5 years, even in years when I spend 4-6 months unemployed), and I still hoard food and cook myself- just to have something for myself.

  • Anne Bender

    This really struck a chord with me. I thought about watching children at play. You know how they can be perfectly happy playing with a toy until someone else comes along with a new toy. Suddenly, their old toy is no good and they only want what the other child has. Do you think this longing is ingrained in us from birth? Are we wired for it? How do you think we can overcome wanting to be the one who has something and turn that to real joy for others in their accomplishments, friendships and activities even if we are without? In other words, is there a cure for jealousy and envy?

  • Nan

    I spent a year in communism and was told there were food shortages in Yugoslavia at the time. I didn’t notice shortages because I didn’t know what was missing; I was a college student so wasn’t looking for anything fancy; eggs, bread, meat, cheese, milk, yogurt and fruit mostly. Fruit and vegetables were limited; there was a wider variety in summer but there were always apples, oranges and grapefruit. Sometimes there were bananas, which were $1 each in the late 80’s. I sometimes bought them and my roommate was aghast because I wasted the peel; she would eat the banana, peel and all, so as not to waste any of the expensive fruit!

    The grocery stores were about as large as an Aldi; they didnt’ have the wide variety of choices that we do and there was a separate bakery, which would give you a loaf of wonderful bread, unwrapped, handed with the waxed paper like you pull the donuts out of the case with. That took getting used to. Well, and mayonnaise sold in toothpaste tubes that weren’t refrigerated after opening.

    The thing they didn’t have was diet coke and I was a junkie. I had access to an American air force base in Germany, as my uncle was in his 2nd year of a 3 year assignment. Each time I visited, he took me to the commissary store and I went wild, buying stupid junk food to hoard until my next visit, despite the availability of junk where I was; it was just that it was different junk. Favorites that are now available in my local American grocery store include Napolitanke and Dorina, both available with hazelnut. Serious yum. I have always been able to get them, but at the Eastern European Deli or the Russian grocery store.

    I’ve also heard stories of Russian immigrants who would stealthily go grocery shopping in the middle of the night, not realizing the lines weren’t at all the same as what they were accustomed to.