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On Mixing the Personal and Political in Food Writing
A conversation with 'National Dish' author Anya von Bremzen.
I don’t think there’s an honest way to write about food that doesn’t mix the personal and the political, the aesthetic and the ethical. To me, they are intertwined. It is as important to get into the kitchen as it is to read academic journals; as important to talk to chefs as to your neighbor; as important to consider economics as well as social media trends. A writer who brings this all together in a way that is fiercely readable, which is no small feat, is Anya von Bremzen.
She came up through what she refers to as the “yum-yum” school of food and travel journalism, and, way before her fantastic 2013 memoir Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking: A Memoir of Food and Longing, she started out publishing cookbooks.
Now she’s come out with National Dish: Around the World in Search of Food, History, and the Meaning of Home, a mix of personal narrative, historical research, and reportage that takes the reader from Napoli to Tokyo to Istanbul to Jackson Heights, Queens, and beyond, complicating notions of national identity forged through cuisine. In this book, we see how food has been used to sell and form identity throughout the world and throughout history. If cuisines are a political construct (and they are), what does that mean for our deep and abiding attachments to them?
Von Bremzen is always present in the book, which is what turns the pages. I’ve written in the past (I get into it in my forthcoming book, too) that it really is through a personal element that we are able to understand the systemic and cultural aspects of food, to dig into and give shape to the political. (This is likely why recipe media is so personality driven and invites the parasocial, and why it is so frustrating that it is not often used as a site of driving necessary cultural change—something I’ve written about a bit that is certainly a rich subject for future further interrogation.)
I talk to von Bremzen recently over Zoom—her in Istanbul, me in San Juan, places defined by quite different relationships to empire—about this book and her approach to her work overall. She is as wildly charming in conversation as she is in writing. The below has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
You started out doing so many cookbooks. How did you make this transition with the memoir, of course, and now to National Dish?
I was doing these kinds of glossy magazine world cookbooks, having come from a culture where basically, you know, I'd never had a banana—like once in a lifetime. I never saw an avocado. I always wanted to tell a story that had more politics and more social stuff, and it was not about me. I just wanted to start exiting the yum-yum school of journalism.
My then-agent, who is now my editor, said, “Well, you know, you really should do something serious.” And I felt I had this story in me, with the memoir, and it did become very political because the whole situation was—you couldn't divorce it from politics. Everything you ingested was produced by the state, the totalitarian state. So that's how it kind of started and I felt like it was just another side of me.
When you write that kind of narrative and it's long, very long-form narrative, not just a long-form article, you have to reinvent yourself as a writer. I spent six months just thoroughly purging all the glossy-magazine-speak, which was second nature to me by then. And I did it with this book, as well. It's very hard to kind of combine the two.
You do occupy a unique space as a food writer because you—and I mean, for me, I think this is basically the only way to write about food in an honest way—but you’re talking to academics, you're talking to the cooks, you're talking to the regular people. How did you develop that way of researching and reporting? It's hard to ask someone how they write in a day-to-day way, but you've developed this voice that really seamlessly combines very different approaches, and obviously that was a process.
It's really actually very hard work, because part of me is really fascinated by academia. My ex was the super theory person—like Derrida and Bourdieu and Edward Said. And I was just completely intimidated by these people, because I used to be a concert pianist and I was then transitioning into cookbooks. Back then, food was just completely an unglamorous thing. People said, what do you do? I said, “Well, I'm writing a cookbook.” They just looked at me.
But I wanted to go to graduate school. I wanted to be like them. I wanted to talk about discourse. So there is a part of me that still respects academia a lot and is fascinated by it, and I find a lot of inspiration at the same time. You can't write like this as a normal person. You can't use the jargon; it just looks horrible on the page—it looks laughable. So from this book, I purged so much research and so much stuff that was interesting to me just because it didn't—the tonality was off. And also with a book like this, you're always thinking, What turns the page? And it's not going to be some disquisition about colonial gaze. So you have to kind of say it in the way that will be accessible, but at the same time respectable to your sources.
It's a process. It's very technical. I mean, you just go sentence by sentence and you cross things out and you kind of rearrange things. And it was the same with the Soviet book, because I read a lot of academic stuff for that as well. But that was a personal story, so there was no room for that kind of language either.
Well, to me it comes off so readable. And as a writer, you see the work behind every sentence and you see that, like there in this paragraph, there is hours and hours of reading and work that went into making this paragraph digestible to the reader in a way that feels so easy, and that's such a skill that not everyone has.
I did want to kind of go back and ask—in the introduction to Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking, you write about the moment food became a thing for you. But you don't explain the moment. How did you make this turn into food from concert pianist? Because it does seem like such a big leap.
It was a complete fluke, actually. Like, I had this hand injury and I was feeling bad about my career and I was re-learning how to play piano. At the same time, someone gave me a cookbook to translate from Italian because I spoke Italian. I sat there transcribing recipes onto index cards because it was before computers. And I was like, “Oh, cookbooks, we could do one, why not?” And so my ex, the academic, you know, the post-structuralist ex, “Let's do it about the Soviet Union, because there's all these different interesting cuisines of the Soviet republics.”
And so we did this proposal, and we got absolutely scathing responses. What, a book about bread lines? What, a book about stuffed carp? Ew. Then Workman, that just did The Silver Palate, bought it. And I was like, Oh my God, I'm a little fraud, what am I going to do?
It was a fascinating project, and I learned on the job. And as I finished the book, of course the Soviet Union went bust and all the republics separated and they became independent countries. And then I got all those angry letters about, you know, why are you calling it the Russian cookbook, which I sort of revisit here. This is when I started thinking about nationalism, turning to the post-Soviet spaces. They were part of the empire, and then they were starting to build a national consciousness and a national cuisine. It seems historically a short time, but it's a very long time in terms of forming identity.
I love the phrase that you use in the book, “fictions of history.” Because I feel like that's something we contend with so much writing about food, because you ask anyone on the street and they'll have a different story about a dish. And it's so difficult to figure out the narrative.
But you're dealing with the way that national cuisines are used to establish nationalism within borders, soft power outside, and that you have this kind of instinct to reject nationalism and feel most at home, you know, in Jackson Heights. That you only really get to love Paris when you experience it actually as a diverse place. As someone from New York, I can feel freaked out by homogeneity. How do you contend with that in doing research and that sort of bristle that you have at the idea of nationalism?
It was difficult. And, you know, the epilogue really tries to kind of grapple with it, because before the war started, I would say, “Oh, you know, Ukrainian nationalists, here they go.” And then you go, “Oh my God, you know, you have to really respect what's going on.” So it can be something healing and important.
It's not part of my life, because I'm a transnational person. You know, I live here; I live there. I speak different languages. But I think I've come to realize the book is more about listening. I don't know if I came away with any big conclusions of my own. I mean, so many expressions of nationalism, including the boosterism about the cuisine, are really ugly to me. And they're also part of this whole kind of neoliberal logic of marketing identities as commodities. So something that we think is very ancient and important, like a dish, is a marketing ploy.
With neoliberalism, when countries became competitive and countries became brands, this is where it kind of comes about. I mean, looking at this book, so much of it started happening in the ’90s: Slow Food. The burning of McDonald's. The whole kind of manufacturing of nostalgia. Oh, you know, my ancestors ate healthy grasses. No, they fucking didn't. They wanted to eat white bread. I'm sorry.
This Friday’s From the Kitchen dispatch for paid subscribers will be an early release of my conversation with prolific recipe developer and author of the new cookbook Tenderheart: A Cookbook about Vegetables and Unbreakable Family Bonds Hetty Lui McKinnon, in which we talk about being vegetarian in food media, the DIY bent to her career, and shooting her own photos—including, in To Asia, With Love: Everyday Asian Recipes and Stories from the Heart, on film.
See the recipe index for all recipes available to paid subscribers. $30 per year.
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