Book review by UC Berkeley undergraduate student Melissa Carlson:
Alina Bronsky’s novel, The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine, which was written in 2010, examines identity and culture in a Tartar family living in Russia and the events that surround their eventual migration to Germany. The story of the Kalganova family is narrated by Rosalinda, the matriarch of the family. Issues of family, marriage, identity, culture, and stereotypes are played out in the Kalganova family’s history. This novel is relevant to concepts discussed in class, especially those pertaining to collective memory and the definition of identity.
An important theme throughout the book is the cultural history of the Tartars. Rosalinda, who grew up as an orphan, didn’t feel particularly connected to her past history, so the family’s cultural ties came from Kalganow, the husband, and through Rosalina’s cooking of Tartar foods. The idea of collective memory comes through when the recipes of the Tartar cuisine are passed down from generation to generation in the family as a way to remember their ethnic roots. Members of the family share the collective memory of their ancestors through their cuisine.
Other important topics in the novel are identity and stereotypes, which are exhibited when Rosalinda’s daughter Sulfia marries a Jewish man and later marries a German man. Rosalinda’s impressions of the two men are very different, since they are mainly based upon stereotypes she has of Jews and of Germans. Rosalinda didn’t care much for the Jewish husband and his parents, the Rosenbaums, especially after the son impregnates her daughter and plans to leave with Rosalinda’s family to live in Israel. Rosalinda wanted nothing to do with her Jewish granddaughter, Lena, because she favored her Tartar granddaughter, Aminat, more. Rosalina was discriminatory against the Jew and his family that her daughter married into, saying that “Lena was perpetually sick…Must have been the Rosenbaum genes” (127).
Later on in the novel, after Sulfia and her Jewish husband divorce, Sulfia meets a German man, Dieter, who is staying in the hospital she works in. Rosalinda forcefully persuades her daughter to get the man to marry her, so that Sulfia, Rosalinda, and Aminat can all go live in Germany, which Rosalinda considered to be a much more orderly and clean place to live where “nothing bad happens to people” (195). Rosalinda assumed that Dieter would be as she perceived all Germans: sophisticated, rich, and refined. Dieter isn’t what Rosalinda expected, saying that he “no longer fit [her] image of a German (186) when she came to the country and actually experienced and interacted with German people.
The topics of identity and stereotypes expressed in the novel are shown in Rosalinda’s sentiments and behavior surrounding her family’s interactions with people of other ethnicities. She openly expresses her racist beliefs about the people she deems unfit to associate with her family, like the Rosenbaums. She only allows people of worth and class to interact with her family, unless they also prove to be undeserving, like Dieter. Another interest point in the novel I found was Rosalinda’s eagerness to renounce her Tartar identity in order for her and her family to become “German,” because in her opinion Germany is the epitome of class worldliness. Since the book was published so recently, it’s possibly making a statement on how immigrants renounce their old identities in order to come to Germany for a better life. Germany is seen as this urban and organized sanctuary for immigrants to successfully restart their lives.