One of my favorite passages in my debut novel, A Replacement Life
— the story of a failed young writer who starts forging Holocaust-
restitution claims for old Russian Jews in Brooklyn who have suffered, “but not in the exact way
[they] need to have suffered in order to qualify” — appears on page 20 and has no verbs or
adjectives; there isn’t even a complete sentence in it. It’s a list. I reproduce it here, along with
the preceding paragraph for context. The young writer’s grandmother, a Holocaust survivor, has
just passed away, and he makes his first return to south Brooklyn, where so many Russian-Americans live, in over a year — he has been trying to force his past out of his life — for her
funeral and commemoration. (The first names in the first paragraph refer to the home aides that
looked after his grandmother when she was ill.)
Slava used to sit at one of these tables once a week, the cooking by a Berta or a Marina
or a Tatiana, uniformly ambrosial, as if they all attended the same Soviet Culinary School
No. 1. Stout women, preparing to grow outward even if they hadn’t reached thirty, in
tights decorated with polka dots or rainbow splotches, the breasts falling from their sailor
shirts, their shirts studded with rhinestones, their shirts that said Gabbana & Dulce.
Stewed eggplant; chicken steaks in egg batter; marinated peppers with buckwheat
honey; herring under potatoes, beets, carrots, and mayonnaise; bow-tie pasta with
kasha, caramelized onions, and garlic; ponchiki with mixed-fruit preserves; pickled
cabbage; pickled eggplant; meat in aspic; beet salad with garlic and mayonnaise; kidney
beans with walnuts; kharcho and solyanka; fried cauliflower; whitefish under stewed
carrots; salmon soup; kidney beans with the walnuts swapped out for caramelized
onions; sour cabbage with beef; pea soup with corn; vermicelli and fried onions.
I am often asked in what way I remain Russian more than a quarter of a century after my
family left the Soviet Union, when I was nine. I feel no political kinship with the Soviet Union’s
fallout republics (I was born in Belarus), and the one return visit I made, in 2000, excavated
powerful sensory memories but left me with an equally powerful distaste for the lack of civility,
paranoia, and xenophobia that continues to thrive there. So my answer tends to refer to the
Russian literature that was my path back to my home culture after I’d spent a decade in America
trying to forget it; the language, earthy and comic and supple and brusque; and the food. Is it
because professional opportunity — not to mention other forms of personal expression, such as
religious identity — was so much more circumscribed in the Soviet Union that so much more
ceremony and ritual significance was given to meals and community? All I can say is that to this
day, my family — its opportunities and self-expression circumscribed in America all the same,
due to imperfect English, advanced age, and plain shyness — sits down to meals as to a great
respite from the ordeals of the day. Great care is taken to prepare the meal, almost always at
home, from scratch; it is pounced upon with an equally great hunger that sometimes feels
spiritual more than alimentary. The food is gone in a third of the time it took to prepare. It’s not
the French or Italian model.
There may be another reason. Looking from America, Russian food feels like a paradox.
(I am calling it “Russian” only as an economical shorthand; there is as much French as Central
Asian influence in it, and Jewish, too, if buried — a Ukrainian Orthodox woman I know had been
making kasha varnishkes for decades before she realized its provenance.) Industrial agriculture,
with its reliance on chemicals and preservatives, was never practiced in the Soviet Union to the
degree that it is in America; strawberries used to taste like strawberries there, and you could
count on finding them for sale only in late summer. (Things have changed somewhat now, but in
today’s Ukraine, for instance, Belarussian food products sell at a premium because Belarus
avoids GMOs; products advertise this prominently. Isn’t that something? The Soviets were local
and organic — and progressive on GMO usage and labeling — long before all this caught on in
America.) But neither was health-consciousness a priority in the same way; when it wasn’t
butter in the pan, it was sunflower oil, and lots of it. So, well-raised products cooked in the good
stuff: Perhaps it’s no mystery why Russians love to eat.
Because food is so important both to the novel and its author — so much so that, having
finished my second novel, out from HarperCollins next year, I am contemplating a Ukrainian
cookbook as my third project — I invite you to make it a part of your book club discussion of A
. Cross-pollination is welcome: One club, in Knoxville, TN, fortified its
discussion with vodka and lox. If there’s a Russian grocery store nearby, raid the shelves. And if
you’re willing to try your own hand at a staple of the Russian table, I include a recipe for borshch
from the woman whose cooking I want to highlight in the Ukrainian cookbook. I went down to
south Brooklyn, where she looks after my grandfather, just last night, and made it together with
her. You won’t regret the (not very taxing) effort. And in case it’s your discussion that needs
fortification, I am also including a handful of discussion questions
. Finally, I am available through the JBC Live Chat program
or Skype into your book club if that would be of interest; you can reach me at
Happy eating, reading, and talking: The Jewish national pastimes.
The night before, boil three medium-size beets (anywhere from forty minutes to an hour and
change depending on their size and age). Leave the skin on and refrigerate. This helps the beet
keep its color and not blanch when it’s cooking the next day.
You can make the soup with plain water, or ready-made stock, but you can also make your own
— with chicken bones, meat on, or pork bones, ditto, or beef bones. In a 3L pot, cover the
bones with 2L of water and bring to a boil. Once the stock is boiling and the surface has covered
with fat skimmings from the meat, remove the bones, empty the pot of the liquid, and wash it out
get rid of the film on the sides. Refill with 2L of water and return to a boil. Once boiling, lower the
heat and slide the lid slightly off to prevent it from boiling too hard.
- Bring the stock to a boil, then lower to medium heat and slide the lid slightly off.
- Peel three medium-size potatoes, and cube.
- Peel one medium-size parsnip and dice into disks, halving the larger slices.
- Wash and de-seed one jalapeno, and dice into tiny pieces.
- Shred a quarter of a medium-size cabbage head.
- Add all of it — they require the same cooking time — into the boiling pot, along with one nearly
full tablespoon of salt. The soup stays at medium heat, lid slightly off.
While vegetables are cooking (one hour):
- Peel and grate two big carrots.
- Peel and cube one medium-to-large onion.
- Cover the bottom of a saute pan generously with oil (Oksana uses corn oil)
- Add the onions and saute until they are golden-brown.
- Add carrots and keep sauteing until they are cooked all the way. If you throw in carrot sooner,
it will give off a lot of juice and the mixture will braise rather than saute.
- Add a heaping tablespoon of tomato paste using a dry spoon. (Wet spoon will cause mold in
the paste. To preserve tomato paste after opening a can, cover with oil.)
- Press or grate two large garlic cloves into the soup
- Skin the beets — if you run them under water, the skin should come off in your fingers.
- Dice into relatively small pieces
After the soup has been going for an hour:
- A dusting of coriander and curry into the soup (Spices get tossed in with about 20% cooking
time left. Otherwise, the flavor isn’t sharp.)
- Slide the onion/carrot/tomato paste/garlic mixture into soup
- Deglaze pan with water and add to soup
- Add 1/2 tbsp. of Vegeta or salt to taste
- Add the beets and turn heat to low. Add salt to taste. Does it need acidity? Options: Lemon,
vinegar, the brine of pickled cabbage. (Oksana added 2 tbsp 4% vinegar.)
- Add one teaspoon of white sugar.
- Add a generous helping of dill. (Oksana’s was from the freezer.)
- Press or grate two large heads of garlic into the soup.
- Add a little bit more salt to taste — borshch always tastes like it needs salt the next day.
- Turn the heat to high; at the first signs of boiling, shut it off or the beets will start to lose color.
(When reheating, reheat only serving portions — not the entire pot.)
Leave for the next day.
Boris Fishman was born in Belarus and immigrated to the United States at the age of nine. His
work has appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, The New Republic, The
Wall Street Journal, The London Review of Books, and other publications. He lives in New York.
Just out in paperback, A Replacement Life is his first novel. It received a rave on the cover of
The New York Times Book Review — “Is there room in American fiction for another brilliant
young émigré writer? There had better be, because here he is. Boris Fishman’s first novel, ‘A
Replacement Life,’ is bold, ambitious and wickedly smart... The only problem with this novel is
that its covers are too close together... Undoubtedly, comparisons will be made — to Bellow and
the Roths (Henry and Philip).” — and was selected by The New York Times as one of its 100
Notable Books of 2014, by Barnes & Noble for its Discover Great New Writers
program and as a finalist for Jewish Book Council's Sami Rohr Prize.