Non­fic­tion

Sav­age Feast: Three Gen­er­a­tions, Two Con­ti­nents, and a Din­ner Table (a Mem­oir with Recipes)

  • Review
By – December 16, 2019

Want to extend your reper­toire past borscht?

Sav­age Feast—a mem­oir and cook­book in one — will have you tuck­ing in to spe­cial­ties like ukha (fish soup), vareni­ki (dumplings), and syrni­ki (cot­tage cheese pat­ties), all while fol­low­ing one fam­i­ly’s migra­tion from the Sovi­et Union to the Unit­ed States. Nar­rat­ed by Boris Fish­man, Sav­age Feast tells the sto­ry of how the Fish­mans left Min­sk for Brook­lyn. Like many Sovi­et Jew­ish mem­oirs, the action begins after World War II. Although the pro­tag­o­nist is born in the 1970s, the hard­ships and cop­ing mech­a­nisms of that peri­od define the par­ents and grand­par­ents’ atti­tudes. Through­out the Sovi­et years and into the Amer­i­can ones, food — at once for nour­ish­ment, fam­i­ly gath­er­ings and a tes­ta­ment to black mar­ket ped­dling and street­wise clev­er­ness — holds the Fish­mans togeth­er. When the move to Amer­i­ca baf­fles his elders and ren­ders their old sur­vival skills sud­den­ly obso­lete, food­ways remain a point of con­nec­tion and inves­ti­ga­tion into the rich­ness and com­plex­i­ty of the fam­i­ly’s experience.

When the forks are down, the plates licked clean and the tea cups drained, of course, there comes a sati­at­ed silence — what will we talk about, now that the food is gone? Trau­ma and men­tal health takes its place at the table in Sav­age Feast, and is a top­ic that Fish­man flesh­es out across gen­er­a­tions. A most­ly silent and dis­tant rela­tion­ship with his grand­fa­ther is warmed by shar­ing a kitchen: Hell, we’d been at the stove togeth­er.” After the loss of his wife, Fish­man’s Jew­ish grand­fa­ther, Arkady, finds that the clos­est per­son to him is his Ukrain­ian aide, Oksana, with whom he shares the same heart coun­try, stom­ach coun­try, prostate coun­try” — the same frame for hunger, sur­vival and suc­cess. Fish­man him­self, who encoun­ters depres­sion, heart­break and a con­stant case of being nei­ther here nor there, finds recov­ery and belong­ing as he vol­un­teers on Amer­i­can farms, joins a Russ­ian restau­rant crew and pulls off a grand roman­tic and culi­nary ges­ture at a sum­mer camp.

Sav­age Feast large­ly­fol­lows a stan­dard mem­oir for­mu­la: the author tells his sto­ry, which inevitably begins and is con­tex­tu­al­ized in stand-alone chap­ters by well-done cuts of his fam­i­ly’s his­to­ries. But it is also a cook­book, a styl­is­tic choice that extends beyond the curat­ed Index of dish­es at the end (orga­nized both by cat­e­go­ry and in order of appear­ance”). A good cook­book is a mix of tra­di­tion and inter­pre­ta­tion, mea­sure­ments and adjust­ments, must-haves and sub­sti­tutes. Add to this the eccen­tric­i­ties of a Sovi­et cook­book: bartered goods, rations, fresh vil­lage fruits, and always, resource­ful­ness and resilience. Fish­man becomes a chef, both as a recipe-trans­mit­ting author and briefly, as a pro­fes­sion­al, so that the recipes them­selves read like the chat­ter of an expe­ri­enced rel­a­tive: swap this, do it like this and remem­ber — here Fish­man quotes Oksana ver­ba­tim — the pep­per needs to be meaty — like a person.”

The recipes may be a bit hard to fol­low at first, but for a seat at Fish­man’s eclec­tic, inter­gen­er­a­tional table, all you need to do is open the book.

Dalia Wolf­son is study­ing Com­par­a­tive Lit­er­a­ture — with a focus on Russ­ian and Judeo-lan­guage lit­er­a­tures — at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Pennsylvania.

Discussion Questions