This week, Boris Fish­man — the author of A Replace­ment Life, just released in paper­back from Harper­Collins
blogs for The Post­script on one of his favorite para­graphs in his book and the impor­tance of food. 

The Post­script series is a spe­cial peek behind the scenes” of a book. It’s a juicy lit­tle extra some­thing to add to a book clubs dis­cus­sion and a read­er’s under­stand­ing of how the book came togeth­er. 

To host” Boris at your next book club meet­ing, request him through JBC Live Chat

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 orad­jec­tives; there isn’t even a com­plete sen­tence in it. It’s a list. I repro­duce it here, along with­the pre­ced­ing para­graph for con­text. The young writer’s grand­moth­er, a Holo­caust sur­vivor, hasjust 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 her­fu­ner­al and com­mem­o­ra­tion. (The first names in the first para­graph refer to the home aides that­looked 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 Mari­naor a Tatiana, uni­form­ly ambrosial, as if they all attend­ed the same Sovi­et Culi­nary School­No. 1. Stout women, prepar­ing to grow out­ward even if they hadn’t reached thir­ty, intights dec­o­rat­ed with pol­ka dots or rain­bow splotch­es, the breasts falling from their sailor­shirts, their shirts stud­ded with rhine­stones, their shirts that said Gab­bana & Dulce.

Stewed egg­plant; chick­en steaks in egg bat­ter; mar­i­nat­ed pep­pers with buck­wheathoney; her­ring under pota­toes, beets, car­rots, and may­on­naise; bow-tie pas­ta with­kasha, caramelized onions, and gar­lic; ponchi­ki with mixed-fruit pre­serves; pick­led­cab­bage; pick­led egg­plant; meat in aspic; beet sal­ad with gar­lic and may­on­naise; kid­ney­beans with wal­nuts; khar­cho and solyan­ka; fried cau­li­flower; white­fish under stewed­car­rots; salmon soup; kid­ney beans with the wal­nuts swapped out for caramelize­do­nions; 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 myfam­i­ly left the Sovi­et Union, when I was nine. I feel no polit­i­cal kin­ship with the Sovi­et Union’sfallout republics (I was born in Belarus), and the one return vis­it I made, in 2000, exca­vat­ed­pow­er­ful 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 theRuss­ian lit­er­a­ture that was my path back to my home cul­ture after I’d spent a decade in Amer­i­ca­try­ing to for­get it; the lan­guage, earthy and com­ic and sup­ple and brusque; and the food. Is itbe­cause pro­fes­sion­al oppor­tu­ni­ty — not to men­tion oth­er forms of per­son­al expres­sion, such asre­li­gious iden­ti­ty — was so much more cir­cum­scribed in the Sovi­et Union that so much more­cer­e­mo­ny and rit­u­al sig­nif­i­cance was giv­en to meals and com­mu­ni­ty? All I can say is that to this­day, 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 greatrespite from the ordeals of the day. Great care is tak­en to pre­pare the meal, almost always ath­ome, from scratch; it is pounced upon with an equal­ly great hunger that some­times feelsspir­i­tu­al more than ali­men­ta­ry. The food is gone in a third of the time it took to pre­pare. It’s not­the 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 Cen­tralAsian influ­ence in it, and Jew­ish, too, if buried — a Ukrain­ian Ortho­dox woman I know had been­mak­ing 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 thede­gree that it is in Amer­i­ca; straw­ber­ries used to taste like straw­ber­ries there, and you could­count on find­ing them for sale only in late sum­mer. (Things have changed some­what now, but intoday’s Ukraine, for instance, Belaruss­ian food prod­ucts sell at a pre­mi­um because Belarusavoids GMOs; prod­ucts adver­tise this promi­nent­ly. Isn’t that some­thing? The Sovi­ets were loca­land organ­ic — and pro­gres­sive on GMO usage and label­ing — long before all this caught on inAmer­i­ca.) But nei­ther was health-con­scious­ness a pri­or­i­ty in the same way; when it wasn’tbutter in the pan, it was sun­flower oil, and lots of it. So, well-raised prod­ucts cooked in the good­stuff: 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, hav­ingfin­ished my sec­ond nov­el, out from Harper­Collins next year, I am con­tem­plat­ing a Ukraini­an­cook­book as my third project — I invite you to make it a part of your book club dis­cus­sion of ARe­place­ment Life. Cross-pol­li­na­tion is wel­come: One club, in Knoxville, TN, for­ti­fied its­dis­cus­sion with vod­ka and lox. If there’s a Russ­ian gro­cery store near­by, raid the shelves. And ifyou’re will­ing to try your own hand at a sta­ple of the Russ­ian table, I include a recipe for bor­shch­from the woman whose cook­ing I want to high­light in the Ukrain­ian cook­book. I went down tosouth Brook­lyn, where she looks after my grand­fa­ther, just last night, and made it togeth­er with­her. You won’t regret the (not very tax­ing) effort. And in case it’s your dis­cus­sion that needs­for­ti­fi­ca­tion, I am also includ­ing a hand­ful of dis­cus­sion ques­tions. Final­ly, I am avail­able through the JBC Live Chat pro­gram to cal­lor Skype into your book club if that would be of inter­est; you can reach me atcontact@​borisfishman.​com. 

Hap­py eat­ing, read­ing, and talk­ing: The Jew­ish nation­al pastimes. 


Oksana’s Bor­shch 

The night before, boil three medi­um-size beets (any­where from forty min­utes to an hour and­change depend­ing on their size and age). Leave the skin on and refrig­er­ate. This helps the beet­keep 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 the­bones with 2L of water and bring to a boil. Once the stock is boil­ing and the sur­face has cov­ered­with fat skim­mings from the meat, remove the bones, emp­ty the pot of the liq­uid, and wash it out­get rid of the film on the sides. Refill with 2L of water and return to a boil. Once boil­ing, low­er the­heat and slide the lid slight­ly off to pre­vent it from boil­ing too hard.

Day of: 
- 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 jalapeño, 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 near­ly­full 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 sauté pan gen­er­ous­ly with oil (Oksana uses corn oil) 
- Add the onions and sauté 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 sauté. 
- Add a heap­ing table­spoon of toma­to paste using a dry spoon. (Wet spoon will cause mold inthe paste. To pre­serve toma­to paste after open­ing a can, cov­er with oil.) 
- Press or grate two large gar­lic cloves into the soup 

Sep­a­rate­ly: 
- 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% cook­ing­time 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. His­work has appeared in The New York­er, The New York Times Mag­a­zine, The New Repub­lic, The­Wall 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 ofThe New York Times Book Review  — Is there room in Amer­i­can fic­tion for anoth­er bril­lianty­oung émi­gré writer? There had bet­ter be, because here he is. Boris Fishman’s first nov­el, ARe­place­ment Life,’ is bold, ambi­tious and wicked­ly smart… The only prob­lem with this nov­el isthat its cov­ers are too close togeth­er… Undoubt­ed­ly, com­par­isons will be made — to Bel­low andthe Roths (Hen­ry and Philip).” — and was select­ed by The New York Times as one of its 100Notable Books of 2014, by Barnes & Noble for its Dis­cov­er Great New Writ­er­spro­gram and as a final­ist for Jew­ish Book Coun­cil’s Sami Rohr Prize.

Boris Fish­man was born in Min­sk, Belarus. He is the author of the nov­els A Replace­ment Life (win­ner of the VCU Cabell First Nov­el­ist Award and the Amer­i­can Library Asso­ci­a­tion’s Sophie Brody Medal) and Don’t Let My Baby Do Rodeo. Both were New York Times Notable Books of the Year. Sav­age Feast, a fam­i­ly mem­oir told through recipes, will be out in paper­back in ear­ly 2020. His jour­nal­ism has appeared in The New York­erThe New York Times Mag­a­zine, and many oth­er pub­li­ca­tions. He lives in New York and teach­es cre­ative writ­ing at Prince­ton University.