My favorite kind of family memoir is one that is as much about food as it is about the people and their experiences. Years ago, I read and loved Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking, by Anya von Bremzen. I’ve been hunting around for something similar since. When I read an excerpt from Savage Feast, in which Boris Fishman discusses the mix of smugness and shame he feels when he is the person on a plane with dozens of tinfoil bundles of profoundly garlicky food, I knew I needed to read the rest of the memoir. Like von Bremzen, Fishman offers recipes and memories from Russian history. He adds his own journey through cultural schizophrenia, heartbreak, and depression to acceptance and love along with the memories and recipes. Like all good food-based memoirs, this one made me hungry; I flagged a few of the recipes to try out in my kitchen.
Fishman’s family left the Soviet Union in one of the last waves of emigrating Soviet Jews during the late 1980s. Young Boris accompanied his parents and maternal grandparents from Minsk to New York, via Austria and Italy. (Another grandmother came later.) Because he was old enough to have attended primary school in the Soviet Union, Boris had to start over in America, with a new language and an entirely different culture. His parents and grandparents are so accustomed to life in the USSR that they never really shake their habits and superstitions. So much of that carries over to young Boris that spends a lot of his life trying to decide what to keep and take from Soviet and American culture. For a long time, he is unable to be either Russian or American or find a happy place between the two cultures.
As Boris wrestles with his identity, we get short histories of his wily grandfather’s past as a wheeler-and-dealer and his father as a stolid man who burns with anger at the anti-Semetism he received from his fellow Soviets. His maternal grandmother carries the emotional scars of the Holocaust and near starvation. Because his forebears went hungry so often, Boris grew up with tables covered with rich, filling food made from whatever his parents and grandparents could get their hands on. He has eaten innumerable potatoes, beets, onions, bliny, and endless bowls of borsch and ukha. The root vegetables, meats, breads, and salads are all seasoned with vinegar and spices, cooked for hours so that every dish has layers and layers of flavors. (Is it any wonder I want to try these dishes?)
For most of his life, other people prepare food for Boris. First, his mother and grandmother feed him the dishes they learned from the women in their family. Then, he eats at the table of Oksana, who is hired as a home caretaker for Arkady, Boris’s grandfather. Late in the book, Boris describes her as a stove magician. The title is perfect. The woman can, as Boris says, “cover” a table in amazing food in an hour. With more time she can create such amazing food that Boris gushes over it in Savage Feast years later and make me drool over just the words. When Boris collapses into a deep depression in his mid-30s, one of the things that helps him heal is learning to cook from Oksana. Learning Russian cooking, serving food to others, helps Boris get out of his own head.
Readers who are curious about Russian food or are fans of stories about the healing power of food or just like stories about quirky families will probably enjoy Savage Feast. This is not an overtly inspirational book. Fishman is more than willing to show his foibles, bad behavior, and neuroses. I chuckled more than once at his sarcastic observations. Like a good borsch, this book is full of all kinds of different flavors that blend together to make a satisfying experience.