Excerpt from Savage Feast by Boris Fishman, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Savage Feast

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

by Boris Fishman

Savage Feast by Boris Fishman X
Savage Feast by Boris Fishman
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  • First Published:
    Feb 2019, 368 pages
    Feb 2020, 368 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Rory L. Aronsky
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What to cook in a Nazi cast-iron pot in a furnace in Minsk after the war
What to cook to get your not-even-son-in-law the grade that he needs
What to cook when meeting your son's wealthy girlfriend

The door of the sleeper sailed open, breaking the tu-tum-tu-tum of the wheels on the track, the medical blue of the overhead light panels dispelling the secretive blue of night on a train. Two uniformed men filled the doorway. My grandmother—the next compartment held my mother, father, and grandfather—lowered her swollen legs to the floor. In her sleeveless nightgown and the pink net in which she preserved her hairstyle at night, she looked too intimate next to the uniformed men. "Dokumenty," they said, the word just like the Russian.

If you want a shortcut to the Eastern European experience, you must have yourself woken from the sarcophagus of a sleeper's ceiling berth by border guards in the night. You must have every light lit. You must be spoken to in a language you understand slightly, or not at all, depending on the kind of estrangement you want. Trains: To a European person, an Eastern European person, a Jewish Eastern European person, they call up cattle cars and extinction as readily as a megaphone in a pickup summons revolution to a Latin American. Emigration, evacuation, extermination, exile—in Russia, a train has carried the quarry. The platform, the engine's weary exhalation, a whistle's hoot and blare, "the grey wet quay, over a wilderness of rails and points, round the corners of abandoned trucks," as Graham Greene put it—if we are to speak of the things that divide the Russian mind from the American, we could begin here.

One of the guards peered at the identity cards. My grandmother winked at me: Everything will be fine. I didn't know what to think—I hadn't been told where we were going, though all the tears on the farewell platform didn't bode well. I was nine, too young for my own card, so I shared the photo on my mother's. The guard brought the card to my grandmother's face, the edge nearly grazing her cheek. What his doing that reminded her of, I couldn't imagine.

"Kde matka?" the guard said. The first word was like the Russian—gde: "where"—but the second was a coarse variant of our "mother." At home, we used only "mama"—its stiffening into the Czech matka somehow enclosed all the badness of the preceding twenty-four hours: my mother weeping on the train track in Minsk; the drunks slouching up and down the platform in Warsaw; being on this train instead of in third grade, which had started ten days before; the gold necklace concealed under my shirt; the emptying out of our apartment.

I started crying: quiet, polite tears, a good boy. My grandmother moved next to me and took my hair in her hand, the skin doughy and flimsy at once. Only then did she point the guards next door. They left, keeping the card. We heard the next compartment slam open, the muffled sound of familiar voices. Rummaging in her purse, my grandmother brought out a soft caramel candy and nodded to say it was okay, though it was night. I uncrisped the waxed wrapper and laid it on my tongue, waiting for it to melt a little before chewing. We rocked a little with the train, which hurtled through the night without concern for our trouble. After a while, the voices receded. My father appeared in the doorway, his eyes small and sleepy. "It's okay," he said. "The identity card has to stay with the mother."

Everyone was too shaken to go back to sleep. The illicit hour, the close call, the candy—I was filled with a sense of adventure. My grandmother boiled water for tea. The five of us, two adults per berth and me on my grandmother's knees, drank it from West German tea cups, cobalt with gold trim, that she and my mother had babied into our luggage. They were among the things we were told might sell well in Vienna and Rome, our transit points en route to America, but until then they were ours, and we sucked at their hot rims through the caramels on our tongues.

From the book Savage Feast by Boris Fishman. Copyright © 2019 by Boris Fishman. Reprinted courtesy of Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.

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