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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We'd never touched the West German teacups at home. Never sucked on candy with tea at four in the morning. Never encountered men in uniform on the other side of the door and come out of it fine. My elders had been spurred out of the fixity of their lives—what life was more fixed than an ordinary person's in Soviet Minsk?—by two forces greater than the stability they'd painstakingly built up despite being Jews: my arrival in their lives, and the unlocking of the Soviet border. So, in the train, their dread mixed with giddiness, the compartment shaking with laughter as my grandfather made lewd comments about the guards and my grandmother hissed reprimands at him because I was right there.

When the tea was done, glances were exchanged. The glances said: Did our celebration have to end so quickly? Were we not something like free people? In the skewering, overly intimate tone my father sometimes used with his parents-in- law— to defuse the tension that had always existed between them, to pretend they were on better terms than they were, to poke fun at the way my grandmother's iron hand always saved the best for the child—he pointed at the oilcloth bag with the food and said, "Will the store put something out on the shelves?" My grandmother stared at him with heavy eyes. Now they were really bound to each other forever. She followed his gaze to the window. If you squinted, you could make out an indigo stripe blurring all the black at the far edge of the horizon. So call it breakfast.

Out came rolls of salt-cured salami, a basket of hard-boiled eggs, a block of hard cheese, towel-wrapped cucumbers, tins of sprats, sardines, cod liver, and salmon. And a loaf of dark sourdough Borodinsky rye, sweetened with molasses, made with coriander seeds, finished with caraway. Borodinsky was our national bread—and we had eight hundred breads. The widow of a Russian general who had perished at the Battle of Borodino in 1812, the story went, had set up a convent whose nuns invented Borodinsky as a mourning bread, hence the dark, slightly charred top and the coriander seeds, to resemble grapeshot. We didn't know that it was made from American wheat; Soviet wheat was too poor and fed only cattle. As always, we needed the Americans for the original innovation, but our version surpassed the original. A Soviet bureaucrat had explained it to a newspaper: American bread was "unusual," he said. "There's a lot of air in it." Here was a Soviet bureaucrat telling the truth! In the hand, Borodinsky was as dense as a goose-down pillow, but in the mouth it was like soft flesh, giving.

My grandmother tapped my shoulder—she was holding a peeled hard-boiled egg with a snowcap of mayonnaise. Over it, she dusted some salt, disposing of the last bit over her shoulder as per superstition. Using our kitchen knife, baubles suspended in the Bakelite of its curved handle—it had come, too—she hacked the end off the loaf but held it away and sawed down a softer slice; an adult would chew on the crust. I knew we had taken food with us, but this appearance of it exactly as it would have looked in the kitchen at home felt like magic. I departed the Soviet Union as I'd lived in it: my ears "cracking," as the Russian had it, because I was chewing so hard.

We had been supposed to leave in 1979, right after I was born. Jews had been leaving the Soviet Union in fluctuating but significant numbers since the mid-seventies. By now, the story of why—the persecution of Soviet Jews by their government and fellow citizens—is perhaps well known. The Russian Empire gained most of its Jewish subjects only when it annexed parts of Poland in the eighteenth century. Jews were foreign and, as with minorities in many other places, kept this way through geographical isolation and professional restriction. Things got marginally better after late imperial reforms, and this somewhat improved coexistence carried into Bolshevik rule. At first, the new regime genuinely pursued a more egalitarian order—there were so many Jews in Communist ranks because they believed in the ideal—so that Russians (and Belarusians and Tatars and Poles and others) not only lived alongside Jews peacefully in Minsk in the 1920s and '30s, but sometimes knew Yiddish, the Jews' language.

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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