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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About this Book

Print Excerpt

Shortly after World War II, she had been set to marry a veteran. He was a serdechnik—a "heart man"—so he went to a sanatorium near the Black Sea; the mineral treatments were supposed to help. As on so many Soviet occasions, they did the opposite, elevating his heart rate until it gave out. This man had lost so much family in the war that it fell to his second cousin Boris to retrieve his body for burial. Boris did not want to go to the Black Sea. He had been fighting since 1939—a border skirmish with Japan; a winter war with Finland; then the global slaughterhouse of World War II—and had managed to survive with nothing worse than shredded hearing and galloping blood pressure until he was shot in the arm in the war's final days. He came back to Minsk an artillery sergeant with a sling and a German cast-iron cooking pot. Everyone in his unit had gotten one—the Germans were evil, but they knew how to make things.

At home, Boris learned that both of his parents had been killed, no trace of the bodies. But a younger brother was alive in Kazakhstan, in Central Asia, more than two thousand miles away, where he had married a Russian woman. The Russian woman had a widowed younger sister. Millions of men having died in the war, almost any would do, so it was there that Boris wanted to go. But, reluctantly, he took the train for the Black Sea instead; awkwardly, he had to go down with Faina, his cousin's young wife. Boris—stout, of medium height, mortified by all the hair on his body—was shy around women. But the Black Sea wasn't much closer than Central Asia; they talked the whole way. There was a sturdiness to the young woman, a flushed radiance. By the time they reached the Black Sea, Boris wasn't sure about Kazakhstan anymore.

After they married, they lived in a single room attached to the furniture factory where Boris got work as a carpenter. The heat came from a wood-fired furnace. That was where the German cooking pot spent most of its time. Their free hours revolved around the procurement of things to cook in it. The store called Fruits and Vegetables never had fruit, and only three vegetables—cabbage, potatoes, and beets—so their garden supplied everything else. They bartered with the neighbor, who owned a cow, for butter and milk. The store called Bread had bread. The meat plant down the road had beef. Mushrooms they picked in the woods behind the furniture factory. All of it was what would later be referred to as organic—alternatives had not occurred to anyone—and both seasonal and local, as refrigeration was rare.

In the iron pot, Faina made meatballs from ground beef and pork, braised with caramelized carrots and onions, served alongside buckwheat dolloped with butter. The stew called solyanka—cabbage and slippery jacks braised at low heat; the combination, earthy, smoky, and nutty—was like eating the woods. Even breakfast came from the pot: Boris sometimes took their two sons (the younger one was my father, born in 1953) to the furniture cafeteria for pancakes—puffing through all their little pores and slathered with sweet buttermilk—but for herself, Faina loved to reheat leftover borshch.

Time: 2 hours Serves: 6–8

Solyanka (so-lee- AN- ka) is more commonly known as a soup, but this recipe makes a side dish so hearty, it'll easily work as a vegetarian main. Slippery jacks, the mushrooms my grandmother used in Minsk, aren't commonly available in America, but shiitakes are, and they make a very suitable substitute. For a more venturesome re-creation of that woodsy, just-picked taste—mushroom hunting is a religion in my part of the world—seek out a mix of shiitake, king trumpets, and hen-of- the- woods (maitake) mushrooms.
2 pounds shiitake mushrooms, Stemmed
2 tablespoons kosher salt, plus additional to taste
6 bay leaves
1/4 cup vegetable oil
1 large or 2 medium onions, Chopped
6 garlic cloves, divided (3 diced and 3 put through a garlic press)
1 large or 2 medium-size carrots, grated
1 small to medium-size head green cabbage (2 pounds), cored and roughly chopped
1/2 cup tomato paste
2 teaspoons sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons allspice
2 teaspoons ground coriander
2 teaspoons caraway seeds
  1. Pile the mushrooms into a big pot and cover with water. Add the 2 tablespoons salt and 3 of the bay leaves. Bring to a boil and boil for 15 minutes. Drain and set aside.
  2. While the mushrooms are boiling, in a large, deep sauté pan, heat the oil over medium heat. Add the onion and cook until golden brown. Salt to taste. Add the diced garlic and cook, stirring, for 30 seconds. Add the carrots and cook until nice and soft. Add the cabbage and remaining 3 bay leaves and cook, stirring occasionally, until wilted. Salt to taste.
  3. Mix the tomato paste with 21/2 cups water and a big pinch of salt. Add to the wilted cabbage along with the sugar, spices, and pressed garlic. Bring to a boil. Lower the heat and let gently simmer for 45 minutes with the lid slightly ajar. .
  4. Add the drained mushrooms and cook for another 10 minutes. Salt to taste.
Let cool, and serve.

Cooking was a kind of torment for Faina—she could not do two things at a time, so while the gas was on, she stood by it like a flag lashed to its mast, staring, stirring, and tweaking. She made rolled crepes with ground beef and caramelized onion; chopped liver from freshly killed chickens; forshmak (minced herring, caramelized onion, hard-boiled egg, grated apple); and raisin-studded muffins dusted with confectioners' sugar. Her buckwheat was buttery, but her strudel was chaste—diced apple, apricot, raisin, and plum did all the flavoring.

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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