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

Anna's mother, Sofia, could knock out tsimmes, a carrot casserole that in her execution was savory rather than sweet; tseppeliny, potato pancakes humped with ground pork, named after the German dirigibles that crossed the sky during World War I; babka, a potato casserole studded with chicken-skin cracklings. Sofia brined her herring—after hacking off the head and tweezering the bones like a jeweler—with not only peppercorns and onions but coriander and cinnamon. She made cherry, plum, and raspberry jams so thick, a spoon would stand up in the jars. One of the house specialties involved a thick slab of polenitsa bread slathered with "the noise," the foam sent up by the jam as it boiled away.

Maintaining this existence required unflagging exertion. One day, Yakov proposed a walk, but Anna had to go to the dry cleaners, then visit the back door of a private food depot, then a woman who dealt in vacation vouchers. Yakov felt queasy about a life made from secret favors, but maybe being in this place was good for him. He felt pushed in a way he never had at home, where he had been provided for and kept safe, but nothing more. And if he made more of himself, maybe Anna's parents might look upon him less disapprovingly. He applied to a technical college specializing in telecommunications, studied hard for the entrance exams and passed, earning a junior position at a telephone exchange pending graduation.

"Now that you're in," Arkady said over dinner one night—the four of them always ate together; Arkady wasn't impressed by the telephone exchange, but you had to start somewhere—" you need a 'warm' person inside. You understand what I'm saying?" My father nodded vaguely. "Someone who likes a well-covered table. And wants to help as a way to say thank you." Arkady mimed a hand giving the top mark on a grade sheet. "You find him, I'll feed him."

Everything inside Yakov objected, but he decided to try. Eventually he spotted someone who seemed pliant in the right way—the safety instructor. He stumbled through the invitation, but men like the safety instructor knew their way around such conversations, and helped by accepting quickly. That left the question of what to cook.

Sofia decided against Jewish dishes. She made cabbage rolls stuffed with ground pork and rice, braised in a quilt of crumbled rye bread and sour cherry jam; and karbonat, a garlic-spiked pork tenderloin. Pork tenderloin was a deficit item—the right thing for the safety inspector to notice. Sofia stewed the hell out of it in a zinc-gray pot embossed with factory and model identifications that made it feel like a part of some engine. The lid closed over the rim with a distinct, plaintive peal that tolled all through the house and said, Soon you will be licking your fingers. Sofia served the karbonat with crispy potatoes and scallions. The assembled drained one bottle of cognac, then another. Like American hurricanes, Soviet grades went from 1 to 5, with 3 passing. The safety inspector gave my father a 5.

Time: 2 hours Serves: 6

Why would anyone braise cabbage rolls in bread and jam? Well, we didn't have tomato paste and raw sugar in the Soviet Union, and this was my grandmother's way of lending a sour-sweet depth to a standard. The pork and jam are sweet; the Borodinsky (or similar sourdough rye) is earthy; and the cabbage, cool and vegetal, cuts through both. (The cooking time below will leave the cabbage al dente, so that you'll end up with a dish at once pillowy and toothsome.) This recipe uses brown rice, as its nuttiness goes well with the other ingredients, but feel free to substitute your rice of choice.

1/2 cup brown rice
Kosher salt
1 medium head green cabbage
1 1/2 pounds ground pork (or ground meat of your choice)
1/2 large onion, chopped
2–3 cloves garlic, minced
Black pepper
1/2 loaf Borodinsky or other sourdough rye bread (5–6 slices)
1 13-ounce jar sour cherry jam
Vegetable oil, for the pan(s)
  1. You'll want your rice half-cooked before it goes inside the cabbage rolls. Bring 3/4 cup of salted water to a boil, add the rice, lower the heat to a simmer, and cover. You're boiling the rice in half the water it needs to cook fully, so keep an eye on it. The water should have boiled out in 15–20 minutes, or about half the time you'd need to cook it fully.
  2. While the rice is going, fill a tall pot with enough water to cover the head of cabbage. Salt it well—1 tablespoon of salt per 12 cups of water. Bring the water to a boil. Meanwhile, cut the stem out of the cabbage head. When the water is boiling, drop the head in, flat part down. The cabbage will bob around, the top peeking out, but as long as there's enough water, that should be fine.
  3. Within a minute or two, the outer cabbage leaf will be ready to come off. Use tongs to carefully peel it away from the kachan—that's Russian for "cabbage head"—and remove from the water. Pat dry with paper towels. Repeat until you have 20 leaves.
  4. Using a small knife, slice off the part of each leaf rib that isn't level with the rest of the leaf. You're not cutting the rib out in a triangular cut; the rib stays in, and you're just shaving it down so the leaf is entirely flat, and easier to fold.
  5. Mix thoroughly the pork, onion, garlic, and now somewhat cooled half-cooked rice. Season with salt and pepper.
  6. Using your hands or a spoon, deposit a clump of the pork mixture at the broadest edge of a cabbage leaf. Fold that edge over the meat, then flap over the right and left sides, then roll over again until you've run out of leaf—a cabbage burrito. Set aside and repeat for the remaining pork mixture and leaves. You could also divide the mixture among the leaves before folding any, to make sure you have enough.
  7. Tear the bread so that the pieces are no larger than a thumbnail and mix with the jam. Combine with 2 cups of water, and salt lightly.
  8. Choose a covered pan deep enough to hold the cabbage rolls in two layers, or use two pans to fit them in one layer. Coat the bottom of the pan(s) with a tiny bit of oil over medium-low heat and place in the cabbage rolls. Pour the jam mixture around and between the rolls. The top of the uppermost layer of rolls should be peeking out of the liquid.
  9. Cover, turn the heat down to low, and let braise for 30 minutes. Uncover and cook for another 30 minutes so some of the liquid can boil off.

My father needed a boost, but only a boost: He graduated with strong grades all around. At the telephone exchange, they noted his accreditation and told him to wait. But no word came—as it never would. They didn't put Jews in the senior positions. The only way to live like a normal person, he saw again, to get people to forget you were Jewish, was to live the way his girlfriend's parents lived. But how to do it? Forget the oiliness of it—how could you know who your friends were, and who used you for pork? Anna's father didn't trouble himself with the question. Maybe it was too painful; maybe Anna's parents once wished to live differently, too.

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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