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Summary and book reviews of Savage Feast by Boris Fishman

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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     Not Yet Rated
  • First Published:
    Feb 2019, 368 pages
    Paperback:
    Feb 2020, 368 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Rory L. Aronsky
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About this Book

Book Summary

The acclaimed author of A Replacement Life shifts between heartbreak and humor in this gorgeously told, recipe-filled memoir. A family story, an immigrant story, a love story, and an epic meal, Savage Feast explores the challenges of navigating two cultures from an unusual angle.

A revealing personal story and family memoir told through meals and recipes, Savage Feast begins with Boris's childhood in Soviet Belarus, where good food was often worth more than money. He describes the unlikely dish that brought his parents together and how years of Holocaust hunger left his grandmother so obsessed with bread that she always kept five loaves on hand. She was the stove magician and Boris' grandfather the master black marketer who supplied her, evading at least one firing squad on the way. These spoils kept Boris' family—Jews who lived under threat of discrimination and violence—provided-for and protected.

Despite its abundance, food becomes even more important in America, which Boris' family reaches after an emigration through Vienna and Rome filled with marvel, despair, and bratwurst. How to remain connected to one's roots while shedding their trauma? The ambrosial cooking of Oksana, Boris's grandfather's Ukrainian home aide, begins to show him the way. His quest takes him to a farm in the Hudson River Valley, the kitchen of a Russian restaurant on the Lower East Side, a Native American reservation in South Dakota, and back to Oksana's kitchen in Brooklyn. His relationships with women—troubled, he realizes, for reasons that go back many generations—unfold concurrently, finally bringing him, after many misadventures, to an American soulmate.

Savage Feast is Boris' tribute to food, that secret passage to an intimate conversation about identity, belonging, family, displacement, and love.

CHAPTER 1

1988

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...

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Reviews

BookBrowse Review

BookBrowse

There's an at-times solemn, at-times playful, always easy rhythm to Fishman's reminisces. He wants readers to know everything he can possibly tell them about his and his family members' lives, but he wants to take his time in getting there...continued

Full Review (663 words).

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(Reviewed by Rory L. Aronsky).

Media Reviews

Washington Post
His obvious flair as a fiction writer may explain my own tiny misgivings about Savage Feast. All memoirs tread a thin line between art and artfulness. Without design, a life narrative becomes a tedious jumble; with too much design, it starts to merge into fiction. In general, Savage Feast struck me as a bit too long: The stories tend to be overly drawn out, the often gorgeous prose slightly overwrought. More problematically, I wondered where memory left off and imaginative re-creation began.

Shelf Awareness
Vibrant…It’s easy to feel at home in Fishman’s writing; it’s warm, reflective and frequently funny…Even more than a story of hunger, this is a story of love. Love of family and companionship. Love of romance and lore. Love of garlic, fish and the feeling of finally learning to identify and satisfy the simple but crucial loves for which everyone hungers.

New York Times
Enthusiastic meals — not all of them in transit — are the language of this book, the waypoints and transitions, the narrative beats and instigative sparks that drive the storytelling. The meals are fantastic....Many of the best parts of this book will be familiar to readers of Fishman’s work...in other words, telling stories about your family. But here there’s a more straightforward desire for connection and a much less post-modern quest to find someone to eat with.

Publishers Weekly
There's a large web of characters and anecdotes, but Fishman grounds the narrative with his witty prose and well-translated family recipes.

Kirkus Reviews
Starred Review. A graceful memoir recounting a family's stories with candor and sensitivity.

Author Blurb Tracy K. Smith, U.S. Poet Laureate and Pulitzer Prize Winner
In prose as visceral and tightly coiled as the best poetry, Savage Feast assures me we are bound by the part of the self that is healed, coaxed, chastened and captivated by even the memory of a good meal.

Author Blurb Sigrid Nunez, author of The Friend, National Book Award Winner
A superb memoir — artful, ambitious, deeply soulful, often hilarious — by one of our cleverest and most original writers.

Author Blurb Anya Von Bremzen, James Beard Award-winning author of The Art of Soviet Cooking
Rabelaisian in appetite but Chekhovian in its spare and keen psychological detail, this marvelous memoir of family, exile, breakup, and one prodigious cook named Oksana sets a new standard for literary gastronomic writing. Even the recipes—who wouldn't salivate over garlicky peppers marinated in buckwheat honey?—are as surprising and fresh as Fishman's prose.

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Beyond the Book

Borodinsky Bread

Borodinsky breadEarly on in Savage Feast, Boris Fishman, beginning to recount his family's exodus from the Soviet Union, states that there were 800 kinds of bread in the U.S.S.R. It's true. According to an article in the Christian Science Monitor in 1985, there is domashanya, a basic household roll; stolichniye, the bread of Moscow, and orlovsky, which combines rye and wheat flour. The list goes on from there.

But the one that loomed over all of Mother Russia, including Fishman's Belarus, was Borodinsky, which he describes as having a "dark, slightly charred top," with coriander seeds meant to resemble "grapeshot," which are small iron balls fired from a cannon. According to him, the story goes that a Russian general died at the Battle of Borodino ...

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