Cooking up a story

Cooking up a story

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

Boris Fishman Photo by Stephanie Kaltsas
Boris Fishman Photo by Stephanie Kaltsas

Each of Boris Fishman’s first two books, both novels, pivot on his conflicted feelings about his Russian-Jewish American identity. The same could be said of his most recent work, “Savage Feast: Three Generations, Two Continents, and a Dinner Table (A Memoir with Recipes),” published by HarperCollins at the end of February. But this time he has dropped the veil of fiction, and the main character is the food on the table that connects all the pieces of his life.

Take the story of his mother’s first visit to his father’s home. Interwoven with the greetings, the details of the apartment, and the awkward silences, Fishman describes his paternal grandmother cooking sardines braised in caramelized onions and tomatoes: “She covered the bottom of the cast-iron German pot … with a little vegetable oil and scattered in two diced onion. While these sizzled, she sliced thick rings of tomatoes — tomatoes this firm did not end up under her knife very often. Once the onions had browned, she added the tomatoes, watching it all froth the right way. The silver arrows of the sardines went in last.”

When Fishman’s grandmother places it on the table for his future parents, “The sardines had kept their shape. The tomatoes were blistered and sugary. The onion had melted almost to a paste … My mother’s insistence on marrying my father soon after that evening was the first thing about which she ever stood up to her parents.” The recipe appears on the following page, an echo of the memory.

In his recounting, there is never a small amount of food; instead, there is always a spread of lovingly, expertly prepared delicacies that the family gorges on.

“I shove rabbit braised in sour cream into my mouth before the sheaf of peppers marinated in honey and garlic has gone down,” he writes in the prologue regarding one family gathering in his grandfather’s South Brooklyn home.

He associates the family’s relationship to food with the trauma and privation suffered over generations. “We have been hungry for as long as we have existed,” he writes, particularizing it with his grandmother’s experience during World War II. She “lived on potato peels as she wandered the Belarus swamps with anti-Nazi guerillas,” he writes. After the war, the first bread she saw was “black rye, a small loaf because flour was scarce — she tore at it like an animal.”

Like most cookbook authors, Fishman writes about the magic of food, but tapping into his experience as a novelist, he also captures its dark underside. He recognizes the family’s clawing hunger, and his own seeming inability to stop himself from eating their spreads, and describes his internal conflict of wanting the food — and the connection it represents — and his desire to distance himself from it.

In an interview with NJJN, he calls food “a salvation and a mystery,” as well as “a kind of addiction, a kind of perversion” for his family, saying, “We eat too fast, we eat more than we want to, we can’t do anything about it.” In delving into their eating habits, he captures an essential truth of his family.

The book traces the family journey from Minsk to South Brooklyn where Fishman arrived when he was 9 years old, and the outsized role food played as he grew up, feeling caught between being American and being

Oksana, a home health aide from Ukraine hired by his grandfather, cooks the family’s foods to stewed perfection and ultimately provides, for Fishman at least, a path for healing and reconnection.

(By the way, New Jersey, where he spent a number of years, makes a variety of cameo appearances; his family moved from Brooklyn to Wayne. Not that he has any affection for the Garden State; on the first page of the book, he calls New Jersey “insipid.” Even so, he comes back to teach at Princeton University and to give book talks. He will be at [words] Bookstore in Maplewood on Sunday, March 10, at 4 p.m. and Congregation Neve Shalom in Metuchen on Sunday, March 31, at 10 a.m.)

Plenty of ink is devoted to pork dishes and meat cooked in milk. Never having been a part of Fishman’s consciousness, kashrut is not a consideration, Still, Jewish tastes creep in surreptitiously, as when his mother and grandmother, while still in Russia, consider whether to feed guests Jewish dishes (like dill-flecked chicken bouillon with kneidels) or Soviet food (think cabbage rolls stuffed with ground pork and rice).

Literary nonfiction is not a new form for Fishman; he started his career at the New Yorker, the magazine that he says inspired him to become a writer. Its articles, especially during his formative years, “were factual in content, but in style, they read like novels,” he said. It’s what he has set out to do with this family history. “The amount of effort and creativity that I put toward … the artistic side of it was identical to [my two] novels.”

There are sections of narrative that are not saturated with food, including the family’s first experience with a synagogue, in Vienna. At first, they don’t know what to look for. Once inside, they cannot relate to the men, with their payes, tallitot, and kippot, swaying and praying. “My grandfather twisted his finger into his temple — the Soviet gesture for crazy. ‘Fanatics,’ he shrugged, and closed the door.” As Fishman then explains in the text, despite the best intentions of their Jewish sponsors, “We weren’t emigrating for the freedom to worship. Ours was a ‘salami immigration’… all we wanted was the freedom to make money.”

In one section, food is almost absent altogether, as Fishman falls into a clinical depression. The writing is raw, intimate, and painful in a way the rest of the book is not. In this state, Fishman doesn’t feel hungry and cigarettes replace food.

After turning to Oksana, the home health aide, for cooking lessons he begins the journey back to life and healing.

“Cooking is making something where there was nothing,” he writes. “That something happens to keep you alive — you can eat raw cabbage, but not, indeed, raw potato. It is the literal opposite of the emptying out of depression.”

Oksana’s recipes populate the book, from pickled watermelon to braised rib tips with pickled cabbage to potato latkes with dill, garlic, and farmer’s cheese. Her food is often stewed to within an inch of its life, so to speak, and cabbage makes repeat appearances as a main or supporting ingredient. Fishman is unapologetic. “Cabbage will never be sexy, never be hip, and never be cool,” he told NJJN, but he still sings its praises.

(This writer tried one dish called Solyanka. Usually a soup, in this case the recipe is a dish of stewed vegetables. It includes cabbage and carrots, cooked for 45 minutes with tomato paste and spices, with shiitake mushrooms, boiled first and then added and cooked some more. I was dubious, but as Fishman pointed out, the low and slow cooking causes the ingredients to “surrender all of their personality into the dish.” In fact, the cabbage concoction serves as a glorious backdrop for the shiitake mushrooms.)

Asked about his personal favorites, he barely hesitates before responding banosh (polenta) with mushrooms and sheep’s milk feta, cooked not in water but in dairy, that gives it a “tang”; and Oksana’s chicken liver pie, in which the liver is not a filling but part of the crepe dough itself. He’s such a fan of the alchemy in this dish that he’s considering starting a food truck to sell them. He doubts it will come to fruition, but if you have a clever name for such an enterprise, he’s open to suggestions.

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