Russian soup for the soul: how cook helped me love again | Boris Fishman
Novelist Boris Fishman shunned his heritage until a fiery internship in the kitchen of a New York restaurant
In 2014, a Russian eatery named Moscow5 7 opened near my apartment on New Yorks Lower East Side. Manhattan was full of Russian restaurants, both classics such as Samovar and parvenu such as Mari Vanna; but the main distinction, as I saw it, was in their flavors of poshlost kitschy nostalgia and arriviste vulgarity, respectively. And now places like these had set up shop on my walk to the subway. I started taking the other side of the street.
I had grown up going to Russian restaurants. In 1988, when I was nine, my family immigrated from the former Soviet Union to Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, where the Italians were slowly giving way to Chinese and Russians. My only wish was to transform myself from Boris to Bobby and shed every sign of my heritage, but I was too young to say no when my family packed off to places like the National Restaurant in Brighton Beach, the heavily Russian neighbourhood in Brooklyn, for somebodys birthday.( Somebody had a birthday all the time .) There, seated at banquet tables worthy of Rabelais, we gorged on fried potatoes with morels, sturgeon, quail and duck liver, and watched elaborate floor show dancing daughters, attires, smoke stunned by the food and the sight. Id had enough for a lifetime.
By the end of high school, I was passing well enough that I was ripe for reclamation: a high school reading of Ivan Turgenevs Fathers And Sons hacked down my little Berlin wall, leading to a Russian literature major at university and a journalism career that never strayed far away from Russians, whether there or in the Russian diaspora. My poor Jewish mothers, abused by the Soviets into disdain for that place and those people, wished I hadnt been so quick to shed my self-loathing, but they maintained going to the National, and I stopped. I stopped considering them, too. Otherwise, how was I to save myself from their trauma?
One rainy late springtime Sunday night in 2015, a friend and I induced our route through three rounds of cocktails in a neighbourhood bar and, gin in my head, I forgot to cross to the right side of Delancey Street when we walked past Moscow5 7. My friend was a Russian non-Russian like me, and we likely thought the same thing: whatever affectation marriage find at Moscow5 7 would at least share nothing with the studied scruffiness of a Lower East Side cocktail den circa 2015. Also, Russian food soaks up booze really well.
It was beautiful inside. Blood-red walls, soft light, decorative chaos: pressed-tin ceiling, blocks of mirrors, photos hung up with clothes pegs. And the menu was both familiar and not: blinis, but also cucumber and pomegranate salad; borscht, but also pistachio and fenugreek shrimp. The eatery felt like nothing but itself, an elusive commodity in the city that has everything. To reach our banquette, we had to squeeze past a woman belting Little Girl Blue with the aid of a small band; when she finished, she walked up to us and introduced herself Ellen Kaye, one of the owners. Her mothers had operated the Russian Tea Room on 57 th Street, hence Moscow5 7. Then she took a swig of honey and returned to the mic. It was everything Id always wished to find in a Russian eatery: warmth rather than pomp. I started walking on the Moscow5 7 side of the street.
That spring, I was disoriented. The previous year, after years of rejection, I had published my first fiction to all the reception a first-time novelist dreams of. So much so that I went on a reading tour that mortals like me must leave to the Coldplays of the world: nine months and more than 100 appearances. Saying the same thing every night while attempting to seem sincere had induced me feel like a sociopath. I was once a social animal but trying to engage with readers had drained any desire for human contact from me. In the middle of it all, a woman I loved left me. So, during my last months of reads, Id sit against the wall of my hotel room for hours before rising got to go and on autopilot talk, construction gags, and ask and answer questions for three hours.
I was desperate to shut off my brain, but I could scarcely leave my bed. One night at Moscow5 7( one of the few places I could stand to go to ), I joked to Ellen and Seth Goldman, one of her business partners( two of the few people I could stand to watch ), that Id always wanted to work as a waiter, perhaps because, food having been scarce in the Soviet Union, for many Russians the prospect of serving it to another can be almost erotically satisfying.( My grandmother, a Holocaust survivor who feed potato peelings as she conceals out with guerrilla fighters in the Belarus forests, would move her mouth along with mine as she watched me feed .) Plus, I was good with people or so I had once thought. Maybe Ellen and Seth would let me serve food now and then? Id do it for free. Serve? he said. You dont want to intern in the kitchen?