Russian soup for the soul: how cook helped me love again | Boris Fishman

February 15, 2017

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?

Boris
After a day of writing, my mind was exhausted but my body was restless. After a kitchen transformation, my body was wasted, but my mind felt still. Photograph: Christopher Lane for the Guardian

They offered what I needed without asking whether I could simmer an egg. I said yes before anxiety could get in the way. I knew how to boil an egg, and more: I was a decent home cook. All the same, my heart was leaden with dread as I walked up Delancey for my first shift the next day. In the kitchen, I discovered a trio of recent arrivals from Russia and Ukraine Sasha( cold station ), Misha( hot station ), Nikita( head chef) all very puzzled why someone would work in a kitchen for free. I was a writer, theyd hear was I writing a book? No, I said, but also didnt explain: they didnt seem like people who would understand about too many reads and a broken heart. A practical person a Russian person would have been smart enough to pretend he was writing a book.

Id read enough Anthony Bourdain and Bill Buford to know that a new body in a kitchen is welcomed by fire: youre abused and, if you last, you become household. I had feared, but expected, the abuse. What I didnt expect was that being The Writer would render me ineligible for it, and its rewards. I was steered clear of, even that without hostility. A kitchen is a place of great, joyous detest. Hate for the owners, who dont understand what the cooks require. Hate for the servers, who always show up at the incorrect day. Hate for the diners, who have the temerity to actually order.( The most unprintable language issued every time the order machine whirred with a new one .) And detest for each other for Sasha, who wore Capri pants and listened to funny music; for Misha, who seemed maniacally focused when it was busy and simply uptight the rest of the time; for Nikita, who failed to understand how lucky he was to have the sous chefs he did. Merely I wasnt worth hating.

And then I understood that I was given a wide berth not because I was The Writer, but because I was a Russian who had become an American. There was nothing we could understand about each other. So I use the authority vested in me by the United States of America. One afternoon, Nikita yelled at Sasha to get him peppers from the downstairs walk-in, even though Sasha had his wrists deep in herring under a fur coat, a Soviet classic( layers of chopped herring, roasted beets, cold potatoes, carrots and mayonnaise, dusted with grated hard-boiled egg ), and I was standing next to him with nothing to do. I will get the peppers, I said aloud. No one said anything, or perhaps I ran off before anyone could.

Things changed a little after that. When the machine spat out potato pancakes , now it was I who was asked to go downstairs: two potatoes, one onion, one egg. I grated and mixed them before handing the batter to Sasha, and I shredded my knuckles on the grater because I was trying too hard. But next time Sasha didnt have to ask, and I didnt rip up my knuckles. After days of dicing mushrooms and onions for the chopped liver and prepping shish kebab skewers, I was allowed to build my own borscht, blinis and honey cake.

Cooking food in a eatery is not that different from cooking at home, except for the speed with which you must do it while minding a slew of other time-sensitive chores, all in a very small, very hot kitchen. But this was my salvation. From 2pm to midnight, my brain powered down to survival mode. After a day of writing, my mind was exhausted but my body was restless, a nervous energy that I tried to waste through workout. After a kitchen transformation, a pound of water weight having left me in the heat “were in” entering high summer my body was wasted, but my mind felt still.

Soon, I graduated to cooking the family snacks for the staff at nights aim: a lovely and accurate term for people who were swearing at each other simply moments ago, but who also shared an intimate obligation. In my family, raised voices didnt mean crisis; they entail people cared. The confused horror of many ex-girlfriends at the ease with which I passed from peace to war to peace again became more understandable.

I began to join the family in other styles: Nikita asked me to rewrite the menu; Sasha asked me to find him a bride. The eatery didnt have a gas connection, and the improvisation this required symbolised its spirit of chaos and vibrancy. In other terms: home. By late summertime, I couldnt wait for my shifts, for the three musketeers in the kitchen and their raw, molecular acquaintance. I was sleeping full nights, deep. But I wasnt returning to my previous garrulousness; rather, I was coming to understand it as the performativeness of an immigrant who was still trying to impress.

I began to feel desire again: for writing, for food, even household. I was realising that, years before, I had readmitted merely the high aim of my heritage and held my nose at the rest that is, the people themselves; the break, crazy people. Maybe that could have worked, were I not actually still so much like them. Meanwhile, my resistance had obliterated how much I loved my origins. I felt pride rather than disgrace driving through south Brooklyn.

The restaurant bequeathed one last gift before I left. One evening, after finishing her situate, the beautiful young lady who sang on Thursday nights asked if I had a cigarette. I explode through the kitchen doorways, nearly knocking Misha into the deep-fryer, and yelled to Nikita, always good for a pack of Parliaments. He handed me two along with some wisecrack. She and I smoked them outside, continuing our conversation at the bar. Which continued, and continued. Moscow5 7 closed last autumn because of the gas issue but, a year later, she and I are still cooking together.

Boris Fishmans borscht

Borscht
Borscht. Photograph: Alamy

I developed this recipe with Oksana Zagriychuk, a Ukrainian who looked after my grandpa and returned home earlier this year. She was all but a member of the family; as for her cooking, we talk about it to this day. When it comes to borscht, her golden rule is: the beet must not lose its colour. And if you can wait, borscht is better on the second day.

3 medium beets
3 litres water or stock
3 medium potatoes, peeled and cubed
1 medium parsnip, peeled and cut into discs, the larger slices halved
1 jalapeo, deseeded and diced small
cabbage head, chopped roughly
1 tbsp salt
1 medium or large onion, peeled and cubed
2 large carrots, peeled and grated
Cooking petroleum
1 tbsp tomato paste
4 large garlic cloves, peeled
Coriander, to taste
Curry powder, to taste
2 tbsp vinegar( optional )
1 tsp sugar
1 bunch dill, fresh or frozen

The day before, simmer three medium beets, skin on, until fully cooked 40 -7 5 minutes, depending on sizing and age. Stick a knife into a beet to check doneness; its ready if the knife goes in smoothly. Leave the skin on and refrigerate( this helps the beet keep its colour when its cooking the next day ).

Bring the liquid to a simmer, then lower to medium and put on a eyelid somewhat ajar. Add the potatoes, parsnip, jalapeo, cabbage and a tablespoon of salt. The soup remains at medium heat, lid somewhat off.

While the vegetables are cooking( one hour ), encompassed the base of a frying pan generously with petroleum, and saute the onions on medium heat until golden brown. Add the carrots and saute until fully cooked. Add a heaped tablespoon of tomato paste, then crush two of the garlic cloves and add.

Skin the beets( if you run them under water, the skin should come off in your fingers ), then dice into relatively small pieces.

After the soup has been going for an hour, add the spices( adding them towards the end helps them keep their flavour ): curry and coriander are merely suggestions use the spices you like. Add the onion/ carrot/ tomato paste/ garlic concoction to the soup, de-glaze the frying pan with a little water or stock, and add that to the soup, too.

Add the remaining half-tablespoon of salt and the diced beets, and turn the heat to low. Check the savor. Does the soup want salt, or a little more acid? To give it more of the latter, you can add a bit of fresh-squeezed lemon juice, or vinegar, or the brine of pickled cabbage.

Add the sugar, a generous helping of the dill and the remaining two cloves of garlic, crushed. Taste again. At this stage, the soup can use a little more salt, even if it doesnt seem to need it the second day, borscht always tastes like it needs salt. Turn the heat to high; at the first sign of boiling, turn it off, or the beets will start to lose colour. Leave for the next day. Reheat only serving sections , not the entire pot, because widened boiling will blanch the beets.

Boris Fishmans new fiction, Dont Let My Baby Do Rodeo, is published by One/ Pushkin Press at 12.99. To order a copy for 10.65, go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846.

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