Savage Feast: Memoir Excerpt


In 2017, I had the good fortune to be one of several writers featured at a literary reading held in Providence, Rhode Island. One of the other writers was novelist Boris Fishman, whom I met minutes before the event began. He was quiet and I observed as he engaged in low murmured conversations with a few of the other writers and offered nods to some folks in the audience. There was nothing in his soft, almost courtly demeanor that belied his keen eye and sense of humor. Yet when he stood to read–a passage from a novel about argumentative, boisterous Russian women clad in competing sparkly tops all crammed around a table in the kitchen–I was transfixed. I am not Russian. I know nothing of Russian cuisine other than what The One and I ate during a trip to St. Petersburg. I know nothing of Russian culture, family dynamics, or customs. Yet I could see every character. More than that, I could understand them. Boris was able to find the universal in the unique specifics of this family, its cooking, and its traditions. Two years later, when I read his memoir “Savage Feast: Three Generations, Two Continents, and a Dinner Table,” I immediately invited him to be the first guest on QWERTY, a podcast by, for, and about writers that I co-host with Marion Roach Smith. I hope you enjoy this excerpt and audio clip from this exceptional writer.David Leite

Excerpted from Boris Fishman | Savage Feast | HarperCollins, 2019

A sack of salami, black bread, hard-boiled eggs, thick-skinned tomatoes, peaches, and apples: lunch on the beach. One afternoon, I was so dazed from the sun that I drained the water in the cup the adults had left out before they headed down to the water. But Soviet people didn’t drink water with their meals—“It’ll just take up room in your stomach,” Faina had explained once—and I, smashed from the vodka, collapsed under the little table and was snoring like a hopeless drunk, sand in my mouth, when the big people returned.

Savage Feast Cookbook
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Otherwise, I wouldn’t let my father alone, sitting on his head or crawling across the great fur of his chest; it was the color of night and billowed off him in tumbleweeds. (A Soviet vacation lasted nearly six weeks, so he’d come along; it was altogether too much rest for my grandparents.) Sometimes it was Soviet life that wouldn’t let him be: “They’ve got potatoes at the store!” the call would go up and down the beach; my father would bolt to his feet and sprint off, shirtless, shocking the masses; haul two bags, the handles eating his skin, up to the Compound of the Red Star; then return for one more swim before dinner. Savage leisure.

The women—my father’s older brother and his wife had come with us—left the beach first, to make food. At home, they usually discovered Victor’s wife frying tomatoes in sunflower oil; these went onto a hunk of garlic-rubbed rye. There was nothing at the store, but at Victor’s there was fresh pork, sun-fattened tomatoes, and sunflower oil that was like toasted seeds in your nose. In Russian, it was podsolnechnoye (“under the sun” oil) and, they said, “had the entire periodic table in it”—that is, every vitamin.

Returning later, my father, uncle, and I always took the way past a row of houses with blackberry brambles so high and thick they swung out over their fences. After hours of sun, so many berries had dropped to the ground that it was smeared violet. Sometimes they fell on your head as you walked. Admonished to keep my fingers clear of the brambles, I was allowed to pick those that leaned into the street. For every two I put in my mouth, I fed one to my father and one to my uncle. As their mother’s children, they knew how to allow themselves a treat.

When we reached home, hiding our violet tongues, we found the table set with food enough for a dozen. If anyone could work the odd mix at her disposal into sigh-worthy meals, it was my aunt. She had grown up in a village, and cooked like it. She pan-fried flour-dusted pike perch in sunflower oil until it gleamed like the cheeks of a teenage girl after a snowfall, or so Victor said, summoned by the scent. The bones and the tail were so sweet we sucked them between our fingers. The cabbage that the store could be counted on to have even after the apocalypse she transformed into salat provençal—shredded cabbage, sweet onion, grated carrot, vinegar, sunflower oil, salt, pepper, and a teaspoon of sugar. (These ingredients would seem to have nothing to do with an actual Provençal salad, but Provence sounded exotic, so why not.)

Periodically, some of the adults vanished outside for a smoke—they were on vacation, after all. Then a round of tea with the jams my aunt made from the blessing of peach, cherry, and grape outside. There would be jams again in the morning, with her bliny—crepes. Thinking of that, who wanted to fall asleep? But I had to—my uncle snored like thunder, so that if you weren’t asleep by the time the great bulk of him touched down on the other side of the cardboard wall, you were doomed for the night. (Science must study how my aunt managed to stay asleep with Krakatoa erupting by her a thousand times every night.) I was made to lie down immediately after the meal, so the fat could “cohere.” A skinny child wouldn’t do. At the beach, a new apple was jammed into my mouth as soon as I finished the previous one. I wouldn’t have the same fruit back north. But I was being insulated against more than a fruitless Minsk winter.

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Comments

  1. Loved reading this except and want to continue the memoir. My father’s family immigrated to NY from Russia (near Minsk, Pinsk) when my grandfather and cousins were teenagers.I grew up on the North Shore of LI in Sands Point. All our relatives lived in towns close by to Port Washington (Roslyn, Kings Point, Westbury).Russian culture pervaded my home growing up, despite being American Jews. My dad used to play Russian folk music records on the stereo Hi-Fi in our den. He on occasion dined at the Russian Tearoom. My grandfather was a pretty stern guy, from the old country, type of man. Not particularly “warm and friendly” in nature. My grandfather divorced when his 2 sons were in their very early teens. My real grandmother was very beautiful. She was born in Conn of a Russian Jewish family. She was a free spirit into the arts who was also a dancer. She danced with Isadora Duncan in England, Martha Graham in NY. My grandfather’s next wife was the opposite in personality and looks. She was 19 yrs younger, a very sweet, good woman and wife, whose role it was to take care of Poppa. She never had children
    We ate Russian foods and it was my dad’s Russian influences in cooking of which I acquired and have passed down to 2 of my 3 young adult kids who are exceptional cooks/bakers. Staple foods were:Sour cream, yogurts, rugelach, babka, blini, blintzes, kasha varnishes, potato noodle kugels, pickled herring, sour pickles any pickle really, dark pumpernickel breads, bagels and smoked fishes-salmon, sable, Sturgeon, whitefish were a Sunday ritual. Borscht both cold red beets, as well as a hearty hot sweet& sour version w short ribs to die for, Piroshki to go with the borscht, Beluga caviar on buttered thin dark bread w chopped hard boiled egg, onion and dill. Eventually my dad settled on far less expensive caviars lol). And did I mention VODKA? Always a bottle kept in the freezer. Vodka became my go to alcohol. I’m not much of a drinker, never was but enjoyed my Vodka on the rocks gimlet w fresh lime. I’ll drink wines and occasionally a tequila or rum based drink. But vodka is a perfect alcohol w caviar and other Russian appetizer treats. When I am in NYC which is very often I make a point of going to Veselka on 2nd Ave. Photo is my simple matzo brei w sautéed onions.

  2. More, more, MORE! I love it. I sometimes wonder if the aura the Russians left when they sold Alaska must have rubbed off on my taste buds, because I adore all the foods and combinations Mr. Fishman describes. I cook that way, too! Oh, thank you for this.

    1. Andi, are you in Alaska? Maybe it’s traces of Russian influence, or maybe it’s just that any place that sometimes has to make plenty from less, such as a short growing season, has no choice but to get innovative. In any case, it pleases me greatly that these recipes can resonate from here (NYC) all the way to the edge of the land.

      1. I am so honored, Mr. Fishman! I am sorry for not responding sooner, but my state (Alaska) is in Dire Straits right now and I am a born and raised advocate. Hence!

        Yes, I certainly am in Alaska, and it is Salmon Season! The great bounty of Alaska is everywhere! Salmon are running in every stream and river our great state can muster! The bounty, for me, starts in the Spring, which is later than yours, and I eat or ferment almost every plant that appears from Winter slumber!
        The Russian Orthodox Aleuts have always been here. Pirok is Alaska’s Dish, no matter how you make it…serve with ketchup. Yup. Somehow it works. Rutabaga, Turnip, or my fave is Kholrabi with Humpies.(Pink Salmon).

        Come see our Blue Dome Churches! They are everywhere!

        1. That was some incredibly evocative scene-setting, Andi. A dear friend once got married in Alaska (her family lives in Anchorage), and I’m still kicking myself for not having been able to go. My wife’s family is in Seattle, and we visit regularly, so I hope a “hop” to Alaska is not too far in our future.

  3. Oh, gosh. This spoke to me even though my mother and her sisters were Irish Catholics who came of age in the Depression. I was the skinny kid that was a personal affront to the prosperous post-war years. Everyone was always forcing food on me so this writing spoke to me. I have to get this book. Some things are universal.

    1. Carry Bean, a little bit of my own borrowed Irish Catholic must have come through :) My wife’s family is from Cork ( where I’ve spent some very happy times) and Galway. So grateful it resonated with you.

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