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Looking Back — and Forward — to Schav

Photo: Joelle Abramowitz

Sometimes we need to encounter something new to help us unearth a remnant from the past.

“This week, I got sorrel,” I told my mother. Each week I’d recite to my mother what had come in my CSA share and what I ended up doing with my vegetables. The sorrel was notable because somehow, on my third year of being a CSA member, I still had not yet encountered sorrel for myself.

After receiving my box of vegetables, I tasted a small piece of the sorrel. It was as I’d expected, but more: lemony and sour and wonderful. Having only a few ounces of sorrel, I decided to make a sorrel-onion tart. Indeed, the bites with ample sorrel were quite lovely and refreshing.

I related my sorrel adventure to my mother.

“You know,” my mother chimed in, “Bubbe used to make a green soup. I think it was probably with sorrel. I think it’s called schav. You should look it up on the Internet: S-C-H-A-V.”

“OK, mom, I’ll look it up.”

“I never tried it, because it was weird-looking.” Now this was a surprise. Bubbe was my mother’s grandmother, who passed away before I was born. Mostly what I learned of Bubbe related to her culinary prowess involving old world dishes: blintzes, rugelach, cow lung (my mother stopped eating it when she found out what it was), to name a few. Whenever my mother would describe Bubbe’s cooking, she would also express her regret in not having Bubbe’s recipes, that no matter what recipes she finds, they’re not quite the same. But since my mother had never tried the schav, I didn’t even know where to begin.

So I began searching around, as my mother insisted, and started with some trusted sources. First up was The New York Times. In their recipe, sorrel and potatoes, amongst other soup ingredients, are cooked together and then blended into a creamy puree. Next, I made my way to My Jewish Learning and came across a very different concoction. In their recipe, the sorrel leaves and a bundle of its ribs and stems and set to steep in a pot of water. After discarding the rib and stem bundle, beaten eggs are incorporated into the broth. While I understood that both recipes did indeed fit the description of “sorrel soup,” they seemed so different. I wanted to know, which was the authentic version? Would the real schav please stand up?

Knowing all the diversity in Jewish geography and culinary tastes, I shouldn’t have been all that surprised that there was no master schav recipe. I described the two recipes to my mother to see if she could provide any insight into what bubbe’s schav was like despite her never having tasted it.

“I think there was a potato involved.” So that was somewhat helpful, but it still didn’t fully resolve the discrepancies in the recipes I’d found.

Already overwhelmed by the two options I’d discovered, I gave up on Internet-searching for schav, and decided to turn to the resource I should have consulted in the first place: Gil Marks’ Olive Trees and Honey. There, I learned the background on schav in a more digestible (ahem) way. I learned that schav is the Slavic term for sorrel, that it grows wild in Eastern Europe in the spring, that the variation with eggs was an indulgence for the wealthy. Their recipe included elements of each of the two I’d found: sorrel and potatoes are cooked together (and can be pureed, or not) and adding egg yolks at the end is optional.

By the time I’d finished reading, I’d become really excited about schav. But then I grew sad when I remembered that I had already used up my sorrel in my tart that was indeed tasty, but was lacking in cultural significance. I found comfort in reminding myself the small amount of sorrel I’d had would not have been enough for even a quarter of the schav recipe.

So now I wait for an abundance of sorrel to come again. I plan to make the Olive Trees and Honey recipe and add eggs to some of the soup while keeping the rest plain to hold my own personal schav smackdown. I know that it likely won’t taste the same as Bubbe’s. Really, though, there’s no one to tell me whether it does or doesn’t, and I’m not sure whether that makes me feel better or worse. But maybe it doesn’t matter if the schav I make is the same schav that Bubbe made. Maybe what matters is to make the schav and to think of her and honor my mother’s memory of her.

Suffice it to say, I can’t hardly wait to make my first schav.

Joelle is an economist and writes about food and life in Washington, DC.
Photo Credit: Joelle Berman

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