It took author Boris Fishman close to six years to figure out “A Savage Feast”. It went through many iterations, as a cookbook, as a pure memoir, and ultimately ending up as a fusion of the two.
The idea was born in 2004, when Fishman’s grandmother, whom he calls “the kitchen wizard of the family,” passed away. It was the first time since World War II that an immediate family member had died, and the family was shaken. His grandmother’s home aide, Oksana, a brilliant cook, “and if you ever wanted evidence of the healing power of food, that was it,” Fishman says. He’d been fighting with his family at the time, and was dreading his visits to them, but when Fishman showed up to see Oksana’s heaping tables of blintzes and everyone merrily eating, he thought, “This is worth chronicling in some way.”
Shira Feder: What are some of the differences between American food and Soviet food?
Boris Fishman: People have a really bad impression of Soviet food. They think it’s the worst version of peasant food, that it’s heavy, it’s got mayo, and that’s true about some Soviet foods. But due strictly to incompetence rather than enlightenment, we were local and seasonal and organic all the time I lived in the Soviet Union. There wasn’t really refrigeration, no one had figured out how to use pesticides on an industrial scale, so things had no chemicals in them, and people just subsisted on what they could grow or barter nearby.
SF: So did your opinion of Soviet food change while writing about Soviet foods?
BF: [In America] we all got accustomed to industrially processed, less expensive food, so the idea of paying 6.99 for strawberries is now obscene. But if we were accustomed to it all along, then it wouldn’t be a shock. You wouldn’t expect writing a book about Soviet food to make you more conscious of life in America, but that’s definitely what happened.
I come from a place where the food was actually a lot better. It is peasant food, but in the best sense of the term.
SF: Like it’s filling and comforting and hearty in its best form.
BF: And if you’re eating a pork chop from some place near you, which an American Jew wouldn’t-
SF: Unless they were from the Soviet Union-
BF: Right, and it’s a pig you fed and killed yourself, it tastes completely different.
SF: One thing that struck me about your book is that for immigrants, the one thing they can take comfort in is that there’s a kitchen everywhere, and that people will always need to eat. Did you write your book considering the significance of the kitchen?
BF: My wife and I are moving back from Florida, and we’re looking for an apartment in New York, and we’re having a hard time finding one, in part because I’m so obsessed with what the kitchen looks like. I have all these ideas about what a dream kitchen is. In Soviet culture, the kitchen’s a sacred place. Even the smallest apartment tended to have room for a table in the kitchen. People stopped by all the time. There was generally less to do, so socializing was a big part of people’s lives. The kitchen became a place of confession, disclosure, intimacy. I even came up with a word in my head once, “kitchenness,” as a way of describing what goes on there.
The kitchen is the nucleus of the home for traditional immigrant families because you have to eat, and you’re not going to go out to eat because it costs too much, so half of the household defines itself by the kind of food it can produce to nourish everyone in it. So a great deal of dignity and self worth and life meaning is tied up in that.
SF: So how did your relationship to cooking change over the course of writing “A Savage Feast?”
BF: Well, if you approached any of these women who took over the kitchen, and they’re always women, and say your cooking is fascinating and I’d like to learn more about it, like I did with Oksana, they will be very confused about the idea that there’s anything special about what they do. Being able to cook is like being able to speak a different language. I caught the bug! And few things for me are more satisfying than making something from nothing.
SF: What was your family’s reaction to the book?
BF: Oksana will unfortunately never get to read my book, because her English isn’t great. My father’s English also isn’t quite up to reading my writing, so he’s actually never read anything i’ve published, which is funny because so much of it is about him, but maybe it’s better for him not to know…
SF: That’s the kind of the perfect situation for a memoirist, to be honest.
BF: For an ex-Soviet Jewish parent, it’s very painful to read something that isn’t full praise. In the Soviet Union you were Jewish, and your parents protected you from that knowledge. Then you come here, and you absorb the culture and the language and that responsibility for protecting your family members falls on you. And American life doesn’t feel particularly secure now. My life, with all its economic insecurities, isn’t very different from my parent’s lives…but for one wonderful minute, those feelings of anxiety went away when we sat at a table and ate good food.
SF: A savage feast.
BF: I can’t tell you how much, to this day, I look forward to sitting down at a table. I love the fact that human beings have to do it three times a day to survive. I literally eat six times a day. The people who know me are stunned by it. Maybe it’s because I used to play sports.
SF: And there’s an element of food insecurity there, where if you grow up in a place where food is sometimes more valuable than me, you kind of always want to be eating it.
BF: Yes, and I like those little hits of joy.
Shira Feder is a writer. She’s at email@example.com and @shirafeder
“A Savage Feast” is available in bookstores on February 26, 2019.