“Savage Feast: A Memoir with Recipes,” by Boris Fishman. New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 2019. 340 pages. $27.99.
I’m sure that WJW’s editor won’t yell “Stop the presses!” when I say that for millennia, people have used food for much more than simply assuaging hunger and preventing death from starvation.
But Boris Fishman has reached new heights in conceptualizing the role of food. For him, dishes and meals become a memory enhancer, a marker he uses to recall both major and minor moments in his and his family’s life. And, as the Soviet-born American writer states in the title, it all comes with recipes.
When Boris’ father, Ya’akov, was a young man, he brought his girlfriend, Anna, home to meet his mother. Mama served Sardines Braised in Caramelized Onions and Tomatoes. Shortly after the visit — and the meal — Anna married Ya’akov, against her parents’ wishes. Must have been some dish!
Then, there’s Roast Chicken Stuffed With Crepes and Caramelized Onion, served to a visitor from America, who was telling Fishman’s family, then living in the Soviet Union, about their future life in the Goldene Medina.
Another time, his grandmother made Roast Chicken Stuffed with Dried Fruit and Apples while the rest of the family was visiting a Vienna synagogue.
She cooked this elaborate meal because “she missed her sister beyond language and could bury it only at the stove — in the unambiguous goodness of feeding people… . She had been separated from a sister who was her sole living connection to a family lost in the Holocaust.”
If your mouth is watering to read about — and maybe prepare and eat — classic Jewish cuisine, you will be disappointed. The star of most dishes whose recipes appear in this memoir is pork. (They served shrimp at the seder table.)
The Soviet regime’s hostility to religion had made its Jews Jewish in name only, literally. If you were a Cohen or a Levine or a Fishman, you probably knew nothing about Judaism or the Jewish people — except that you faced all kinds of discrimination, and sometimes physical abuse, because of your name.
Fishman documents the anti-Semitism of his country of birth. There was open discrimination against Jews in America in the first half of the last century as well, but those who were discriminated against could take some comfort in their religion and their peoplehood. But there were few such positives for Soviet Jews.
In any case, this book is really more about people than food. Of people, Fishman is a real connoisseur — and a very thoughtful one. He takes his family to Miami and shares his observations on that city and New York. “New York had a larger, more diverse array of immigrants than Miami, but they lived on the margins. For the most part, New York was still run by white Anglo people. Whereas here even the ’white’ people were ethnic —an American city run by immigrants.”
The author writes that he is fortunate because he feels comfortable in both the American and Russian-immigrant worlds. “They [his family members] were blessed because they had the peace of knowing where they belonged; cursed because they lived in the other side’s country. I was blessed because, unlike them, I was fluent not only in American life, but our life, too.”
Fishman may feel comfortable among Americans and Russian immigrants, but he has woman problems, first breaking up with Alana with whom he had thought he had such great rapport.
They loved to talk for hours and helped each other grow as people, he writes. But, ironically, they couldn’t make it as a couple. “Individually, our lives were making more sense, but together they kept coming apart. In helping each other become the people we wanted to be, we were becoming people whose differences made being together impossible.”
Later, there was Amy and then Yvonne. “Nothing worked. With American women, I felt Russian; with Russian women, American; with Jews of either nationality, like a heathen.”
His powers of observation are uncanny. During a bad time in his life, he volunteers to work in a Russian restaurant’s kitchen. “A restaurant kitchen is a place of great, joyous hate. Hate for the owners, who don’t understand what the cooks need. Hate for the servers who always show up at the wrong time. Hate for the diners who have the temerity to actually order. And hate for one another.”
Whatever you think of the porky recipes — I believe they are, at least in part, a gimmick — Fishman is a keen observer of the human spirit, both Russian and American. If you want to understand the hurdles that Russian Jews faced after they realized their dream of living in America, while at the same time enjoying the work of a talented young writer, read “Savage Feast.”
Aaron Leibel is a former editor at The Jerusalem Post and Washington Jewish Week. His novel, “Generations: The Story of a Jewish Family,” is available at amazon.com and in Kindle format.