S. Lee Manning: Kolya Petrov, the hero of my international espionage series, was born in Russia of ethnic Russian background with a Jewish grandmother on his mother’s side. (Under Jewish law, that makes him Jewish – which he frequently disputes in conversations with his fiancée or her family.) The book I’m currently writing takes place in Russia. So when I started to think about food for this round’s blog, I wanted to write about something to reflect my work-in-progress, to honor Kolya’s heritages – and my own, as the granddaughter of four Jews who immigrated from the Pale of Russia at the start of the 20th century.
When I was a child, my parents had a particular favorite dish for lunch on hot summer days: cold borscht.
It would be a milkhigmeal – that’s Yiddish for a meal that contained dairy. Kosher rules forbid the eating of dairy and meat at the same meal – so no cheeseburgers, no glass of milk with your hot dog. Jews who keep strictly kosher not only don’t eat milk and meat at the same meal, they have two sets of dishes – one for milk, one for meat – two of silverware, sometimes two sinks, and even two refrigerators.
We didn’t keep the kosher rules for the most part. We had one set of everyday dishes. We didn’t eat the forbidden pork or shrimp in the house (although my mother loved a shrimp cocktail before a nice steak dinner at a good but highly unkosher restaurant). We didn’t always buy kosher meat either. We did observe a vague kind of separation of milk and meat – and those were the meals where the borscht would appear.
Those meals had a predictable formula. We’d eat tuna fish – fish can go with either milk or meat – and cottage cheese, sometimes blintzes, sometimes bagels with cream cheese. But before we dug into the tuna mashed with celery and clogged with mayo, my mother would pour a bowl of borscht for each of us.
It came out of a bottle in the frig – from one of those packagers of kosher food for Jews who couldn’t – or preferred not – to cook but who wanted to serve something ethnic. (My mother fit both categories.) It was a thin purple liquid, dotted with a few slivers of deeper purple things that I tentatively identified as beets. Feh! (That’s a Yiddish noise for disgusting.) I hated it. I would sit there stirring it, reluctant to bring even a spoonful to my mouth. “Here. It’s delicious.” My mother would plop a spoonful of sour cream into the bowl, turning the liquid from light purple to a creamy light pink, thus tripling its repulsiveness in my mind.
My father would look over at me. “It’s good.”
I wouldn’t attribute my teenage rebellion completely to my parents’ false assurances of the deliciousness of the jarred borscht – but it may have been a contributing factor. Back then, I thought it was an exclusively Jewish dish, to be topped in disgustingness only by gefilte fish – if you don’t know what that is, ask me later. Borscht was a joke to be invoked by Jewish comedians at resorts in the Catskills.
Little did I realize in those young and foolish days that most massed produced canned or jarred products bear little resemblance to the food that is named on the label. So it is with canned peaches and asparagus. So it is with borscht.
It took a visit to New York City and a Ukrainian restaurant on Second Avenue in Manhattan to realize that borscht didn’t always come in a jar – that it wasn’t always tasteless – or disgusting. To the contrary, it was delicious. Nor was it even an exclusively Jewish dish. Like so many Jewish dishes, it was adapted from Russian or Ukrainian dishes and altered to satisfy kosher rules. As I understand it, the climate has a lot to do with the dish. Russia and the Ukraine use a lot of root vegetables in cooking, due to the short growing season that does not favor many of the vegetables found further south. The Jewish cold version has to be vegetarian if it’s going to be kosher to eat with dairy. Ukrainian and Russian versions usually have meat and include vegetables other than beets.
The problem is – I’d never made borscht. So I decided to crib a recipe from various sources and give it a shot. Since I’m giving a tip of my Rogue Women Writer’s hat to my own heritage as well as Kolya’s, I’m making it vegetarian. It’s on the stove as I type. I’m hoping that it comes out decent, because I’m planning to feed it to my non-Jewish husband. Here’s what I’ve done so far:
8 cups of water.
Approximately 1 pound of fresh beets, chopped into slices. (Be careful. Those suckers really are purple, and they’re messy. Wear something that you don’t mind getting stained with squirting beet juice. I wore my bathrobe, already so stained it didn’t matter. More information than you needed, huh?)
½ small head of white cabbage. (You could do purple, I suppose, but I believe in diversity of color.)
1 large Vidalia onion
¼ cup white wine vinegar
¼ cup lemon juice
A lot of pepper (I don’t measure pepper. I just pour. You might want to be more judicious.)
Some salt, but less than the pepper
Put everything in a pot. Bring to a boil. Cover, turn down and wait. Don’t make plans for the rest of the day.
Will check back when it has cooked down.
Tip: Do keep checking frequently. Don’t get so caught up in election year politics on television that you forget you have a pot of boiling liquid on the stove and have to rush in and turn off the fire before everything burns up. In case you do, not that I did anything of the sort, just pour a bunch more water into the pot, dump in more vinegar and lemon juice, don’t bother measuring and bring the whole mess up to boiling again.
When the vegetables are soft, turn off the fire. Let the pot cool enough to refrigerate. Serve cold. Chop scallions or fresh dill to taste. Put tablespoon of sour cream in your husband’s bowl. Maybe in your own as well, but watch his reaction first.
Verdict. Delicious. A great dish for a hot summer night in Vermont.
Eat in good health.