The refrigerator in Arkady Oder’s Brooklyn apartment could barely fit another Tupperware container. His cupboards opened to enough canned goods to survive a long siege of Midwood. And still, he went food shopping daily, gathering ripe fruits and vegetables to add to his supply at home, all the while befriending shopkeepers with his big heart.
Oder is the late grandfather of award-wining novelist Boris Fishman, and he and his Ukrainian caregiver are among the unforgettable figures in Fishman’s terrific new memoir, “Savage Feast: Three Generations, Two Continents, and a Dinner Table (a Memoir with Recipes)” (Harper).
Fishman captures his family’s immigrant experience in all its reverberations, and, in beautiful sentences, layers their narrative with food — the fear of hunger, the moments that inspire particular dishes and how memory is grounded in the tastes, textures and comfort of a meal. It’s a story of before and after, of Minsk and New York, although the life before infiltrates the life after.
For his grandmother Sofia, hunger remained palpable. She had been incarcerated in the Minsk ghetto, and after escaping spent two years wandering, surviving on potato peels. When she came upon her first sight of a black rye bread, she tore into it and promptly got sick. Her first job after the war was, significantly, at a bread factory. In her marriage to Arkady, their table was always full of loaves of bread and scarce meat, bananas and tangerines, thanks to his hustling, bartering and mastery of the black market. A barber by profession, he made bottles of cognac appear for dinnertime toasts and also for the assuagement of all sorts of officials and Soviet functionaries. The family imbibed Sofia’s fears.
Although their table was abundant, their opportunities, as Jews, were not. The extended family was supposed to leave in 1979, right after Boris was born. Instead he left with his parents and maternal grandparents in 1988, when he was 9. By then he was experienced in being beaten up by larger boys, and also in answering with his Russian Orthodox alias when asked his name.
Theirs was a long road trip, beginning on a train from Minsk to Vienna, with a toast to “Leaving” with cognac in filigreed crystal thimbles that would later be sold. In their first stopover, in Vienna, they were picked up by HIAS representatives and then they cooked with new bounty in their hotel. For his grandmother, standing at the stove all day was the only way to bury her sadness in having left her sister behind. There, they entered a synagogue for the first time. Soon after, they traveled on to Rome, settling briefly in Ladispoli to await word of their exit to America. They arrived in New York on Thanksgiving Day.
More than 30 years later, Fishman, author of the novels, “A Replacement Life” and “Don’t Let My Baby Do Rodeo,” tells The Jewish Week in unaccented English that he remains “acutely aware of being from elsewhere.” He adds, “I’m an immigrant very fluent in this culture.”
The memoir provides a child’s-eye view, but Fishman was already an old soul, an only child wise to the role he played as the family’s center. The first to learn English, he served as their interpreter of much more than language, understanding the world from more than one point of view.
I’m an immigrant very fluent in this culture.
He includes 25 distinctive recipes and the stories behind them, including “Sardines Braised in Caramelized Onions and Tomatoes” (cooked by his father’s mother Faina upon first meeting her daughter-in-law to be, Anna), Stuffed Cabbage Braised in Rye Bread and Sour Cherry Jam (Arkady’s attempt to help his son Yakov advance in a job in Minsk, served to an inspector, cooked by Sofia), Roast Chicken Stuffed with Dried Fruits and Apples (their first meal in the West, prepared in Vienna by Sofia). Many of the recipes are the work of Oksana, the home aide who cared for Arkady after Sofia’s death, and the book shares her ability to work magic in the kitchen: “Oksana’s Liver Pie” (cooked for a sister she hadn’t seen in a year). Kosher cooks can make quick substitutions to make these in their kitchens.
Oksana had left her family behind in Ukraine to be able to make a living in America. The kind of cook who could have something bubbling on the stove by the time any unexpected guests hung up their coats, she thought of returning home to open a café, if she could manage the bribes. Before coming to America, she tried doing business with Bulgarians, Poles and Turks. When Arkady remarked that she had seen the world, she replied, “From the sole of a shoe, maybe.”
Explaining how Arkady and Oksana connected so deeply, despite differences in religion and age, Fishman says that while his grandfather left the former Soviet Union in 1988, he never really left. For Arkady, life proceeded in Russian as he lived free in America. Similarly, Oksana remained imprinted by her background, Soviet in her thinking.
With much candor and self-revelation, Fishman writes of his own experience of displacement, and his absorption of his family’s trauma. He says that he lived in their country not until he was nine when they left Minsk, but until he was 24 and moved out on his own. He has tried to please them through success, feared hurting them and in some ways has broken away.
He writes that his parents “sometimes feel to me the way an American person’s grandparents must feel; I’ve swallowed two generations in the time a native python eats one.”
A few years ago, he suffered from serious and terrifying depression, when he couldn’t get out of bed, and couldn’t make words cohere. He tells of romantic struggles, a period of working on a farm, in a Russian restaurant on the Lower East Side, and on a Native American reservation in South Dakota; back to Brooklyn he cooked with Oksana, as he did hard work toward recovery.
For 20 years, Fishman would travel to Brooklyn weekly to see his grandfather. As he writes, about 45 minutes into his subway ride from Manhattan, “there’s almost no one left on it who hasn’t at some point in their lives — maybe that very morning — had beef tongue for breakfast. Uzbeks and Georgians and Moldovans and Ukrainians and Belarussians and Russians, bonded over the language and culture of their former overlords, a little ex-Soviet Andorra inside the Pyrenees of New York.”
He says that Russians have a robust cemetery tradition, a ritual of visiting the dead, but for him, he’d rather remember his grandfather by driving to his neighborhood.
I took a break from reading to make Solyanka (Braised Cabbage with Shiitake Mushrooms), with some success. This was a dish made by Fishman’s grandmother Faina, when she lived near a store called Fruits and Vegetables that had no fruit and only three vegetables — cabbage, potatoes and beets. The family picked mushrooms in the woods to make the dish, in the German cast iron pot carried back to Minsk after World War II by Fishman’s grandfather, Boris. The pot was left behind, and Fishman thinks it might be serving someone well now.
Next up for me are Grechanikki (Buckwheat Burgers), sans pork, and, at Fishman’s recommendation, Banosh (Polenta with Mushrooms and Sheep’s Milk Feta).
This year for Passover, Fishman’s family will gather at his parents’ home in New Jersey. (His father would say that he didn’t come to America to live among Russians.) Since leaving Minsk, they lost Arkady and Sofia but this year, once again, they’ll be five – Anna, Yakov, Boris, his wife Jessica and their new daughter, Agnes Sofia.