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'Savage Feast’ by Boris Fishman: A memoir of redemption by cooking

The "cooking memoir" is at the height as a subgenre of autobiography. In these books, cooking is a way to transform oneself and one's life. Fishman's is the richest and most multilayered of all the cooking memoirs now out there.

Boris Fishman, author of "Savage Feast."
Boris Fishman, author of "Savage Feast."Read moreLeft: Stephanie Kaltsas

Savage Feast

Three Generations, Two Continents, and a Dinner Table (A Memoir With Recipes).

By Boris Fishman

HarperCollins. 348 pp. $27.99

Reviewed by Panthea Reid

In 1796, Amelia Simmons, “an American orphan,” instructed the readers of her American Cookery on how “To Dress a Turtle” and to make “A cheap feed Cake,” among other concoctions. As we know, more than two centuries of cookbooks have followed, culminating in televised cooking shows and a succession of how-to cookbooks.

Still, it may be news to some that there is an actual genre of food memoirs, distinct from cookbooks. I discovered that news only when I started writing one. Since then, I’ve been reading every food memoir available, including those by Anthony Bourdain, Gabrielle Hamilton, Ruth Reichl, Michael Pollan, Samin Nosrat, Michael Twitty, and now Boris Fishman. His is the most focused and most multilayered of these wonderful books.

First, he tells the story of his family’s escape from Minsk to America. This tale includes stories of older generations nearly wiped out in the Holocaust. Among the many associations of the word savage are the various postwar brutalities of the USSR, which included discrimination, bribery, thievery, institutionalized cheating, expedient killings, and disregard for religion and truth. When he was 9, Boris managed to leave with his parents and maternal grandparents, with the help of an international antidiscrimination league. Jewish atheists, they chose to immigrate to the United States rather than to Israel. Along the way, through Austria and then Italy, with meager supplies, the resourceful grandmother cooked wonderful meals, including roast chicken stuffed with dried fruit and apples. Settling into the new country, Fishman’s parents expected success from him, even while imparting a distinctly Soviet fear of risk-taking in their son.

Fishman tells about his atheist mother’s insistence that the family (what’s left of it) celebrate Passover together in Brooklyn with her father. As provocateur, Boris once brings a Haggadah to the Seder. His family doesn’t know what to make of the book, which explains the traditions they gather to celebrate, one of many cultural disjunctions in Savage Feast.

After the death of his grandmother, Boris’ grandfather luckily acquired a “home aide” named Oksana, an excellent cook. Although a Christian, she has learned (and continues to learn) Jewish recipes from the old country. They are not so different from those she knows from her own heritage. (She maintains, however, that her family of ordinary Ukrainians did not know what was happening to their Jewish neighbors in the Second World War.) Fishman forgives and finds reconciliation in her food. He provides recipes that may sound heavy or Slavic, as with liver pie or braised veal tongue. (He testifies that these recipes produce extraordinary dishes. I’ll try the vegetarian ones first.)

Fishman takes a trip with Oksana back to Ukraine. He brings his computer and video camera because, for him, the trip is a research project. For her, it’s a homecoming. But Oksana’s daughter suspects Fishman’s intentions, supposing that he plans to set up her mother in a café and rip off earnings from her magical cooking talents. Such stories of eastern European suspicion help raise the narrative from the personal to the public and historical.

The genre of food memoir, I find, demands a redemption story. The formula is less pronounced in more scientific memoirs such as Nosrat’s Salt Fat Acid Heat or Pollan’s Cooked. Such books deal with the transformations that occur when the elements of food are properly brought forth through cooking. More subjective books such as Reichl’s My Cooking Year insist on the restorative properties of cooking itself. In his important book The Cooking Gene, Twitty discovers in African American and Jewish cooking the common inheritance of slavery and redemptive cooking.

Fishman’s story is also one of redemption. In the depths of depression, he calls Oksana and asks to cook with her. He volunteers to work on a farm, milking cows and performing exhausting physical labors. At a Russian restaurant, he makes borscht and thereby becomes a valued staff member. There he meets a woman, whom he follows to a South Dakota camp for American Indian children. He earns appreciation and affection from many kids and his one true love through cooking for them all.

Fishman’s food memoir is terrifically nuanced and multidimensional.

Panthea Reid is the author, most recently, of “Body and Soul: A Memoir of Love, Loss, and Healing.”