Food was so valuable that it was a kind of currency—and it was how you showed love. If, as a person on the cusp of thirty, I wished to find sanity, I had to figure out how to temper this hunger without losing hold of what fed it, how to retain a connection to my past without being consumed by its poison.
Writer Boris Fishman and the two preceding generations of his family emigrated to the US via Rome and Vienna from Minsk, Belarus in 1988. He was nine years old, an impressionable age where memories of home linger, but still adaptable enough to become more fully integrated into American culture than his parents and grandparents. What follows is the perennial storm cloud of issues confronting immigrants: questions of identity, belonging, assimilation, and the reconciling of two distinct cultures and all their facets – psychological, political, religious, superstitious, and of course, culinary.
Fishman wasn’t even particularly interested in culinary elements, but food, with its grip over the senses and linkage to memory and identity, eventually emerges as the bridge between his homeland, with his family’s roots, and the rest of his life in America, as an American. It also helps him understand more about his family’s psychology and how that affects him, particularly as he navigates several devastating breakups and a severe depressive episode in his 30s.
Savage Feast weaves his family and immigration story with their meeting Oksana, a Ukrainian home aide to Fishman’s grandfather, Arkady, who became like a family member herself, and Fishman’s attempts to overcome the heavy mental ties his family bequeathed him. Interspersed throughout are recipes from Jewish-Soviet and Ukrainian cuisine, fitted to the storytelling and underscoring emotional, significant moments.
Fishman’s inner turmoil leads him to familiar places, and food emerges as a source of comfort, as it so often does, but also as a way of putting him on steadier, surer footing, of clearing his mind somehow. Throwing himself into learning something about his family’s past, and of Oksana’s, and how it translates to the kitchen became the perfect distraction when he needed one. He travels to Oksana’s Ukrainian village and begins to learn recipes from her. He even takes an “internship” in the kitchen of a Lower East Side Russian restaurant, rubbing up against the differences between his brand of Russianness and that of newer arrivals.
Personally, I love Russian and Eastern European cooking. It gets a bad and undeserved rap as being bland and heavy, something he addresses here, but it can be amazing. Perhaps I gravitated towards this because I love cooking Russian as comfort food. It’s hard to feel anything’s so bad with stuffed pelmeni and vareniki drenched in fried onions and sour cream. So I was totally on board with this concept and the recipes and his celebration of the cuisines didn’t disappoint. I think it could win some readers over with unusual twists, too (the borscht recipe uses curry powder!) Potato latkes with farmer’s cheese, polenta with feta and mushrooms, kasha varnishkes (a buckwheat and pasta dish), and roasted peppers in honey and garlic were among my bookmarked recipes.
The hungers came from the same place, the trauma-derived mother-hunger that won’t give you a moment to wonder if you’re really hungry underneath all that worry. Unless, somehow, you free yourself of the worry—of the mother-hunger itself. But how? The hunger and the worry—they’re home.
Fishman conveys his loving but complicated, weighty family dynamic through stories of their immigration, with the delight of things like sliding supermarket doors in Vienna and the agonizing anxiety in Rome of whether they’d be accepted as refugees due to being Jewish by the US Embassy. He loves his family, but they’re an oppressive bunch, wracked with worry, fear, and superstition, which permeates despite his Americanization. When he writes about times he tried to obtain some measure of independence, like planning a stint in Mexico, his mother panics.
She couldn’t understand … why I would want to do something so reckless. “But how do you know it’s reckless?” the therapist had said. “What if it goes well?” My mother sat there, stunned. Something as obvious as things turning out okay even if someone split from the pack had never occurred to her. Such a thing is obvious only to an American person—it had hardly occurred even to me… I was trying to say how much I could use their support … precisely because I was equally frightened of going. Her therapy session left her astounded and terrified both. She never went back.
When he does escape his family’s shadow, for diplomatic-related work that I wish had been explored more, Fishman feels the sensory connection between home and native lands, as if realizing that his homeland is more of him than he’s acknowledged. His nostalgia and descriptions of experience are beautifully written.
Even the light fell across a doorway from a sconce differently than in America, and this way of falling was the home way.
A drawback is that the author often retreats as a character, becoming a victim of his own storytelling skills and erasing himself from narratives too well, so that when he focuses on why he’s distressed, I found myself lost or disconnected. The writing can be extraordinary, but it can also be unnecessarily complex. Such passages are fleeting, but there were a few sentences that wound around and back in on themselves too much. A consequence of being a great writer and not knowing when to simplify, I guess, because elsewhere his skill is remarkable.
I had the strange experience of not particularly wanting to return to this book, yet being unable to put it down while reading. I think it had to do with the emotional intensity that hums underneath the stories Fishman is ostensibly telling. In its third section, when he descends into clinical depression, it becomes clear that the high-intensity bonds of the immigrant family connection had been warping him over the years. Although the oppressiveness of these is felt, I didn’t get an overt sense of it. Something similar happens with the issue of his failed relationships, where some telling instead of showing occurs, it would appear purposely considering his writing ability. Narrative gaps occasionally become understanding gaps.
This is also a memoir that includes a carefully worded note about the trickiness of memory, how time affects it, and how perception of events can differ. Fair, but always gives me pause because I can’t help but question the truthiness of what I’ve just read.
One chapter, recounting his grandfather Arkady’s first meeting with Oksana, reads like a novel’s scene, and Fishman never witnessed it. It’s a crucial and wonderfully written connector in understanding Oksana’s role and her importance to their clan, how quickly she became indispensable and an additional mother figure to Fishman. They share a good relationship; she surely told him this story, but the detail beggars belief.
Immersive, descriptive storytelling, laced with smart humor and effortlessly connecting cooking and emotional hungers with memory and identity, and a delightful celebration of a cuisine that deserves more stories written about it.
You get what you wanted, just not what you planned.
Three Generations, Two Continents, and a Dinner Table (A Memoir with Recipes)
by Boris Fishman
published February 26, 2019 by Harper