I have a confession to make: I never follow the recipe. Not for Julia Child’s boeuf bourguignon, not for Silver Palate’s chicken Marbella, not for Momofuku’s bo ssam or my grandmother’s lasagna. (We’re not even Italian: Her twin sister married in.)
Don’t misunderstand me; I use recipes constantly. I receive daily emails from Food & Wine, treat Epicurious as a reference text, fan the magazines at the checkout counter and occasionally buy one. (This, more than the lasagna, could be called an inheritance: My mother hoards recipes as a catastrophist does canned goods, less preparation for disaster than a spell to ward it off.) On Sunday mornings, I comb through recipes to inspire the week’s menu, and then to build a grocery list, block by hungry block. I even prop my laptop on the toaster and open the recipe as I pre-heat the oven, hovering above the cutting board should I get into a jam. Still, the recipe remains no more than an outline, a rough draft to be edited. At each stage of the process, from searching to sautéing, I’m substituting ingredients, striking through steps, stirring in what isn’t called for when elaboration feels right. I never follow the recipe—the recipe follows me.
It’s in this spirit that I made banosh (polenta with mushrooms and sheep’s milk feta), the Carpathian herdsmen’s dish that Boris Fishman includes in his new memoir, Savage Feast. The recipe comes from Oksana, the home health aide assigned to Fishman’s grandfather and an adoptive member of his immigrant family. She’s Ukrainian, the Fishmans are Belarusian, and banosh is Hutsul—an ethnic group that defies national boundaries—so I hope an American of Irish and Portuguese descent adding a few handfuls of kale to the traditional mushrooms isn’t an unacceptable sacrilege.
In fact, after reading Fishman’s reflections on food, from his childhood in Minsk—he emigrated in 1988, at age nine—to a camp for Lakota youth in South Dakota, I suspect he’d consider mine an inevitable variation: “You did not have to go all Russian or all American,” he writes of his stint in the kitchen at Manhattan’s Moscow57, and of his lifelong experience straddling both. “You could pick and choose.”
The combination of flavors—blendedness itself—comes to define Savage Feast. Though it mostly hews to the memoir’s first-person, for instance, two of its finest passages are chapters from family lore: his parents’ romance in the former Soviet Union, forged from resistance to the complex system of favors and bribes that meant the difference between scarcity and plenty; and, in Midwood, Brooklyn, three decades later, the day Oksana came into the Fishmans’ lives. Though written in English, it contains remnants of other places, other tongues: “refusenik,” the term for those denied permission to leave the USSR; “perhaps bags,” after the uncertain contents of Soviet shelves; and “salami immigration,” or immigration undertaken for financial (as opposed to religious) reasons. And though it focuses on Fishman’s “Russian non-Russian” identity—and the fraught dynamic this creates with his parents—it also features details of his clinical depression, his career and his relationships with women.
As you might expect, then, Savage Feast is episodic, almost disjointed. Among other questionable decisions, Fishman passes over the years between his family’s journey to the States, under the auspices of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, and 2005—his entire adolescence—and draws the series of love interests at the center of the memoir’s second half so thinly that it begins to seem strange they’re included at all. It’s as if he doesn’t trust that immigration itself continues to be dramatic enough once the far shores are reached, and so he whisks in a slurry of underdeveloped ideas to thicken the plot.
To Fishman himself, I’m sure, this material doesn’t seem “supplemental” or “optional” in the way of the flourish that finishes a dish—no one sees the ingredients of their own life as being open to substitution. But this, of course, is the memoirist’s challenge, to accept that no recipe is a match for the actual experience, and then to tailor it accordingly. To paraphrase the old adage, too many subplots spoil the broth.
It’s on cuisine’s role as a representative of culture—adaptive, ingenious, eclectic, ineffable culture—that Savage Feast is at its most formidable, perhaps because the recipes are the story, or at least its synopsis. In his grandmother’s solyanka, Fishman sees the strictures of life in postwar Minsk. “Soviet wings” call for vine-ripened tomatoes, and so call up memories of the family’s stop in Rome en route to Brooklyn. Grechanniki and marinated roast peppers mark Oksana’s entrance into his grandfather’s life, and borsch her emergence as Fishman’s surrogate mother. “Greek style” whiting turns out to be Polish; “traditional” ukha is in fact French; the Esenguly salad at a Russian restaurant is named for a Turkmen outpost within reach of Tehran.
As Fishman suggests with this profusion of stories, all feasts are savage, in the sense that cuisine, like culture, is ultimately wild, feral, untamed. Despite our efforts to toe the line between the heretical and the pure, there’s no more keeping dinner penned in by borders than there is keeping people. If Fishman lands upon one universal truth in his exploration of ex-Soviet food, it’s that every cuisine is without a country. The survival of our foodways depends on it.
So I added kale to the banosh, afraid it might go to waste, and decided against frying fish directly under my bedroom—savageries by which I made a stranger’s cuisine my own. Perhaps it’s this act of familiarizing the strange that links the migration of people to the evolution of cultures, titrating known and unknown by careful degrees until the recipe becomes intuitive. I am reasonably certain, in this vein, that Carpathian herdsmen’s banosh does not contain curry powder or coriander, as Oksana’s does, and just as certain that such modifications, taken together, are ultimately generative, like a dinner invitation or an outstretched hand.
Tonight, as a reward for finishing this piece, I plan to make Oksana’s borsch, substituting celery root for parsnips, since that’s what I found at the store. I can already tell you, in other words, that I won’t follow the recipe. As Savage Feast renders in such beautiful terms, none of us do: It’s as subject to revision as we are.
Matt Brennan is the TV Editor of Paste Magazine. He tweets about what he’s watching @thefilmgoer.