Borscht: Hot and Cold and Red All Over

Article excerpt

When borscht arrived in America via Eastern European Jewish immigrants, it was a mystery food. Not long ago I came across a January 21, 1872, restaurant review, which appeared in The New York Times. It described the clash of culinary cultures that occurred as the reviewer experienced the foreign, hot, red soup for the first time:

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"'What is this?' We asked, almost at random pointing to something which we translated as possibly having some faint relationship to beets.

"'Beet soup,' said the waiter, with a Cockney accent.

"'Beet soup let it be then,' we replied. ... In a twinkling a bowl of this compound--blood red, was put before us.

"'What-what,' we asked, 'is the nationality of this dish--who invented it?'

"'It's Polish, sir, and quite a favorite 'ere, sir,' he replied. ... Boldly we plunged in the spoon and gave it a determined stir; then our courage failed us. Of course there was nothing very repugnant in this innocent beet as a vegetable; but mostly associated with the idea of vinegar, to take a mouthful of it, set our teeth on edge. But try it we must. Slowly we brought the spoon to our mouth, then furtively looked around to see if anybody was looking, and perceiving we were unheeded, bolted it. Rather to our surprise, it was palatable; we tried it again. Perhaps it could only be appreciated by an acquired taste, and we have not the least doubt that had we kept on trying persistently we might, in the process of time, by degrees, say in six months or so, providing we had no other source of nourishment, have got to like it."

Nearly 140 years later, borscht remains a fixture of Jewish American cuisine but is still little understood. The word comes from the Yiddish borscht and from the Ukrainian and Russian bohrshch, both meaning a soup with a beet base. "Russians and Ukrainians have been making borscht at least since the start of their civilized history going back to the 10th century," says Darra Goldstein, professor of Russian at Williams College and author of A Taste of Russia.

In the 18th century, before potatoes were introduced, the red tuber--straight up or fermented--was the food of the masses. With fresh beet juice as the foundation, borscht could include meat, cabbage, onions, parsnips, turnips, carrots and eventually potatoes. It was served hot in winter and cold in summer. Jews tailored the recipes to conform to their dietary requirements. Beef replaced pork if meat was used, and eggs were whipped in at the last minute (a farweissen) to whiten the broth. For a dairy meal, sour cream or sour milk were added on top.

Jewish borscht became an art unto itself. I once interviewed a woman named Eva Lubetkin Cantor, who lived to be 103. She told me how Passover borscht was made at her home in New York City at the turn of the 20th century. "There was the brewing of the russel, which means brine in Russian and Yiddish, which was genuine borscht," she explained. "The beets were put in a large barrel covered with warm water and salt. It took three or four weeks to ferment and turn sour. Every day or so, the fermentation and crust were skimmed off with a slotted ladle. …