Magazine article The New Yorker

Borscht

Magazine article The New Yorker

Borscht

Article excerpt

An eventful century or so ago, my paternal ancestors left what was then Galicia, the easternmost province of the Austro-Hungarian Empire (now western Ukraine), and settled in Bosnia, which had recently been annexed to the Habsburg domain. My peasant forebears brought with them a few beehives, an iron plow, and a recipe for perfect borscht, a dish that was, I believe, previously unknown in that part of the world.

There was no written document, of course; they carried the recipe within themselves, like a song that you learn by singing it. In the summers of my childhood, which I spent at my grandparents' house in the countryside in northwest Bosnia, my grandmother and a committee of aunts (sometimes actually singing a song) would start early in the morning, chopping various vegetables, beets included, then boiling them mercilessly on a woodstove in the infernally hot kitchen. The Hemon borscht contained whatever was available in the garden at the time--onions, cabbage, peppers, pole and other beans, even potatoes--plus at least one kind of meat (though never, for some reason, chicken), all of which was purpled beyond recognition by the beets. I've discovered that no one in my family knows exactly what should go into borscht, though there is a consensus that it must contain beets, dill, and vinegar. The amounts and the proportions change with the cook, just as a song changes with the singer. As far as I can tell, it never bothered any Hemon that there was always at least one mystery ingredient (carrots? turnips? peas?). Whatever the variation, no bad borscht was produced. The vinegary tartness, so refreshing in the summer; the crunchy beet cubes (the beets go in last); the luck-of-the-spoon-draw combination of ingredients, providing new shades of flavor with each slurp--eating borscht was always eventful, never boring.

I can still see my grandmother, the senior borscht cook, with an enormous, steaming pot in her hands, wobbling from the kitchen out to the yard, sweat drops sliding off her forehead and into the borscht, for that special final touch. She'd deposit the pot on a long wooden table, where the Hemon tribe was waiting, aflutter with hunger. Then the soup would be ladled out, with at least one piece of meat distributed to each mismatched bowl. …

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