Borscht: Shared Family Histories

Borscht: Shared Family Histories

Borscht: The Fuel of Olympians

This past week and next week the Olympians will be fuelling up on borscht as Russia expects to serve over 70,000 gallons of this soup with Soviet roots. Borscht became a staple recipe in my family from the many decades that my ancestors lived in the Russia before and during the Revolution. There are many different versions with minor ingredient variations as you travel from Ukraine through Russia and then make your way across the ocean to North America. Anya von Bremzen mentions in her NPR interview that borscht has its North American versions thanks to Jewish immigrants, but there were also many Mennonites that fled the Russia at the start of the revolution in 1917 through the mid 1900s and brought their versions to North America too.

What started as research of the recipe and its variations has turned into a history lesson as I slowly fill the gaps between the stories told to me by my grandparents about their parents and as I read family journals. I am learning more about how my Mennonite history overlaps with Jewish emigrants and the many Soviets who endured living under the communist regime. My Opa has written a memoir and there are many other memoirs by Mennonites, but I have also been learning the history through Anya von Bremzen’s Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking: A Memoir of Food and Longing. She tells of how her and her Jewish family lived under the communist rule of Stalin and then finally left the Soviet Union for New York City in the 70s.



A Soup Survives the Collapse of the Soviet Union

James Meek, a Guardian reporter based out of the former USSR between 1991-1999, went back to Russia in 2008-2008 to discover how borscht survived the collapse of the Union and he discovered its current interpretations. Some unchanged recipes exist in home kitchens, other simplified versions exist in fast food restaurants, and there are even interpretations in upscale restaurants in Moscow. You can find borscht in many restaurants in Ukraine and Russia, but it is through home kitchens that borscht survived the collapse of the Soviet Union. Meek notes how borscht brings our many family histories together: “so the faint outline of the Tsarist-Soviet imperium still glimmers in the collective steam of bowls of beetroot and cabbage in meat stock, and the soft sound of dollops of sour cream slipping into soup, from the Black Seas to the Sea of Japan and, in emigration, from Brooklyn to Berlin.”

As Meek sought out the history of borscht in contemporary Russia, he interviewed Maria, a Russian Jew who survived the the civil war like many, but not all, of my ancestors did. Her and her family did so by fleeing to Tajikistan, while my family fled to Canada, the United States, and Paraguay. Maria describes how “Borshch is a little fragment of the former life everyone who lived in the Soviet Union carries. Borshch existed separate from your ethnicity.”



Overlapping Family Histories

This is a perspective that is different than the one that I’ve carried with me over the many years since my childhood. I’ve viewed borscht as a dish unique to my family, with pride in my Mennonite heritage. When I brought my lunch of borscht and a friend or colleague asks me “what is that?” I would proudly describe it as one of my family recipes.

Now I realize that this tradition is one that I share with so many others, whether they be Russian, Ukrainian, or Jewish emigrants. So it is with this new understanding of a shared history that I decided to try variations outside of my family tradition. There are so many regional variations of borscht. My family picked up recipes that are more in line with those in Ukraine, but there are vegetarian borschts, pork-based and beef-based borschts, and a other variations through the different vegetables and herbs that can go in. The essential elements are beets, cabbage, and sour cream.



Since I’ve been reading Anya von Brezmen’s memoir, I decided to try her “Dad’s Uber-Borshch.” You can find her recipe here. It was a lot more work than the borscht I usually make. My family recipes involve throwing everything into the pot and letting it boil, but her recipe required more steps. The extra work paid off and revealed more complex flavours. Sauteed mushrooms retain surprising hits of bacon, and roasted beets add a sweet flavour that contrasts with the sour cream. But the smell of cabbage and sweet beets wafting through my house is just as familiar and comforting.




About Avery Peters

Sharing stories. Sharing food.

I express my creativity in the kitchen. My inspiration comes from being outside—in the forest, on the farm, by the ocean, or going to the farmers’ market. I love to share food with family and friends.