Boris Fishman's 'Savage Feast' Is Part Memoir, Part Cookbook

Feb 26, 2019

Boris Fishman was nine years old in 1988 when his family left Belarus for New York. As Jews in what was then the Soviet Union, their prospects were limited, and they lived under the constant threat of discrimination and violence. But his grandfather was resourceful, so, unlike other families, Fishman's did not lack for good food.

His new memoir, Savage Feast, layers family recipes into the stories; Fishman says his grandparents' attitudes toward food were shaped by the hunger and loss of World War II.


Interview Highlights

On his grandparents' experiences in the war

We're from Minsk; it was one of the first places invaded by the Nazis in June, 1941, and food disappeared. My grandmother was incarcerated in the Minsk ghetto for almost two years, she managed to escape right before it was liquidated and then spent two years wandering the swamps of Belarus, subsisting on potato peels, and that does something to a person's psyche ... I'm getting goose bumps right now thinking of it, even though I've thought of it a million times. The story of the first loaf of bread she saw after the war, she leapt on it like an animal, devoured it, and vomited it all back up. That is the formative food-related experience for me in New York in 2019, almost a century later ... it's amazing, 30 years after emigrating to the States, the degree to which we approach food as a resource that might vanish. We've not had to scrounge for a meal in over 70 years!

On packing massive meals for airplane rides

If American Airlines served things worthy of the palate, we perhaps wouldn't pack as many tin foil bundles as we do, but the fact is that they don't ... it all depends on what you cooked last night. Perhaps you went to the supermarket last night and they had some cod that was wild and properly sourced but also on sale, so you bought some of that. You might have taken a half hour to marinate it in some ungodly combination of spices, and then you just put it between two slices of bread, and then you just tin foil it up, and you grab a tomato that you can bite through like an apple, and you're good for at least 30 minutes that way.

On his grandfather's home aide, Oksana

She was the bridge, in every imaginable way. There are ways you can allow yourself to behave with family members that you cannot allow yourself to behave with people outside the family, and so I deferred to Oksana and listened to Oksana in ways that I was too young and too callow and too proud and too stubborn and too resentful — because I didn't feel understood by this man. She managed to understand that there would be a time when this man would not be a part of the world — which unfortunately is now — that I wasn't able to hear from him. And this is to say nothing about the meals that she put on the table between us. For the duration of those meals, our difficulties became harder to remember.

On Oksana's food

I, until a certain point in my life, had the same prejudice that many people do about ex-Soviet food, which is heavy, pale, spiceless — and then I ate from Oksana's table. And we're talking things like peppers marinated in buckwheat honey and garlic, duck stuffed with prunes and apricots, so many other things, so toothsome and not heavy at all, especially if prepared in the right way. But the one dish that sticks in my mind, I remember coming over to kind of an evening gathering in their home, and there was a pie in front of me, and I bit into it and it tasted like no other pie I'd ever tasted. And that's because it was filled not with cherries or strawberries but ground chicken liver. And nothing could possibly sound less interesting, except it was one of the most delicious things I've ever had, and every single person I've pressed it on has had the same exact reaction.


Oksana's Liver Pie, from Savage Feast

Time: 1 hour, 30 minutes

Serves: 8

It's good, but you won't kiss anyone after.

— Oksana

1 pound chicken livers

1 medium onion, chopped

4 eggs

3 heaping tablespoons flour (or less, if you like very thin crepes)

6 tablespoons corn or sunflower oil, plus additional for cooking the crepes

Kosher salt and pepper, to taste

4 heaping tablespoons mayonnaise

3 cloves garlic, put through a garlic press

1 bunch dill, finely chopped

1. Clean the livers — rinse, and cut off any film stuck to them — and pass the liver and onion through a meat grinder set to a fine grind, or pulse in a food processor until the mixture turns liquid.

2. Combine the liver mixture with the eggs, flour, oil, and salt and pepper. You're making batter for bliny, or crepes. "The first blin always comes out sideways," as Ukrainians say about far more than bliny. A little batter hides all our sins. — Oksana

3. Warm a small (8- to 9-inch) crepe pan or nonstick skillet over medium-low heat. Add a tiny amount of oil (or cooking spray), give it a little time to warm up, and roll it around so it covers the whole pan.

4 . Lift the pan off direct heat — otherwise the batter sticks too quickly — and add enough batter that it expands to the edges of the pan, swirling the batter until it forms as perfect a circle as possible. You want a thin crepe, so try to add as little batter as necessary to reach the edges of the pan after swirling. Return to direct heat.

5. After three minutes or so (two if the crepe is thinner), the crepe should be sufficiently browned underneath and crisp around the edges for you to be able to use a spatula or a fine-tipped wooden skewer to lift it up. Now you have to flip to the other side; the difficult truth is that there's no better instrument than your fingers, if they can withstand the heat. If the crepe is a bit thicker, a spatula will do the job. (As in the recipe for whole chicken stuffed with crepes, don't worry if you tear the crepe: You can "darn" the hole — "reanimating," Oksana calls it, as if the crepe is a flatlined patient — by pouring a little new batter to fill it). After 2 minutes or so on the other side, flip again for a final 30 seconds, and set aside.

6. While the crepes are cooking, mix the mayonnaise, garlic, and most of the dill. (Save a little for garnish.) The creaminess of the mayonnaise works well with the tang of the garlic, the earthiness of the dill, and the taste of liver in the batter, but of course, the filling can include, or exclude, whatever you like.

7. Spread each liver pancake with the mayonnaise mix, layering the pancakes on top of one another until you have a stack you can cut into like a pie. (You may wish to make sure you have enough filling by laying out all the crepes and dolloping even amounts of filling onto each before proceeding with the stacking.) Decorate the uppermost layer generously with dill. Consistency and flavor are best after two hours in the fridge. Good both cold and warmed up.

This story was produced for radio by Catherine Whelan and Reena Advani, and adapted for the Web by Petra Mayer.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Boris Fishman was 9 years old in 1988 when his family left Belarus for New York. As Jews in what was then the Soviet Union, their prospects were limited, living under the constant threat of discrimination and violence. But his grandfather was resourceful. So unlike others, they did not lack for good food. Boris Fishman wrote about all this time in "Savage Feast," a new memoir that he intersperses with recipes. Boris' grandparents also survived the Second World War, and they were no strangers to hunger.

BORIS FISHMAN: The food was plenty in a way that stopped during the war. And for me, most personally, it was my grandmother's experience that was formative in this regard. We're from Minsk. It was one of the first places invaded by the Nazis in June 1941, and food disappeared. My grandmother was incarcerated in the Minsk ghetto for almost two years. She managed to escape right before it was liquidated and then spent two years wandering the swamps of Belarus, subsisting on potato peels. And that does something to a person's psyche.

I will never - I'm getting goose bumps right now thinking of it, even though I've thought of it a million times. The story of her - the first loaf of bread she saw after the war. She leapt on it like an animal, devoured it and vomited all of it back up. That is the formative food-related experience for me in New York in 2019, almost a century later.

GREENE: So is it just that deep appreciation for something that you realize is not necessarily always going to be there for you?

FISHMAN: I think it's more perverse than appreciation. I think it's a kind of addiction powered by a fear and terror of it running out. And no amount of rational thought or improved experience seems very effective at putting a dent into that kind of psychosis. And again, it's amazing, 30 years after immigrating to the States, the degree to which we approach food as a resource that might vanish. We've not had to scrounge for a meal in over 70 years.

GREENE: This plays out in such interesting ways, sometimes humorous, in the book. I think to when you and your entire family - your parents, your grandfather, his home aide - all took up an entire row on a flight from New York to Miami. And I guess when you have the philosophy like you're talking about, you don't take a two-hour plane ride without making sure you have enough (laughter) food there for you.

FISHMAN: Yeah. I mean, when you leave the home, a little bit of the control that you have over where the food comes from - and it's not only the provenance. It's also the quality. You do want to eat well. And so I mean, look. If American Airlines served things worthy of the palate, we perhaps wouldn't pack as many tin-foil bundles as we do. But the fact is that they don't.

GREENE: So what would you put in tin foil and bring on an airplane, like that flight to Miami?

FISHMAN: I mean, how much time do you have? It all depends on what you cooked last night. Perhaps you went to the supermarket and they had some, you know, cod that was wild and properly sourced but also on sale. So you bought some of that. You might have, you know, taken a half-hour to marinate it in an ungodly combination of spices. And then you just put it between two slices of bread, and then you just tin-foil it up, grab a tomato that you can bite through like an apple, and you've got - you're good for at least 30 minutes that way (laughter).

GREENE: Tell me about your grandfather, Arkady (ph), because he's so prominent in this book and clearly so important to you in your life.

FISHMAN: He was a survivor in the metaphorical sense. He could wriggle his way out of any situation you placed him in. Whatever you needed, he could get. He was a provider. He was the very essence of how ex-Soviet people define masculinity, in the most positive sense of the term. Because he was an incredibly soft-hearted, generous man. He was also, in some ways, closed-minded. There was no one less equipped to understand a grandson who had chosen to use his education to go into writing books, which he always read the first and last page of. He didn't have time for what was in the middle.

Hopefully, that starts to give you a portrait. I mean, I could go on for a very long time.

GREENE: So your grandfather, after your grandmother's death, would have a home aide in his house in Brooklyn, and one who became so close to him, Oksana. She became like family to you. I got the sense that she really brought you and your grandfather closer together.

FISHMAN: She was the bridge in every imaginable way. There are ways you can behave with family members that you cannot allow yourself to behave with people outside the family. And so I deferred to Oksana and listened to Oksana in ways that I was too young, and too callow, and too proud, and too stubborn and too resentful because I didn't feel understood by this man. She managed to understand that there would be a time when this man would not be a part of the world - which, unfortunately, is now - that I wasn't able to hear from him. And this is to say nothing about the meals that she put on the table between us. For the duration of those meals, our difficulties became harder to remember.

GREENE: Well, let's talk about the food. It is her recipes that you feature throughout your memoir. For people who don't know the food that well, you know, tell us about one dish that you just love and remember for a certain reason.

FISHMAN: Sometimes no one carries greater prejudice toward your own background than yourself. And so I, until a certain point in my life, had the same prejudice that many people do about ex-Soviet food, which is, heavy, pale, spiceless. And then I ate from Oksana's table. And we're talking things like peppers marinated in buckwheat honey and garlic, duck stuffed with prunes and apricots. So many other things that, just so toothsome and not heavy at all, especially if prepared the right way.

But the one dish that sticks out in my mind - I remember coming over to kind of an evening gathering in their home, and there was a pie in front of me. And I bit into it, and it tasted like no other pie I'd ever tasted. And that's because it was filled not with cherries or strawberries, but ground chicken liver. And nothing could possibly sound less interesting, except it's one of the most delicious things I've ever had. And every single person I've pressed it on has had the same exact reaction.

GREENE: So I guess one question I have is, like, you could take the pages with recipes out of your book and have, like, a mini cookbook that people could just have in their house and use and make dishes. But are they really enjoying it, even if they follow the recipes to a T, if they don't know where they came from and the stories behind it?

FISHMAN: That's absolutely right. I think that if you - you know, maybe the recipe should come with a kind of disclaimer or requirement. Do not make these unless at least one Russian-speaking person and at least one bottle of vodka is present. I mean, yes, we're gregarious people, and we like to sort of get direct and honest and loud. But it's not as if all of this isn't made possible by copious amounts of alcohol, you know? And as long as you bring the same into your gathering, you'll get most of the way, too. It shouldn't stop you from trying.

GREENE: Boris Fishman is the author of "Savage Feast." It is the story of three generations, two continents and, of course, a dinner table. Boris, nice talking to you. Thank you so much.

FISHMAN: Same here. Thank you so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.