Unesco daringly announced this summer the “urgent need of safeguarding” borscht. Or as Ukrainians spell it, borsch. When the Ukrainian government asked the UN cultural and education agency to save the soup’s historical place as a national dish amid Russia’s bloodbath on Ukraine, they weren’t kidding.
“The victory in the war for borsch is ours!” Ukraine’s Culture Minister Oleksandr Tkachenko posted on Telegram, declaring the soup to be “officially” Ukrainian. “Remember and be sure: We will win this war like we did the war for borsch.”
What the minister didn’t mention is the soup’s popularity in Russia and elsewhere in Eastern Europe. The “tangled origins possibly trace back to ancient Kievan Rus,” Unesco says, and it was summarily nationalized in the Soviet Union.
Although this may seem like an extreme step for Unesco to take, as it is unlikely that borscht will vanish soon, the symbolism was steep. For me, the soup is beside the point. Yet the word “borscht” itself carries heavy meaning in my family because it was bandied about by my mother when my two sisters and I were growing up. She used it as a curse word — meaning B.S. — and when she threw it out into our small universe, it embodied a lot of emotion if not judgment. Often she said “borscht” in amusement but laced with a hint of dismissal. “Hogwash” didn’t cut it.
Our mother, who was widowed when I was four years old, my older sister eight and our baby sister, four months, did not swear much, despite the desperate air of survival we breathed at home and in the outside world. She was too Catholic, too goody-goody and was trying to raise three “ladies,” who learned quickly the harshness of life without a man in the house. This was the 1960s, when residing in an upright town on the North Shore of Long Island meant everyone — nearly everyone — had a father on board, behind the wheel, in the house, rather than as a missing or divorced parent. Those situations were unheard of. Our mother was called a “black widow” by the nastier boys in the neighborhood, who hurled insults at us whenever we drove by in our rusted Falcon.
Janet’s few curse words were relegated to “G.D. bastard” — reserved for a person less than human — but rarely anything worse. We never heard the “f” word, which didn’t seem to exist in our circles, while some of our mother’s lingo for people she felt needed discrediting amounted to “crumbum,” “creep,” “schlemiel head,” “dirty louse” or, heaven forbid, an “SOB.” Sometimes, a person — often, a man — was a “rotter” who could “go to hell.” Or a “piece of baloney.” She flung out “damn” or “damnation” when she was weary or fed up. The phrase “Jesus, Mary and Joseph” or “Jesus H. Christ” surfaced in the most-dire cases, like when the car didn’t start in the morning, no matter how much she turned the ignition key.
Her adjectives for ne’er-do-wells or nudniks she acquired from her father, who would know about being a no-good-louse from his youth in Newark, N.J., where he picked up all sorts of colorful language from the neighborhood ward that he and his five brothers (and widowed mother) inhabited. He, too, never cursed in our presence whenever we visited him — in the suburbs — though he never had anything nice to say about anyone. We found him entertaining in our generous moments.
We never had borscht at home. For us, the word was more about an expression of distaste, disdain, anger and frustration, an all-encompassing “B” word that conveyed a lot and harmed no one, including God, whom we knew from the Commandments that we were never to use His name in vain. Our mother was hardly a saint let alone a confession-going Catholic, yet we went to Mass every Sunday, so her careful swearing must have also been reinforced by her mother, a Lutheran from Indiana who converted to Catholicism when she married our malarkey-filled grandfather, escaping the dreary town of Anderson for the ambitious East Coast.
In fact, our dinners at home couldn’t have been more proper: candles were lighted, placemats laid, good china set out. The meals were cooked by my older sister, who by junior high knew how to pull together coq au vin, beef stroganoff, London broil (rare), sauerbraten and chicken Parmesan. We rarely saw fresh vegetables — iceberg lettuce drenched in bottled Italian dressing or Le Sueur peas sufficed — though in summer, local tomatoes and corn on the cob were impossible to resist. Our mother, however, loved beets.
She bought them canned, and the ruby orbs lurking in the even darker juice left me reeling every time she put them on her plate at dinner. (Nobody else touched them.) Opening the tiny can was bad enough, because that was when the first pungent whiff hit my nose, and I wanted to die. To help my older sister, I’d throw the beets into a saucepan to heat them up so she could avoid them. But our mother adored them for one reason: they were the only vegetable she could eat without flaring up her diverticulitis. Dr. Harrington, whom she had a long crush on and who saved her from near death after a serious bout in the hospital from the intestinal disorder, ordered her to eat beets. They had no seeds and came packed with Vitamin A and potassium.
She ate beets about once a week. At dinner, the conversation was usually dominated by her reminders of the daily sacrifices she made for us and everything that graced our lives, tangible and otherwise. Or she’d talk about the life she had missed out on, including her days at Juilliard as a first soprano, or the husband who not only suddenly died on her, from walking pneumonia, but also left her broke. For many years, she worked as a receptionist for Dr. C, a dentist in town. He wasn’t a G.D. bastard, but he wasn’t flexible, either, like when our mother wanted to go to our school’s glee club concert and he wouldn’t give her the morning off. The job wasn’t taxing, except that she resented working. Yet I wonder what she would have done with her free time, when all of us were finally in school most of the day. She didn’t touch a vacuum cleaner or wash the kitchen floor — those were jobs for my older sister and me. She did dabble in oils and took weeks to paint on the dining room wall a copy of the flowered cornucopia adorning her Wedgwood plates. She also decorated nearly every room in our two-bedroom house, which we rented for five years from a man up the hill on his small estate, who watched us like a hawk.
Perhaps our mother would have listened all day to her opera albums — Mimi, in La Bohème, whom she wept with — on our Zenith record player. She didn’t read much but always devoured The New York Times, sitting in a wingback chair in the living room when she got home from work and cited aloud the death toll from the war in Vietnam.
“Borscht,” she’d say, shaking her head and rustling the paper as she finished reading the driest articles on earth. We’d listen to the nightly news, hearing more of the war’s death toll, and she’d mutter “borscht” again. I never quite understood the application of the word in the context of the war, but I think she meant “B.S.” in the clearest way. Yet she cried when President Johnson announced on TV that he was not running for re-election.
It wasn’t until I had my own apartment in Manhattan, a mouse-sized studio, when I began cooking in earnest, going “hog wild,” as my mother might put it. At first, I had no stove, so when I informed the landlord that it was a New York City law to provide one, he had it delivered. I had no counter space except the top of my half-fridge. That didn’t stop me from cooking — influenced by the recipes published in The Times and relishing a city where restaurants beckoned on every corner. I began with stews and coq au vin, of course, but also Swedish meatballs, lasagne, roast beef and mashed potatoes (our paternal grandmother’s specialty).
A childhood neighbor on Long Island had specialized in chicken Kiev, the buttery insides shooting up when the knife and fork split the crusty-breaded breasts open, but I decided that it was too time-consuming. I remembered well how Mrs. G would spend the entire day at the stove making the dish, strangely in the summertime while wearing a one-piece bathing suit, the varicose veins in her legs throbbing.
Soon I decided to try borscht.
I had grown appreciative of beets in their natural, cooked form, even deciding that our mother’s fascination with them was understood, given their earthy flavor and possessing so many healthy things. A recipe for borscht was plucked from the newspaper, and I bought the ingredients. I had a big pot and threw everything in, including endless wads of chopped cabbage. The ingredients filled the top of the pot, and I watched it carefully one gorgeous Indian summer afternoon. I thought remotely of those canned balls of beets my mother used to pop in her mouth and wondered if she had ever eaten borscht herself.
Her mother, who descended from a German family, had been a hearty cook — lentil soup with hot dogs and mashed potatoes dolloped on top was the dish we’d heard most about when our mother regaled us with stories of Helen, who died suddenly, too, at age 42, of a cerebral hemorrhage. But I never recalled anyone cooking or eating borscht.
When it was done simmering, I ladled it into a bowl and waited for an epiphany to strike. Instead, the broth was watery and heavy on the cabbage. I think I added sour cream. I’d imagined a sauce dark and thick and ruminating, like a memory that never fully settles. I’d made so much soup that I had to eat it for a week, since my fridge had no freezer. I have never cooked borscht again.
“The armed conflict has threatened the viability of the element,” Unesco said of Ukraine’s national dish. “The displacement of people and bearers threatens the element, as people are unable not only to cook or grow local vegetables for borscht, but also to come together to practice the element.”
My mother would have used foul words to describe the G.D. war instigated by Russia on Ukraine. She came around to being against the war in Vietnam when her nephews, who were of draft age, convinced her of its futility. They pointed out to her that the war was killing innocent people and that our father, who fought the Nazis in World War II in the Saar-Moselle triangle, would have agreed that the Vietnam war, with its relentless B-52 terrors, had no justification whatsoever.
She was hardly a pacifist, our mother, but she followed the war week after week, year after year, and instilled in my sisters and me a sense of outrage at the cruelties inflicted across the world, including in a far-away country with unpronounceable names. These wrongs were rooted in her own vulnerability, but one way that she could deflect — or manage — her own suffering and that of others was through the abundant levers of language. “Borscht,” she would say, to any time people were slaughtered for no good reason.
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