To Beet or Not to Beet?

Remembering my dad through one of his favorite foods: borscht

By Marjorie Ingall|June 14, 2019 12:00 AM


The easiest way in to familial and cultural memory is food. Just one taste of a long-ago childhood treat and suddenly we’re all the food critic in Ratatouille, rocketed back to a simpler, sweeter, more flavorful time. It’s a full-body sensory experience. We find ourselves weeping at that first bite of rat-made cuisine.

I have no beloved borscht memories. I hated borscht as a child, and I hate it now. It may as well be made by actual rat chefs. As I was writing this story, my colleagues argued about hot versus cold borscht at Veselka [1]and my entire being viscerally snapped Neither! How about neither? No, I haven’t tried either version. When I resist a foodstuff, I’m like a toddler. Just NO.

My dad loved borscht. He particularly loved Manischewitz borscht straight from the jar. He’d swirl sour cream into the vermilion liquid, where it made beautiful patterns before turning the entire bowl a brighter, hotter pink. (Designer Zac Posen noted in The 100 Most Jewish Foods [2], “The color is like nothing else. I always want to start dyeing fabric in it.”) Seeing that jar on a supermarket shelf—the design hasn’t changed much since its debut—invariably makes me think of Dad.

My Aunt Gilda remembers that growing up in Newton, Massachusetts, she and Dad and Aunt Nancy preferred store-bought food to homemade in all things—they lived for the boxed cakes from Cushman’s Bakery [4]my great-uncle Jack would bring when he came to visit. This predilection may be traced to my grandmother Bess not being much of a cook. While Dad loved sweet jarred borscht, he hated rossel, the sharp, fermented homemade version his grandmother Pearl made. One modern rossel expert noted [5]cheerfully, “You can’t make it without the mold!” and food writer Leah Koenig notes its “bruise-colored” mid-ferment hue, so I understand Dad’s sentiment.

Borscht, of course, has a noble Judaic history: Joan Nathan tells us [6]that our love of beets dates back to the days of Babylonian captivity; a 1700 BCE Babylonian cookbook contains a borscht recipe written in Akkadian on a cuneiform tablet. Our ancestors in Ukraine, where borscht is the national soup, loved it, too, though the canonical Ukrainian version [7]was made with cow parsnips instead of beets. Sephardic Jews favored a Moroccan-style version. Every peasant and poor culture has its version of beet stew or soup, because beets store well, are packed with nutrition, and can be turned into something tart or sweet, solid or liquid. Like a diamond, a beet is forever.

The supermarket version my dad was loyal to was one of the first processed Jewish foods ever sold. Manischewitz brought it to pantry shelves in 1954; only Tam-Tam crackers predated borscht as a non-matzo mass-market Manischewitz product. I remember Dad sitting alone at the dining room table on a Saturday afternoon, slurping a big bowl of it while sorting the mail or reading the Providence Journal.

Perhaps because borscht crosses so many borders and faiths, tons of people have beet-soup-based childhood memories. They have strong feelings about texture (smooth versus chunky), ingredients, and temperature (hot, cold, or both at once—see Michael Gruber’s comment below). But based on an informal survey I conducted, no one is neutral about it.

Michael Gruber [8]: It is supposed to look like Pepto-Bismol. That’s its charm. I was always served it ice cold, with flecks of sour cream in it. Occasionally a large hot boiled potato was placed in the bowl, because somehow there weren’t quite enough calories. The sensation of the molten potato and the icy soup in one’s mouth stays in the memory.

Ella Leitner: I absolutely loathe it, partially because of the taste and partially because it reminds me of assimilation into American life and being teased for being a Russian immigrant. I tended to rail against anything that identified me as Russian/Soviet.

Joanne Levy [9]: My dad loves it and would guzzle it with sour cream when my great aunt would send some over. I never liked it, but my mom made a hot cabbage borscht with tons of sugar and chunks of flanken that is totally the taste of my childhood and I loved it. It’s one of the things about my mom I miss most.

Lesléa Newman [10]: My grandma’s borscht was delicious. Though in her later years for some reason she made it with Sweet‘n Low and it was awful.

Wayne Hoffman [11]: My favorite recipe: Take a bunch of beets, put them in the garbage where they belong, and make literally any other kind of soup.

Terry Wolfisch Cole [12]: I think of it as “old people’s food,” like tomato juice. I fall into the “hate it” camp, but I’ve never actually tried it. I couldn’t possibly put it in my mouth.

Marianna Vaidman Stone: I have very strong positive feelings about borscht—my grandmother used to make it, it was superdelicious, and it was a way in which she connected with my children despite their limited Russian and her nonexistent English. The borscht she used to make has nothing in common with the stuff that comes in jars. What the Russians call svekolnik is much closer to the stuff in the jars, though svekolnik is, of course, much better because it’s actual food.

Elissa Altman [13]: I am so anti-borscht that I can’t even be in the same state with it. The first time I was served borscht (cold, smooth, potato, sour cream) I was 4 and told my aunt, “I do not eat pink food.”

Dan Levy: Veselka’s cold borscht tastes uncannily like my grandmother’s. She chopped the beets coarsely in a shallow wooden bowl with a Farberware mezzaluna-like chopper. (I inherited the chopper in 1978 and still have it.) There wasn’t much to it other than beets, cucumbers, dill, and sour cream. I go to Veselka when I want to remember my grandmother.

Every few years, I tell myself to try borscht again, and every few years I discover that this was a bad decision. It’s the culinary equipment of getting bangs. I want to be flexible, open-minded, open-hearted. After all, in my 20s I hated my dad’s other great culinary love, Campari, and now I think it’s OK. I’ve revisited my stance on Mahler [14], his fave composer. But I fear that borscht will always fall into the Kurt Vonnegut/Thomas Mann/Eraserhead category, beloved by Dad and many others, but not for me. And that’s OK. There are other ways to pay tribute to his memory. I can give blood, something he always admired and wished he could do when he became ill and was no longer allowed to. (And hey, blood is practically the color of borscht.) I can tell jokes. I can respect the midcentury visual of that Manischewitz jar and enjoy reading other people’s recipes (including Allen Ginsberg’s, which ran [15]in Tablet a few years ago) and imagine making borscht without, you know, making borscht. And I can give Zac Posen the last word: “I enjoy the combination of the sour bite, the earthy richness of the beet and the sweetness matched with that incredibly vibrant color from nature. There’s something retro and unusual about the flavor of Jewish cuisine because of that sour-sweetness. That’s very culturally appropriate. Life brings you sweet moments and sour moments. In Jewishness, as in good borscht, you should be able to find a balance of both.”

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