In his memoir with recipes Savage Feast, Boris Fishman tells stories about family meals and vexing conversations revolving around them. The meals are made up of dishes from the Belarusian Jewish heritage of his parents. The conversations test Fishman’s patience and ability to explain to his mom and dad from the ex-Soviet Union his aspirations as a young man who was born in Belarus but grown up in the USA. Most importantly of all, he is struggling to make understandable both to them and himself the issues in his protracted relationship with Alana, an American woman with whom he shares an “attraction that would make Gabriel García Márquez sit up,” but which unfortunately proves insufficient to sustain a satisfying long-term relationship.
Right in its prologue, Savage Feast sets up multiple questions that on a single weekend kept me reading right to the book’s very end. Would Fishman eventually reconcile his ex-Soviet immigrant heritage with his American identity? Would he be able to find a partner with whom he enjoys a healthy, harmonious relationship? And would he share at least one meal with his Belarusian Jewish family, savoring delicious dishes without being upset and disappointed at their inability to understand him?
I appreciated the honesty and directness with which Fishman relates his frustrations in the interactions with his parents. In my experience, Eastern European families don’t openly acknowledge problems and disagreements. This makes it close to impossible to resolve thorny issues and patterns of dysfunction. It falls on children to tackle troubling matters in order to clear the path to their own well-being. A lot is at stake here and I couldn’t resist gobbling up Savage Feast so that I could find out whether Fishman would succeed.
While putting the emotional experience of family meals into words, Fishman candidly and humorously grapples with a major dilemma. He aptly becomes aware that his relationship with his parents is a paradoxical one: he is both connected to and disconnected from them. He is intimate with them, while at the same time he is disturbingly distant. Undoubtedly, his is a troublesome predicament.
The meals in Savage Feast capture the connection and intimacy. They have “cooked” in them the boundless hunger of Fishman’s grandmother in World War II Belarus; his grandfather’s black market trafficking during the hungry Soviet years; the meals of his parents’ courtship and newly-wed years; as well as the food the family shared on the train out of the Soviet Union, headed for their immigrant future. These meals are part of who Fishman is and he throws himself onto them with a lack of discipline and restraint. As soon as the food is gone, he is plagued by a sense of disconnection and distance.
Fishman feels disconnected and distant because of his parents’ entrenched attitudes and habits. His mother and father are Belarusian Jews and ex-citizens of the Soviet Union. As such they have particular ways of thinking, acting, and viewing others and the world, which in their son’s eyes haven’t made them into fulfilled and content human beings. Fishman describes them as “cynical,” “risk averse,” “anxious,” clingy, and firm believers in “force as the proper solution” to all sorts of problems. While his parents have made little use of their American environment to change, their son has made conscious efforts to cleanse himself through “dialysis” of these family traits. His efforts have been successful in some respects, yet he sits at the family table to face another big issue.
The experience of being at once intimate and distant with his parents comes to haunt Fishman’s involvement with women. He finds himself trapped in dead-end relationships: first with Alana with whom he argues more than accords, then with a married woman who eventually breaks up with him and returns to her kids and husband. Fishman is thrown into the depth of a major personal crisis. You want to read his memoir in order to find out how the situation gets resolved. Of course, there is a meal involved in the solution, a meal that is both unsatisfactory and satisfying at the same time.
While I haven’t prepared any of the recipes in Savage Feast, I have enjoyed reading through them. Even when listing ingredients and spelling out cooking instructions, Fishman’s language is entertaining and captivating. Anya von Bremzen vouches for the gastronomic merit of his dishes. If you happen to try preparing any of them, would you let me know how they turn out?