Boris Fishman’s memoir Savage Feast opens in the middle of the night, on a train at the border of Czechoslovakia, as Fishman, then 9 years old, and his parents and grandparents attempt to make their way from Soviet Belarus to a new life in the United States. The story then drops back to the lives of Fishman’s Jewish grandparents, detailing how they survived in Stalin-era Belarus in Eastern Europe.
The author of two novels, Fishman lets his narrative move novelistically back and forth in time through key moments like his family’s emigration, their early days in Brooklyn and the recent past, when Fishman is uneasily tethered to his family’s foreignness. Fishman’s writing is brisk and vivid, and despite generations’ worth of trauma the family suffered, from pervasive anti-Semitism to the brutalities of World War II, his memoir is often funny.
Savage Feast is mostly a coming-of-age story, as the young adult Fishman tries to find his place—and love—in his adopted country. Throughout, we see him visiting his grandfather’s Brooklyn apartment, where he’s fed an array of traditional Russian dishes prepared by his grandfather’s home-health aide, Oksana. As his grandfather grows sicker, and as Fishman suffers through a protracted depression and failed relationships, these traditional dishes—borsch, cabbage dumplings, latkes, rabbit braised in sour cream, ukha (salmon soup)—remain a comforting constant, and Fishman learns from Oksana how to cook them. That’s where this book departs from other memoirs: Most chapters end with detailed recipes, adding a lovely, homey dimension.