Boris Fishman’s “Savage Feast: Three Generations, Two Continents, and a Dinner Table ” tracks, in an expansive, leisurely way, the author’s Jewish Russian family — two grandparents, his parents and himself — as they emigrate from the Soviet Union to Vienna to Rome to the United States in 1988 when the author was 9 years old. Throughout the memoir, Fishman’s organizing theme is delicious, well-prepared food as the visible manifestation of love. A natural corollary, not surprisingly, is hunger, both the actual hunger experienced by older members of the family during World War II and the grown-up Fishman’s metaphorical hunger for independence, success as a writer and romantic love. What’s more, each chapter concludes with delicious Slavic recipes you and I can try at home.
The result is a work of reminiscence and celebration that should appeal to a wide range of readers. If you like books about affectionate, colorful families, imagine Irving Howe’s “World of Our Fathers” mixed with Frank B. Gilbreth and Ernestine Gilbreth Carey’s “Cheaper by the Dozen.” If you’re a fan of food memoirs, you’ll want to shelve “Savage Feast” near M.F.K. Fisher’s “The Art of Eating” and A.J. Liebling’s “Between Meals.” Anyone of Jewish or Slavic ancestry — I’m Russian Slovak — will find the accounts of raucous, argument-filled holiday dinners hilariously familiar: Been there, done that. Not least, if you’re a young writer, especially one who comes from a home where the first language isn’t English, you’ll recognize aspects of yourself in Fishman, as he strives to balance love for his family — with its often insular protectiveness — and his need to make his own precarious way as an American novelist. In a familiar lament about immigrant parents and grandparents, he realizes that “the more I became the person they brought me to America to become, the less we seemed to share, and the harder all of us tried to pretend it wasn’t happening.”
While Fishman, like all of us, sometimes feels ambivalence about his family, there’s no uncertainty about its food. His descriptions of even the simplest meals are mouthwatering:
“Grandma Daria . . . had a furnace the size of a bed. Out of it came crispy, quartered potatoes, dusted with dill before being slathered with sour cream; bowlegged, hand-lumped pork sausages; ‘eye-melets’— eggs sunny-side up — sizzling and spitting after a quick fry up in the pork fat. Rough hunks of bread filled out the plate, as did chipped enamel mugs of boiling hot black tea with honey. The potatoes were freshly dug up; the sour cream came from the cows in the field, morosely observing the encroachment of winter; the eggs from the chickens prancing around the yard, the sausages from the season’s first hog slaughter (a little early, but there were guests); the honey from the village bees, the bread from its rye. Only the black tea came from the store.”
Note those mentions of pork. Though Jewish, the Fishmans are nonobservant atheists. When the family makes a brief visit to a synagogue, grandfather Arkady watches the ancient rituals for a few minutes, then loudly murmurs “fanatics” as they all leave.
It’s quite a family. Boris’s grandmother was a cutthroat cardsharp who played to win even against her little grandson. His mother always dressed to the nines before taking her son to his English lessons. Widowed grandfather Arkady — who, as a child, was expelled from first grade — flirts shamelessly with his 30-years-younger Ukrainian home aide (who turns out to be a fabulous cook). Boris’s father — a barber in Russia, then a doorman in Manhattan — always foresees disaster. When his grown-up son organizes a trip to Florida, he almost bursts with anxiety: “How would we reach the airport? Would we drive or take a taxi? If we drove, where would we park? How much would that cost? . . . What if we didn’t make the flight? . . . What if it snowed the night before we were supposed to go? . . . What if the hotel was no good? Where would we eat?”
Carrying his memoir up to the near present, Fishman closes with chapters about a crushing depression, a gradual recovery and the unusual courtship of the woman he now lives with. In his career he’s done more than all right: His novels, “A Replacement Life” and “Don’t Let My Baby Do Rodeo,” were each chosen a New York Times notable book of the year, and Fishman himself is currently teaching in Princeton University’s Creative Writing Program.
His obvious flair as a fiction writer may explain my own tiny misgivings about “Savage Feast.” All memoirs tread a thin line between art and artfulness. Without design, a life narrative becomes a tedious jumble; with too much design, it starts to merge into fiction. In general, “Savage Feast” struck me as a bit too long: The stories tend to be overly drawn out, the often gorgeous prose slightly overwrought. More problematically, I wondered where memory left off and imaginative re-creation began. Fishman sets down pages and pages of conversation from 20 or 30 years ago. Is this plausible? At best he probably recollects the gist of what was said, then uses his artistic skills and knowledge of the people involved to create a scene that sharpens what he only vaguely recalls. Many readers will find this perfectly acceptable, but, alas, as a journalist, I always wonder about the degree of factuality. Of course, all autobiographical works are secretly tendentious, quietly adjusting history to fit a certain hypothesis or to justify a life.
Oh, well. Please don’t make too much of my cavils, especially when balanced against Fishman’s smorgasbord of humor, pathos and emotional insight. I very much enjoyed “Savage Feast,” and so will you.
Michael Dirda reviews books each Thursday in Style.
By Boris Fishman
Scribner. 348 pp. $27.99