Article Image
Columbia Spectator Staff

When my parents came in town for Pesach, I took them to The Breslin, a British pub. Not a kosher choice. April Bloomfield, chef and owner of The Breslin, just released a cookbook cum memoir called "A Girl and Her Pig." I ordered a tongue sandwich, which comes with a bowl of borscht that's more sweet and sour than babushka. Hello Mr. Chow minus crunchy wonton noodles. A shandeh un a charpeh. The hot broth, viscous enough to coat a knife, looks like blood—as though a lamb's throat, cut for sacrifice, wept thick tears over the bowl. Little lamb, who made thee? I did, some volcanic God supping on his subjects. (Then again, it seems to me I hear, when I do hear sweet music, the dreadful cries of murdered men in forests.) Since the 1970s, beets have been showing up on Seder plates as a substitute for lamb shankbone. A sliced beet bleeds, so vegetarians offer it up to save the sheep. Besides the borscht though, lunch at The Breslin was a goyishe affair, vulgar. Made painfully aware of our good fortune, we accepted blasé service from a dandy. We ate cramped like sardines on the Queens. I had better borscht two weeks earlier at Streecha, a Ukrainian restaurant buried in an East Village basement. When there is a voice at the door it is Slavic. Families chatter around folding tables. A frail woman takes orders and plates stuffed cabbage. My parents' parents' parents' came from Lithuania and Kiev, so I recognize these flavors, shoveled somewhere deep in my Jewish genealogy and covered with clay from the Mississippi. My bubbe makes stuffed cabbage, too, and a tomato-based cabbage soup. But these are not my people. On Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays, the St. George Ukrainian Catholic Church runs Streecha as a community commons and mess hall. Where I want Yiddish, I find a foreign tongue. I have some pretensions to self-awareness. I have the best of intentions. Yet, I fall victim to "cultural food colonialism" as much as the next schlub. In her essay "Let's Eat Chinese!" Lisa Heldke coined the term to describe eating habits that replicate "various ideologies of western colonialism." Do you believe that "novel and exotic is always better," devote yourself to authenticity, and use "the ethnic Other" to "meet your own expectations, fill your own desires, and therefore embellish your own identity?" Do you collect eating experiences in order to accumulate cultural capital and enhance your own social standing? If so, you too might be a part-time colonialist. But my preference for Streecha over The Breslin has little to do with a colonial fetish. My affection for cheap little delicious restaurants follows from a conviction that a cosmopolis assembles cultural difference in productive configurations. I believe that we can write counter-narratives to both bourgeois dining rituals and culinary tourism. To discover those narratives, I accept the risk of colonial afterimages. In the process, I hope to evade a postcolonial script and learn a new urban poetics. My aesthetic orientation to the city imagines an encounter with otherness as an ethical confrontation. O seasoned heart, come, fill my cup with borscht. I will bear witness. Sauerkraut, sweet and buttery, sings a smooth fermented sigh. It speaks to me in a dialect I barely understand as familiar. A snappy sausage hums a melody sealed tight, for two centuries, in glass jars. The sound escapes like the smell of time flees from books. I cannot let a last bite of plump varenyky, laden with sour cream, linger long enough. I remember that I remember an antique kiss, but cannot tell of its taste. If I have forgotten that kiss or never known my Ukrainian family, I will not lose this meal. It will live forever here, a dead letter that inscribes in print what defeats speech. Jason Bell is a Columbia College junior majoring in English. In Defense of Delicious runs alternate Fridays.

In Defense of Delicious Borscht