Cesar Chelala
A physician and writer
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The worst borscht in the world

Sitting on a bench in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, the Russian emigre explained to me that America is not her country, but it is her home
Borscht (iStock)
Borscht (iStock)

It was a cold and pleasant winter day in Manhattan and snow was predicted for Brooklyn at around noon. Thinking how nice it would be to see the snow coming down over the ocean I decided to go to Brighton Beach, walk on the boardwalk, see the snowfall and then go to lunch at one of the many Russian restaurants in the area.

Brighton Beach is a neighborhood in the southern portion of Brooklyn, along the Coney Island peninsula facing the Atlantic. The area goes from Sheepshead Bay to Sea Gate. It was purchased from Native Americans in 1645 for a gun, a blanket, and a kettle. That area is now worth several million dollars.

In the mid-1970s, Brighton Beach became a popular place to live for Soviet immigrants, most of them Jews from Russia and Ukraine. So many immigrants came from Ukraine that the area became known as “Little Odessa.” Today, they are joined by thousands of Central Asian immigrants who have chosen it as a place to settle.

I took the subway to Brighton Beach and 45 minutes later I was sitting in front of the sea, patiently waiting for the snow. A group of young men, probably in their early 30s were playing volleyball in the sand. They were shouting at each other in Russian. I thought to myself, “You have to be Russian to be playing in the sand with this freezing temperature!”

Soon afterwards a beautiful young woman came and sat next to me. There were only a few people walking briskly along the boardwalk, nobody else was sitting nearby, and I thought this proximity a bit unusual. I was feeling very proud of myself until a few minutes later, when I saw her waving and shouting to one of the men playing in front of us, who, she explained later, was her husband.

I asked her if she was Russian. She said they all were and that she was from Moscow. I told her that I had been there a couple of years before and that I had liked that city a lot. “Have you ever thought of going back to live in Russia?” I asked her. “No,” she said, “This is not our country, but it is our home.” By that time, it was getting colder and the wind made sitting there quite unpleasant, but I was determined to wait until the first snowflakes fell on the water. Besides, talking to this beautiful woman had made it more bearable.

“Do you like Russian food?” she asked me. “Of course,” I said. “I love borscht and, as a matter of fact, a couple of days ago I cooked some borscht myself since my wife is away. I opened a can of beets, added boiled carrots and cabbage, boiled everything a bit longer, and served it with sour cream on top. Together with a little Russian rye bread, I had a most satisfying meal.”

“You did what?” she asked me, with an alarmed look on her face. I started repeating the steps when, with obvious impatience, she said, “Stop. You probably made the worst borscht in the world. You should never, ever, use canned beets for borscht. You could be sent to Siberia for doing that in Russia,” she said smiling and added, “Making borscht with canned beets is as Russian as having an American breakfast with vegetarian bacon!”

Occasionally, she stopped our conversation to wave at her husband, who continued his game with his friends as if they were playing under a warm and pleasant sun. All this talk of food was making me hungry, so I got up to leave, when she said, “I’ll give you my recipe for borscht, but you have to promise me you will never again use canned beets.” I assured her I would not.

“First you boil beef and pork meat until they are well cooked so they can be easily shredded. After shredding the meat boil the beets in that same water. When they are ready, cut the beets in small pieces and reserve a couple until the end. Now add a couple of cooked carrots and potatoes which you have lightly fried before. After letting it all boil together for a few minutes add a good amount of cabbage and boil until cooked but crisp. When the soup is ready mash the two beets you have reserved and put them into the soup. They will give it a rich, strong color.”

By this time the snow was falling so heavily that after saying goodbye I hastened to the nearby avenue, afraid of not finding my way back when she yelled at me, “And don’t forget to add garlic at the end!”

About the Author
César Chelala is a physician and writer born in Argentina and living in the U.S. He wrote for leading newspapers all over the world and for the main medical journals, among them The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, The Japan Times, The China Daily, The Moscow Times, The International Herald Tribune, Le Monde Diplomatique, Harvard International Review, The Journal of the American Medical Association, The Lancet, Annals of Internal Medicine, and The British Medical Journal. He is a co-winner of an Overseas Press Club of America award and two national journalism awards from Argentina.
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