Another atmospheric river is on its way apparently so what a good day to stay inside and make soup. My two biggest soup pots are simmering with Doukhobor borsch, a kind of interesting anomaly in the world of Eastern European soups, in that the recipe calls for a single small beet added simply for colour, then fished out and discarded (though I cut it into tiny dice and put it back in the pots). Friends are coming for lunch tomorrow and one of them grew up in the Kootenays. Like us, he likes to stop in Grand Forks for the borsch and it’s this version. A soup filled with vegetables, cream, and butter, and also filled with a more subtle story of its origins. A vegetarian borsch because the Doukhobors who came to Canada were followers of Peter “Lordly” Verigin and were opposed to the consumption of animal flesh. So not for them the long-cooked bone broths, the slivers of beef, or pieces of duck (I’m thinking of a recipe from Olia Hercules). Not for me today, either, though I’ve made the beautiful borsch with smoked apple (she uses smoked pears but I had apples) and duck from Summer Kitchens. I think the Polish barszcz is vegetarian so there’s a whole range of versions of the borsch story, like any good tale.
The first time we had Doukhobor food in Grand Forks, we were returning from Alberta, stopping in various places–Banff, Castlegar– to do readings from new books. So it must have been 2011. Ten years ago! We ate at the Grand Forks Hotel, a shabby beauty, and were served by a comfortable woman wearing bedroom slippers that flapped as she walked from tables to kitchen. We had bowls of borsch, tender vareniki, pyrahi, and pyroshky for dessert, maybe with rhubarb and berries. We knew we’d return but by the time we did, the Grand Forks Hotel had burned to the ground (late winter, 2012). It was a hundred years old, iconic in the way the old hotels of the province are (were, I should say, because so many of them have burned and I’ve been thinking of the Coldwater Hotel in Merritt, wondering how it weathered the recent floods), and it was sad to see the empty space it had filled for so long, its kitchen turning out delicious food. We found the Borscht Bowl and the food there is really wonderful too. (They even sell borsch by the jar, for those who want to take it home.) Grand Forks is a beautiful town, surrounded by the remains of Doukhobor villages,
the places where women made this soup as a communal activity, chopping, frying, stirring, and no doubt with bread baking as they worked. Tomorrow we’ll have fresh bread with our soup and a warm fire.
The borsch is thick and ochre-coloured, dense with vegetables, including cabbages from my garden, and flecked with dill. I made enough for a village but only 6 of us will eat it, talking, laughing, and who cares if the rain falls on our blue roof. If the power goes out, we can heat our lunch on the woodstove, give thanks for our lives, restricted as they sometimes feel, by plagues, weather, and distance. I hope this new cycle of storm is kinder to us, that the rivers don’t find new routes for themselves, that the roads remain in place. When I was looking up the recipe for our borsch on the Doukhobor site, I found myself reading a psalm that felt very timely somehow:
Be courageous, always willing to labour. Leave off all idleness and laziness. If you wish to start some project, measure well your strength in advance, then proceed without letting up. In adversity, do not lose hope; in prosperity, do not morally deteriorate. Hold thriftiness in esteem. Keep careful observation of the different occurrences in life of inconstancy, misfortune and sorrow. Over that which the patient forbear, the fainthearted sigh, lament and wail. Be benevolent and gracious. Give to him that asketh of thee, if thou hast; help the poor, of thou canst. If anyone has hurt thee – forgive him; if thou hast hurt anyone – reconcile thyself with him. It is very commendable to refrain from holding grudges. Forgive the sinner; accede to the reconciler. If you yourself will love your fellow-man, you shall in turn be loved by all people. Be thou also obedient to elders, companionable to equals, and courteous to subordinates. Greet those whom you meet; return the greeting of those who greet you. To the enquirer, give answer; to the ignorant, give advice, to the sorrowing, give comfort. Do not envy anyone. Wish well to all.