soup

The other day we drove to Grand Forks for lunch. We were staying in Osoyoos and part of what we do when we’re in that area is drive up into Boundary Country for the long views, the golden fields, and the pleasure of Russian food at the Borscht Bowl in Grand Forks. Every fall I make a huge pot of that borscht, using this recipe. (I have wonderful cabbages in the garden right now, begging to be shredded and used in this soup.) My grandmother made borscht, a red barszcz, probably in homage to her first husband, who was Polish. And for my parents, that was the benchmark of borscht. I tried making the Doukhobor one for them once, thinking it would be a good thing for my mum and I to do together, but they simply couldn’t hear that it was also a borscht. Nope. Borscht was beets and maybe some thin slices of beef, whiffy with vinegar, and served with a dollop of sour cream. Smetana. They kept saying, “It’s a good vegetable soup but it’s not borscht.” And in the way of family history, it’s a phrase we use every time I make this soup.

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The borscht in Grand Forks is delicious. Everything is diced or shredded very finely and the surface of the soup is ferny with dill. It’s thick and the colour of ochre. I had a big bowl and had to restrain myself from ordering another. We were also having vareniki, large ones, stuffed with beef and potato, and served with smetana and grated cheese. My grandmother’s, called pedeha, in homage to her second husband (my grandfather), who was more or less Ukrainian, were smaller than the ones we ate in Grand Forks. Hers were almost always filled with homemade cottage cheese and potatoes, with flecks of green onion. She also made dessert ones filled with golden plums. She kept heaping them on plates and showed delight as we asked for more.

I can understand why the Doukhobors were drawn to the Grand Forks area. Everywhere we saw those fertile fields, roadside stands with boxes of squash, huge tomatoes, cabbages, strings of garlic, bags of red and yellow-skinned onions, even bags of Russian noodles called lapsha and which my grandmother also made, though I don’t remember what her version  was called. My father said that when he was a child in Drumheller and the family was very poor, she made them to sell, using eggs from her chickens and butter from her cow. My father said it was rare that they ate butter themselves because my grandmother could sell it and supplement my grandfather’s sporadic income from coal mining. I hoped to buy flour from the Pride of the Valley Flour Mill but it was closed and none of the grocery stores we looked it had it for sale. (But then I found Red Fife flour at the McMynns Store in Midway, milled at the Heritage Flour Mill in Rock Creek. So later in the week, I’ll bake bread with a taste of that Bounday wheat.)

For years I never thought about these foods. We ate them when we visited our father’s family in Beverley (then a community near Edmonton and now part of the city itself) and they were foreign, though eating them meant that we were too. (I never felt foreign, apart from the first day of school when teachers used to struggle with the pronunciation of my surname!) And now I want to know how to cook them. I want to eat them on these cool fall days and think of the generations of women in my family who grew cabbages and churned butter and carefully peeled potatoes for the pedeha, tossing the peels to the chickens who waited by the kitchen door. Sometimes they are so far away, in time, in geography, in language (my grandmother’s English was so heavily-accented that I could barely understand her), and sometimes they are in our hands as we cut and dice, they are in the faces of our children and grandchildren (where else do the blue eyes come from?), and in the way we drive long distances to see a landscape both familiar and nourishing, and to eat the bowls of soup that called us there.

“I tasted my way back to the long table…”

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From “Ballast”, a work-in-progress:

In the thatched house at the Ukrainian Cultural Village Museum near Edmonton, some rough linens, lengths of bright woven cloth on the benches of the good room where guests would be brought, where a wedding was celebrated by 70 guests eating and dancing, the “owner” told us, a man from Bukovina whose daughter-in-law worked in the fenced garden. There were potatoes, beets, feathery fronds of dill everywhere, self-sown, a hardy variety: did it travel with the family from Bukovina, a twist of paper containing its seeds, its beloved flavour, the flavour of home? Along with Black Krim tomatoes, Koda cabbages (from Polish relations), the Viktoria Ukrainskaya peas? Seeds traded with Mennonites for their own hoarded heritage, with Sudeten Germans and Croatians and Armenians for cucumbers, along with Lyaliuks from Belarus. We ate cabbage rolls and cucumber salad green with dill at the snack bar and I tasted my way back to the long table set up in the backyard of my aunt and uncle where my father’s family gathered every time we visited Edmonton, the woman in the kitchen all morning rolling dough and filling pedeha with soft mashed potato and cheese curd and sliced green onions so strong my eyes watered. Slices of hard sausage dark with caraway, and rolls with hard crusts. My uncles held a fist of bread and a glass full of something clear which they drank down, grimaced, then laughed. We had our own drink, raspberry juice with a whiff of vinegar, compot it was called, and was poured from the quart jars, murky with floating fruit, we were asked to bring from a certain shelf in the cellar where spiderwebs draped the windows. Sometimes we pretended to be the uncles, drinking deeply and dancing with our glasses raised high, laughing and slurring our speech. We didn’t know what sorrows they carried in their pockets, hidden away at times like those, but tolerated by their wives who cooked and wiped at red faces with a tea-towel damp with steam.