In the 18th century, before potatoes were introduced, the red tuber—straight up or fermented—was the food of the masses. With fresh beet juice as the foundation, borscht could include meat, cabbage, onions, parsnips, turnips, carrots and eventually potatoes. It was served hot in winter and cold in summer. Jews tailored the recipes to conform to their dietary requirements. Beef replaced pork if meat was used, and eggs were whipped in at the last minute (a farweissen) to whiten the broth. For a dairy meal, sour cream or sour milk were added on top.
Jewish borscht became an art unto itself. I once interviewed a woman named Eva Lubetkin Cantor, who lived to be 103. She told me how Passover borscht was made at her home in New York City at the turn of the 20th century. “There was the brewing of the russel, which means brine in Russian and Yiddish, which was genuine borscht,” she explained. “The beets were put in a large barrel covered with warm water and salt. It took three or four weeks to ferment and turn sour. Every day or so, the fermentation and crust were skimmed off with a slotted ladle. When it didn’t form any sediment on top, it was ready. We just added water, sugar, eggs, sour cream and, for fleishig, meat balls and hot plain boiled potatoes.” Eugeniusz Wirkowski, the author of Cooking the Polish-Jewish Way, told me in Krakow that the main Jewish contribution to Polish cuisine is the fermentation process that Cantor had described.
Borscht achieved full-fledged iconic status in America during the 20th century with the rise of the Borscht Belt, the term used to refer to the Jewish resorts in the Catskill Mountains where numerous stage and film actors got their start. Borscht Belt comedians parodied every aspect of Jewish life in the mountains, especially the food. “Proper borscht,” quipped the comedian Joey Adams, “comes with sour cream and boiled potatoes, and some people claim that the white line on Route 17, the four-lane-path that leads from Seventh Avenue to the Catskills, is made of pure sour cream.”
After World War II, companies like Mrs. Adler’s, Mother’s and Gold’s began to manufacture sweet bottled borscht, bringing a taste of the Old World sans fermentation to America’s new supermarkets. “When our plant was in Borough Park we would go to our grandmother’s around the corner for lunch,” recalls Marc Gold, the marketing manager of Gold’s, whose grandparents, Tillie and Hyman, founded the company. “We would bring the borscht from the plant and have a dairy lunch of comfort food—borscht and sour cream with a boiled potato and mackerel. That brings me back to the early days.”
Borscht is experiencing a revival, thanks in part to the influence of the waves of immigrants from the former Soviet Union to the United States. American chefs have embraced the borscht challenge, providing inventive modern takes such as bright butternut squash borscht. By some counts, there are now over 100 bona fide varieties of the soup. I can rarely resist a hearty meat and vegetable borscht, which I learned to make from Russian immigrants. And to beat the summer heat, a bowl of cold watermelon borscht makes a wonderful first course for dinner.
Joan Nathan is a cookbook author whose latest book is Quiches, Kugels and Couscous: My Search for Jewish Cooking in France.
adapted from Chef Robert Meltzer of Zola Wine and Kitchen
3 pounds beets (about 8)
4 cups seedless watermelon, peeled and cut into chunks
1 teaspoon rice wine vinegar, or to taste
Salt and pepper to taste
4 tablespoons creme fraiche
2 tablespoons chopped chives
1. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Place the unpeeled beets on a sheet tray in the oven for about one hour or until fork tender. When beets are slightly cooled, peel and cut into quarters.
2. Place the fully cooled beets and chunks of watermelon in a food processor, pureeing until a thick liquid is formed.
3. Add vinegar and salt and pepper and pulse again. Taste and adjust the seasoning as well as the watermelon-to-beet ratio according to your taste.
4. Serve cold garnished with a dollop of creme fraiche and chopped chives.
Yield: 4 to 6 servings