Borsht and Russian Literature


Bubbie's borsht


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My Bubbe’s Borscht

By Nancy Z. Paul

I grew up in a small row home in Northeast Philadelphia where Yiddish was spoken and the smell of borscht bubbling on the stove greeted me after school. There I’d find my bubbe Chava stirring her soup, reclaiming the best of the life she fled in the Ukraine. Late fall afternoons would carry the scent of beef flanken simmering in the crimson beet broth, while spring and summer afternoons featured lighter, cold dairy borscht, complete with hot boiled potatoes and dollops of sour cream. Her dairy borscht was a vision in hot pink, the color of bubblegum and cotton candy, once the "right" amount of sour cream was added.

If it wasn’t a pot of borsht on top of the stove, it was kreplach or blintzes filled with cheese. My favorite afternoons were sugar-scented when the smell of my bubbe’s special cookies filled the house and just about every available surface in the small kitchen would be covered with trays of cookies cooling. They were especially delicious when dipped in a cup of tea poured from her dented samovar.

With all of the talk about the need for change these days, there is something heartwarming and reassuring about traditional recipes that evoke sweet memories of the past. We may be eager for new ideas in Washington D.C.; just don’t mess with my bubbe’s borscht.

The sight of my grandmother’s recipe bubbling in my own kitchen always conjures up images of my bubbe's kitchen where soup ladles vied for counter space with cutting boards and Russian literature. My grandmother loved to sit at the kitchen table reading one of the great Russian writers - Turgenev, Pasternak, Dostoevsky, Pushkin, Chekov - while keeping an eye on her busy stove. These were the first books she bought in America when she learned to read English. Whenever she had a little extra money left over from my grandfather’s house painting jobs, she always chose to buy books. In an essay for an English class she attended for new immigrants she described her cherished possessions as friends.  American writers eventually shared space with the Russians, co-existing peacefully even during The Cold War. Although my grandmother preferred to speak in Yiddish, she enjoyed reading in the language of her safe new home.

Occasionally, I would return home from school to find two of my grandmother’s former neighbors from the “old country,” Lepa and Chaka, conversing in Yiddish about politics, philosophy, and the whereabouts of friends. I’d pull up a chair close to my grandmother and ask questions in English about their lives in Litivitch. Their replies were always in Yiddish, often accompanied with sighs and hand wringing. Lepa, Chaka and my bubbe always concluded their conversations by saying how lucky they were to live in America where there were no pogroms.

When my own boys were old enough I shared stories of what it was like to grow up having a Russian grandmother as my best friend. I described how she introduced me to War and Peace on my twelfth birthday and that I spent the next few years immersing myself in Russian literature and history. I gave them the volumes of the Russian writers I had inherited from my bubbe and assured them they would catch glimpses of their great-grandmother there. 

I wish my sons could have shared a bowl of borscht with my bubbe. She would have been delighted to hear their views on politics and economics. As a “player” in the stock market with her small pension, she would have been most interested in her first great-grandson’s work in options trading. And he would have enjoyed peeking into the slender handwritten notebook she meticulously kept of her investments. No doubt they would have commiserated on our present economic woes. But there would have been no hand wringing on her part regarding this time. She believed in America.

Being something of a “news junkie” back in the day and always worried about international strife, my grandmother would have delighted in my younger son’s wish to work in the diplomatic arena. She would have discussed with him her concern about Vladimir Putin’s ambitions, the urgent need for an end to the genocide in Darfur and she surely would have sat up with us on election night reveling in the democratic process.

Bubbe's Dairy Borscht

Makes 8-10 servings


    10 cups water

    3 pounds beets, washed, peeled and quartered

    1 onion, chopped

    1 Tbsp salt

    Juice of 2 fresh lemons

    3 Tbsp sugar

    8 small potatoes peeled and boiled in salted water

    Sour Cream

In a large pot, combine the beets, onion, water and salt. Bring to a boil over high heat. Simmer, partially covered, until the beets are tender - about 1 hour.

Remove the beets and cut them into julienne strips. Return the beets to the pot and add the juice of two freshly squeezed lemons. Add the sugar. The borscht should continue to simmer, partially covered, 30 minutes longer.

Allow the soup to cool and then chill well in refrigerator.

Boil small potatoes in salted water, just before planning to serve the borscht.

Serve the chilled borscht together with the hot boiled potatoes and dollops of sour cream.


from the December 2008 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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