Updated: Nov 12, 2020
Colder weather signals one dish above all others in the Macdonald family: Borscht! Huh? My father and all my brothers and I, loved borscht above all else, competing with our recipes. Why would a bunch of descendants of Scots have this Russian stew as their family dish? When I was a newborn in Vallejo, CA in the 1950s, a Russian family moved next
door. Probably the only Russians in the entire city. My father took over a bottle of wine, and while they spoke little English, the language of food and cooking broke down all barriers. We moved a mile away from them when I was 3. When I was old enough to behave at their table, Daddy took me over to their home for food I had never seen before and always served on fine china, each course a presentation. At my mother's it was potpies on melmac. Whenever they opened the front door they shouted and laughed and threw their arms around my father, kissing him on both cheeks. I was amazed at this greeting, like my father was the greatest person ever and they hadn't seen him in years. We only lived 3 blocks away. As the adults uncorked the wine and gabbed (they had the funniest accents to me), I liked to look at the many black/white photos on the big heavy bureau. The women in their long skirts were not as interesting as the men: the men had long beards and what I thought were funny round hats, some had shawls like a lady. My father explained that this couple had escaped from the USSR and were becoming citizens. Not easy for a 6-year-old to figure out. At this table I had my first delicate dumplings filled with silken chopped liver, freshly baked dark brown rye bread that looked like it was chocolate, and the borscht, served from a tureen slowly with deference. A small dollop of sour cream. But where were the aunts, uncles, grandchildren? The noise of a family at every house I visited? When I was an adult it dawned on me like a club on my head: those photos on the bureau were their lost family. They were the only ones to survive the Holocaust. My father said they were proud Jews who began again. So we always made borscht in their honor.
Heather Macdonald is a journalist who loves to cook and write, combing the two whenever possible.