The Best Bowl of Borscht I Ever Had
The best borscht I ever had was in a punk house the summer before I turned 18. At that point, I’d been on my own for nearly two years, living with whomever would take me after my mom left town, sustaining myself on a diet of whatever vegan food I could find. The plus side was that it was the skinniest I’d ever been; on the other hand, I pretty much tried to belie the idea that man cannot live on bread alone, sustaining myself on a steady diet of carbs. When a place I planned to move into fell through, a friend’s older brother took pity on me, saying I could stay at the place where he was living as long as I needed. The caveat was that everybody would probably end up getting kicked out soon.
The old apartment was in a Chicago neighborhood that was just about to be declared “up and coming.” It wasn’t quite a squat, because they were paying a little bit of rent; but the nine other people who lived in the three-bedroom apartment knew that once the owner sold the building, they’d have to find a new place to call home. There was exposed wiring, mold all over the place, a band practiced in the kitchen and nobody had a bed because, as one resident told me, that meant there was a hierarchy in the house. The five people who slept in the bedrooms paid the bulk of the rent; the rest of us claimed a small section of the apartment and pitched in what we could. I think the rent on the entire place was maybe $500.
Before the punk house borscht, my early memories were of old Russian women force-feeding me huge spoonfuls of cold, red, watery, lukewarm soup with unidentifiable chunks and a sour taste my three-year-old palate couldn’t handle. It was one of the many foods from my ancestral homeland that didn’t initially jive with my first-generation American taste buds weaned on Cheerios and pasteurized milk, I’d eventually learn to love things like gefilte fish, stuffed cabbage, greasy latkes and other dishes brought over from the old country that probably reminded my family of home. But there was something about that first experience with the red, chunky soup that made me swear I’d never eat it again.
But in the punk house, turning down the communal food—most of which was perfectly good produce picked out of dumpsters—wasn’t much of an option. I didn’t live there full-time, but I didn’t want to upset my hosts, so I ladled a bowlful from the rusted old pot, took my dented spoon, and dove right in. What I got was a rich, vibrant, tangy-but-not-at-all-tart mouthful, the likes of which my teenage senses, used to cans of Campbell’s tomato or my family’s oversalted chicken and noodles, had never experienced.
As somebody who grew up around mostly Soviet Jews and family members touched by the Holocaust, food was necessity, a means of survival, not something to be savored. The punk house borscht, with chunks of beets and potatoes, the familiar scents of garlic and dill, was the first home-cooked meal that truly got its hooks in me. Home cooking—that’s how you can tell if you’re home. Before that, I was fine eating pizza and fries and living on friends’ couches. That’s why I really think that vegan borscht changed me. I’d avoided eating it for most of my life, but there was something familiar in that bowl; it reminded me of the home I longed for.
Two decades later, I live in the city that arguably has the most places to eat borscht outside of Eastern Europe. I can go to Brooklyn's Greenpoint neighborhood and find a tangy bowl of borscht with a plate of mushroom pierogies. There’s a Moldovan place in Queens that does a vegetable-heavy regional takeout. If it’s summertime and I want to switch it up, I’ll go out to Ridgewood for cold, refreshing chlodnik with hearty chunks of cucumbers, onions and, of course, beets, to go from Cracovia.
Fine & Schapiro is a nice place to sit down and eat on the Upper West Side, or you can take some to go from Zabar’s. It takes a simple wander around Brighton Beach to find borscht at any number of places connected to former Soviet Bloc countries. Inquiring borscht explorers can go on a borscht crawl along the part of 2nd Avenue in Manhattan that was once the heart of the Yiddish theatre world, and is now home to the Little Ukraine enclave. You can spend the day arguing whether Ukrainian East Village or its neighbor, Veselka, make a better bowl. Streecha, tucked away off 7th Street, only noticeable by the blue and yellow sign in Cyrillic, is excellent. The cramped B&H Dairy diner is one of my absolute favorite places to eat a meal anywhere in the city, a place where (thanks to the suggestion of food writer Leah Koenig) I’ve taken to ordering a matzo ball on the side to soak up the watery magenta broth once I’ve done away with the generous portion of potatoes and beets. And although I’ve been getting lox and whitefish from Russ & Daughters for years, their borscht has only just recently arrived on my radar. T.S. Eliot’s J. Alfred Prufrock measured out his life in coffee spoons; I map out mine in bowls of borscht.
I find different takes on borscht in their various hues of strawberry and crimson to be heartbreaking in their loveliness. Admire the contrast of the soup and the dollop of white sour cream, dotted with grass green chives. I photograph borscht for Instagram, joking that it’s my intention to seek out every single bowl of borscht in the city and beyond. Through this dedication, I have become something of a subject matter expert to a very niche group of people on where to eat it if you’re looking to turn your insides a brighter shade of red.
When you publicly fixate on one food as I have, people ask questions. They ask me, "Where can you get the best borscht in New York?" To which I can only respond that the answer is really up to them, that no two homemade versions of borscht are alike. That’s the thing that makes searching out different bowls so fun. Its preparation varies from person to person, place to place. Like food from other parts of the world brought to America, borscht tells you the story of its homeland. Veselka and B&H, for example, are a few blocks away, but their takes on borscht taste thousands of miles apart. B&H’s version is, in my opinion, the perfect American diner borscht, all watery and light before a heavy whitefish melt. Veselka, a Ukranian restaurant, offers seasonal varieties of the soup borne out of necessity, a way to use the beetroots and other vegetables to warm people during the frozen Eastern European winters. Both places are perfect to me.
Although there’s an old Yiddishism that calls things, “cheap like borscht,” there’s no cutting corners when it comes to the work that goes into making the soup. That’s why when “The Queen of Borscht,” Malgorzata Sibilski, retired from Veselka after making over 5,000 gallons of borscht every single year for three decades, it felt like the end of an era. A master of her craft hung up her beet-stained apron and walked away. When you eat a homemade bowl of borscht from anywhere, be it a Ukranian place in the East Village, a Jewish deli in Los Angeles, Hof Kelsten in Montreal, a punk house in the Midwest, or in the kitchen of your grandmother who was born in a part of the world she’d describe as “Russia one day, Poland the next,” you’re eating something somebody put a lot of work into. You have to clean, shred, and boil the beets to make the beet water. That alone takes at least two hours. Then you have to boil more beets and cook the other veggies. If you’re not making a vegetarian or vegan version, then you have to take care of the meat.
All in all, making borscht isn’t something you do casually, it’s not a stew that you can just toss a bunch of stuff into a pot and hope for the best. It’s a process; it’s why several places so close together on one street in the East Village serve versions that taste completely different.
The compulsion to rank just about everything to signify quality misses the entire point of borscht, which is to make it with what you have, even if that is just a cellar of beets, some questionable carrots, a head of garlic, fists of dill, salt, and conviction. Borscht is here to nourish, not to dazzle. The collecting and numbering is all so arbitrary: books to read, albums to hear, some little place in the Pacific Northwest that serves the best burger in the entire country. I spent two years making lists of things on the Internet for a living, thinking I had the right to tell people what good meant. The truth is that it’s all subjective, and with food, your pleasure in a meal is likely trebled by the thrill of discovery or a soothing ambiance. Taste is obviously important—nobody wants to eat bad borscht—but taste can sour if the experience fails you.
Finding a place or a specific dish on your own always heightens the experience. When the dish finds you, the way that first bowl of borscht in the punk house did, that could seriously be a life-altering experience. I’ve had more good borscht than bad since then, always finding new and different ways people make it, but that first bowl, right after I moved into the punk house—which also happened to be a week before we were asked to leave by the landlord—made me realize I wanted something more. And today, for a few seconds, a good bowl of it brings me back to that time when I was a kid who always felt uncomfortable and alone, and how inviting and comforting that first bowl of borscht was. It could be served hot or cold, but I always feel a little warmer after eating it.