Life-saving borsch

This is an essay from December 2022.

Every single morning in March and April I would send a message to my parents. Yak vy? How are you? If they replied – it was a fairly good day, if they were silent – it was not, so I would give them some space and ask the same question the following day.

And then one morning a very hopeful answer came from my mum – “Today we made borsch, and it nourished us and made us feel stronger. I really feel like it’s an element of our DNA.” Immediately, I knew there was a turning point, maybe a shift from the initial shock and trauma into the next stage, whatever this may be.

I admire how strong and stoic my parents were. Especially, because, I myself could no longer eat and I could not cook. A friend of a friend started sending me medicinal Chinese broth every single week in the post, the thing that saved me, as I could only manage to drink, not chew.

Losing my ability and desire to cook felt strange, like losing a part of myself. Before, whenever I felt a daily stress or a hint of depression approaching, I would cook. Something bread-related usually. The soft dough under the ball of my palm, its stickiness, its comforting sweet-sour aroma, the repetitive movements – the ultimate act of mindfulness. Sensory repetition that forces you to observe the moment, to let go of the insistent buzz of anxiety – it was not only work for me, or a quotidian family chore, it was an act of self-care. But from February 24th, cooking suddenly felt painful. Instead of healing me, it made me hurt. I realised the act of cooking was interwoven so tightly within the brain with my family and my homeland – simply chopping through a cabbage made me burst into tears. And how dare I feel comforted by cooking – when my loved ones and my country people are in unfathomable danger and I am not. It just did not feel right.

I begged my parents to leave Kakhovka, my home town. They resisted for so long – why should they leave? How should they leave? Their lives were there, their house, their garden, fruit and pine trees, animals, employees, their livelihood and roots. But finally, after they witnessed my panic attack over a video call, they agreed to leave. I told them if anything happened to them, I would never forgive myself for not convincing them. It took them 16 hours and 19 check points to make the initial part of the journey out of the occupied Kherson region, and then five days of driving to Northern Italy, where my mum’s nephew, Igor, a critical care surgeon based in Berlin, was able to offer them the sanctuary of his empty holiday home.

I flew to Italy to arrive at the house ahead of them. I knew they would be unimaginably exhausted. I wanted them to enter the house and feel at least a tiny bit at home – with some familiar smells and bubbling, the gentle susurration of the stove, perhaps even some flowers in a vase and a cold life-saving beer!

I arrived in the morning, and walked to the local supermarket. What an array of ingredients – monk’s beard, puntarelle, all types of artichokes, the cheeses, the pastas! In another life, I would have squealed at this cornucopia, a foodie’s dream. But this time, no fresh beetroot, but some pre-boiled – ok. No dill in sight, but we would just have to manage. And finally success – good “pollo per brodo” a boiling chicken at the butcher counter – and the key element of a very good borsch. The bird was wiry and tough, corn-yellow, full of flavour – no doubt, just like at home. My basket filled with white onions and carrots, a young head of cabbage, some panna acida (soured cream, hurray!).

I get back into the house and, with trepidation, start preparing the first proper meal since the big war started. What pleasure, finally, and relief. The chicken’s skin was torched with a dodgy lighter, to get rid of the stubbly feathers on the legs and wing tips. The onions diced and carrots roughly grated. The bottle of excellent passata – no need for that pinch of sugar. The firm potatoes and squeaky cabbage, and I did not even cry this time. The soggy pre-boiled beetroot was not good enough really. Normally, a pale firm beast all pinks and whites would be cut into almost perfect match sticks and boiled together with the stock and the meat. I would skim some fat off the surface of the rich stock an pour it into a frying pan. The onion and carrots would be cooked until gentle, all the sugars drawn out to sweeten the earthy stock. Then some tomatoes for acidity. Potatoes, cubed and cooked until a knife goes in as if they were butter. The red pepper and the cabbage – strictly the last minute, it needs to cook very briefly. There is nothing worse than overcooked cabbage in a borsch. It should be thick with vegetables. To test – stick a wooden spoon in its centre – if it stands proud, my mother would be too.

Soon enough the airy kitchen was filled with familiar smells and hope, that comforted, not hurt. I picked some dandelions, daisies, buttercups and a single rose from the garden – it went on the table, into the dusk-lit spot – for atmosphere. The essential beers – chilled, and olives on the table. The massive pot of borsch almost spilling over the edge – I overdid it in my cooking fervour.

They arrived! We hug and squeeze, I help to bring numerous bags upstairs – whatever of their lives they thought was most essential to bring. One small suitcase is full of family photos and another of mum’s embroideries. We cry, we laugh, I give them borsch. I am not happy with it, the cabbage overcooked while we faffed with the luggage, the pre-boiled beetroot makes it taste so-so, there is no dill. I am embarrassed but mum assures me it’s great.

“How are you?” There are still times when I receive no answer, even though – safe now, they are heart-broken and home-sick. But mum wants to plant some dill in Igor’s garden, and I will bring some beetroot seeds in June.