“Food grew scarce,” writes New Yorker correspondent Joshua Yaffa, “a loaf of bread was a rare delicacy.”
In his dispatch from Ukraine, Yaffa reports on life recently in the northern Ukraine city of Chernihiv, under siege for 39 days. Seven hundred people were killed during the blockade; many more died from a lack of food and medical care and from freezing temperatures.
Yaffa tells the story of Oleksandr and Ludmila, a husband and wife who split up during the siege — one to find food, the other water — who were never reunited.
Since the Russian invasion, people everywhere seem to be feeling helpless, angry and despairing over human nature, asking the question, “Are we ever doomed to repeat the same mistakes?”
In such shattering times, when faced with the soul-numbing reality of war, we crave stories and connections, to be able to put a face to horrors happening far away.
One thing we can do is to learn more about the cultures and histories of our planet and to think deeply about how they interrelate. What do we know about Ukraine? Some bits pulled from research: Ukraine is considered one of the breadbaskets of the world. It has extensive, fertile land, and has been one of the largest grain exporters in the world. Yet, it is also among the poorest countries in Europe.
And here’s where we come to the theme of this column. And, to some of the advantages of a plant-based diet. Plant-based is a choice, something individuals can commit to, something that can have far-reaching consequences, and importantly, something that is based on compassion. It contributes to reversing climate change, to using less resources, and to respecting the circle of life. And in its emphasis on local, healthy, sustainable food systems, it rejects the limited, grasping point of view, rather than capitulating to it.
I like the sentiment I read recently on a poster: “Love people; cook them tasty food.” Food is such a personal, emotional matter, connecting people intimately to their histories and to each other. We all need this person-to-person connection, this softer human interaction. We need need of love and beets. A linking of compassion and justice. We need to recognize that humanity is one, and that we can’t take much more of this stupidity called war.
Which brings us to … borscht. Or rather, a plant-based take on borscht. Which, given the dish’s metamorphosis over centuries and territories, only makes sense. Borscht has so many iterations, and its roots are often beet-based (no pun intended), so why not a purely plant-based borscht?
According to food writer Nikolai Burlakoff, borscht is perfectly suited to a global culture. It’s a global phenomenon, where local variants are so numerous and diverse that it is hard sometimes to grasp that any single example is part of an unified tradition. Borscht is associated with several ethnic groups, especially Ukrainians, Russians, Poles, Lithuanians and Ashkenazi Jews, as their own national dish.
Many recipes from individual Soviet states were claimed as part of a broader Soviet heritage, disassociated from their local origins. Russian food writer William Pokhlebkin criticized this, however, maintaining that borscht was “Ukrainian cookery.” A Ukrainian saying goes, “Borscht and porridge are our food.”
This brings to mind “the borscht belt,” Jewish-owned entertainment resorts in the Catskill Mountains, where Jewish families flocked to hear comedians at summertime retreats and restaurants offered plenty of borscht, reinforcing the popular association with American Jewish culture.
In 2020 Ukraine began the process to have borscht recognized as an element of the country’s intangible cultural heritage.
As we mourn the consequence of war and commit to turning toward values of inclusion and love for all creatures on this planet, let’s remember the words of British correspondent James Meek: “The Soviet Union [is] dead, yet Borshchland lives on. Recipes, like birds, ignore political boundaries… The faint outline of the Tsarist-Soviet imperium still glimmers in the collective steam off bowls of beetroot and cabbage… and the soft sound of dollops of sour cream slipping into soup, from the Black Sea to the Sea of Japan, and in emigration from Brooklyn to Berlin.”
Can we create new lines of connection, not of wealth and power, but of human dignity, creativity and equality? Love people and feed them tasty food.
Vegan Ukrainian Borscht
Recipe from Carol Throckmorton
Yield: Approx. 6 C
- 1 Tbsp. olive oil
- 3 medium beets, peeled and diced (1/2”), approx. 1-3/4 C (or 1-10 oz. package of frozen beets)
- 2 medium carrots, peeled and diced (1/2”), approx. ¾ C
- 1 medium onion, chopped, approx. 2C
- 2 garlic cloves, minced
- 4 C vegetable broth (recommended: Better than Bouillon)
- 2 Tbsp. tomato paste
- 2 C finely chopped cabbage
- 1 medium russet potato (approx. ½ lb.), peeled and diced (1/2”)
- 1-1/2 Tbsp. red wine vinegar
- ¼ C chopped fresh dill (plus additional for garnish, if desired)
- Salt and pepper to taste
- Optional for serving: Vegan sour cream, yogurt, or cashew cream, chopped fresh chives and/or parsley
1. Coat the bottom of a large pot with olive oil and place it over medium heat. When the oil is hot, add the beets, carrots, and onions. Sauté until the veggies begin to soften, about 10 minutes. Add the garlic and sauté another minute until very fragrant.
2. Stir in the vegetable broth, tomato paste, cabbage, and potato. Raise the heat and bring the liquid to a boil, then lower to simmer until the veggies are tender, 30-45 minutes. Add more broth (or water), if desired.
3. Remove the pot from the heat and stir in the red wine vinegar and dill. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
4. Ladle the soup into bowls and top with vegan sour cream, yogurt, or cashew cream and a sprinkling of fresh chives or parsley, if desired.
5. Serve with a sandwich made with dark rye bread and a smear of cream cheese, mayonnaise or stone-ground mustard. Layer on a vegan cheese, such as Field Roast brand Chao Smoked Slices. Add vegetables of choice; For example, lettuce and slices of tomato, cucumber, radish, and red onion.
Andy Douglas is a Writers’ Group member and the author of The Curve of the World: Into the Spiritual Heart of Yoga and Redemption Songs: A Year in the Life of a Community Prison Choir. He has observed a plant-based lifestyle for 38 years.
For questions or comments regarding the Vegan Community of Eastern Iowa, please send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org or visit the website at www.veganeasterniowa.org. Everyone is welcome to join the VCEI on Facebook and MeetUp.