Borscht Belt Borscht

Recently, the Catskills have been on peoples’ radars, exposed in a beautiful piece on Tablet: The Ruins of the Borscht Belt, and then in the New York Times article: Seeking to Lure the Crowds Again. But Hold the Borscht.

In between these articles, I decided to go on a 7-hour car ride adventure over the Forth of July weekend to these famous Catskills, otherwise known as the Borscht Belt. My boyfriend made a list of the now largely defunct famous resorts and just started driving, seeing how far we could get onto the premises. It made me nervous because I’m kind of a stickler for rules, regulations, structure. But sometimes the rules don’t apply — like when peeling back the layers of history. Rules are pliable just like time.

It took me awhile to get to this post for a couple of reasons, among them, simply, being busy and having a full time job that includes neither cooking nor Judaism. But there has been one reason in particular that has prevented me from getting this post up in my usual, more timely fashion. That reason is simple. I hate borscht. No exaggeration here. I completely hate borscht. Having served in Ukraine as a Peace Corps Volunteer for two years, I had my fair share of this stuff. Green stuff. Red stuff. Purple stuff. Hot stuff. Cold stuff (ugh). Meaty stuff (double ugh). Potato-y, watery, beet-y stuff. Endless bowls of this, in multiple forms. Always unappealing.

Not only was I overloaded, not only do I not like soup, it’s also pretty time extensive to make. This stuff doesn’t melt in your mouth like a quiche, or fill you up like a giant bowl of pesto pasta. But it’s a tradition. An extremely, extremely strong one.  So strong that I’m pretty sure it’s a prerequisite for being Ukrainian. As in — if you can’t make this, you’re just not Ukrainian. And if you were born Ukrainian, beware, the invisible state affairs committee will take your citizenship away if you can’t make this and don’t love it and don’t want to subsist off of it for the rest of your life (though I guess we could make the argument that there are a number of other reasons why this and similar things could happen). Anyway, I digress. The point is that borscht really is that big of a deal.

In Ukraine, I would go to co-workers’, neighbors’, host families’, and friends’ houses praying, perhaps ridiculously praying, that they wouldn’t serve me this, that it wouldn’t show up in a bowl in front of me, that I wouldn’t be pressured to sit at the table, blabbering in broken Russian about the neighbors’ barking dog or someone’s husband’s theoretical affair until the borscht was gone of my own 50-something spoonfuls of volition. Each time it was like noisy, gibberishy torture. It became a true skill to get away before more was ladled into my bowl, too. A delicate art of looking hungrily satisfied, but honestly full and very thankful. I tried once, possibly twice, to explain why I didn’t like borscht and why it could potentially be okay to give me something else . However, doing so invariably made my life harder.

I could talk about God, I could talk about history, I could talk about philosophy, but I could not talk about borscht.

As if it wasn’t hard enough already explaining what a recent college graduate was doing in Ukraine with no work experience and limited Russian language abilities, I also had to explain why someone who is supposedly in her right mind wouldn’t want borscht.

To be fair, I think I’m biased against all soups (that is to say, if you like soup — yay! — you’ll probably like borscht and you should try my recipe!). But, personally, I have a bitter disdain for soup as a real meal conduit. Still, three years out of the Peace Corps, I just don’t understand why people would want to “eat” soup. Hello! You can’t eat soup. Soup isn’t something you eat. I don’t drink my meals. Period.

Or maybe not.

Take a walk around the Catskills with me.
Stop by the rubble of the Concord.
Peer into the Nevele pool.
Brace yourself just outside of the still-functioning (now extremely Orthodox) Kutsher’s.
Turn up Solomon Burke’s Cry to Me. In fact, why not just get the whole Dirty Dancing Soundtrack going. We’re going on a trip and we’ll be in the kitchen for awhile with this one!
* * * * *
Modified from Tasty Kitchen’s Vegan Ukrainian Borscht, I’ve added a few key ingredients — including buckwheat and bay leaves — thanks to a suggestion from one of my favorite Ukrainians.
History in motion — and here we go!
Borscht Belt Borscht
  • 3 whole medium-sized beets
  • 2 teaspoons vegetable oil
  • 2 clove garlics, minced
  • 1 whole large onion, chopped
  • 3 stalks celery, coarsely chopped
  • 3 whole medium carrots, chopped
  • 4 cups vegetable broth
  • 2 cups water
  • 1 cup canned diced tomato with liquid (mine had jalopenos, too)
  • ½ heads cabbage (small)
  • 1 cup buckwheat
  • ⅓ cups white vinegar
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • freshly ground black pepper
  • fresh dill, for garnish
  • bay leaves
  • vegan sour cream, to taste


Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Turn on and up your memories. This could take a bit of time. The older the over, the more crackling sounds, warming up. Meanwhile, trim the stalks and taproot from beets. Soften the edges of your history. Wash the beets and wrap in aluminum foil. Protect yourself in the best way that you can. Warm yourself from within. Remember only the best. Bake for about 1 hour, until the beets are tender and skin separates easily from the beet. Let cool. Peel beets and chop coarsely. Peeling back the layers, write about what makes you happy from what you remember. Dissect your history, your parents’ history, your parents’ parents’ parent’s history.

In a large pot, heat the vegetable oil. Saute garlic, onion, carrots, and celery until onions are just translucent. Peer straight through the events of your past. Throw in the bay leaves. Whole. They are an addition, your volition, what you can bring, moving forward, not part of your tradition, but you just might discovere that you like the way they taste. Add the beets and sauté another minute or so. You’ll take those bay leaves out at the end, but their flavor remains.

Add the vegetable broth, water, and tomato. While mixture heats to a boil, slice the cabbage into ½ inch wide strips and add to pot. That’s your ambition, and your dedication. Filling it in. Simmer covered for 45 minutes to an hour, until everything is tender. Let it all come together. 5-10 minutes before the soup is done, add the lima beans and the gretcha (buckwheat). You have made this something else entirely. (Or have you?)

Season to taste with the vinegar and serve with sour cream and fresh dill.

* * * * *

A lot of these sentiments, I discovered are echoed in yet another superb Tablet article: Is ‘Dirty Dancing’ the Most Jewish Movie Ever? (2011). Stephanie Butnick, staff writer for Tablet Magazine and editor of, freely states that she never recognized Dirty Dancing as explicitly Jewish, but writer and co-producer, Eleanor Bergstein, holds that it is Jewish — with what has obviously become a caveat in today’s American-Jewish culture. It’s Jewish if you know what you’re looking at (which I am going to change to for). I had no idea. I had no frame of reference. I would not have thought twice about Dirty Dancing as a Jewish movie. It never struck me as Jewish.

I think we have forgotten, in so many ways, who we are, where we come from, and not JUST from our distant past, not just from Eastern Europe, but from what it was like to come up in secular society. I suppose when I say, we, I really mean my family. We have forgotten even, in other words, our own story of assimilation. And this is precisely what I went looking for, what helped me to bend rules, what gave me the courage to notice, but disregard, the parked vehicles with security guards. This search motivated me to beg my ex-boyfriend to drive us all the way to update New York with a giant bag of clementines, despite months of fighting with each other, and to wander, camera in hand, onto the grounds of all these resorts. Partly a last effort to save a relationship, but probably more than that, the last thing I needed to do with him as he took me from resort to resort, the final bits of our information trading. I didn’t set out to capture the decripit sadness of times gone by. I set out to capture what’s left of a history that’s mine, but was also, actually, never mine, continue filling in the gaps. Evidenced by the sheer number of times I’d have to ask him to explain the Jewish summer camp culture — but I always stopped listening before he finished explaining.

My ancestors left Eastern Europe earlier than most of those who regularly spent their summers in the Catskills. In fact, I had no idea what the Catskills even were. Neither secular, nor religious, Jewish camps were, in any way, a part of my Jewish encyclopedia knowledge of self– no easy reference for me there. For me, the whole journey has been one of sneaky, private investigator of social shifting. Past and present. A little bit of prodding grandparents, some rather expensive “conversion” classes, weeks of studying, veganizing food and calling it Jewish since it’s categorically kosher. Reading, reading, reading, endless reading, diving into the Torah, picking apart stories, throwing theories away, picking them up again. Staring wide-eyed at the girlfriends of disaffected Jewish men, wondering what in their lives compels them to take on a religion so fraught with sadness, so confused, complicated, without the ethnic pull to do so. I’m still struggling, still searching, still confused. I’m coming, it seems, to cultural Judaism most of all. God – I haven’t not spoken of once, now I recognize. I speak of the single greatest remnant of our culture — food — the very last piece of our identity, what we consume.

With all this said, with our roles in such flux, and our identities so bright, our very American-Jewish opportunities so vast, you come across things like this: Alicia Silverstone demands vegan meals for jailed Russian protesters — which, as a scholar of Russian Studies, I just can’t understand. That boggles my mind. I sent that around at work. Everyone laughed. (Perhaps we could demand release first?) Our ancestors fled the region, the nearly constant pograms that didn’t stop at national borders, the persecution that had an even wider radius, and we have settled here, in Amurca, easily, shedding the struggles, we have become advocates for “worldly” causes, for global initiatives outside of our heritage and our religion. Not a bad thing, but I can just imagine Putin remarking how ‘Clueless’ she is. It’s complicated.

But back to that NYT article. Dean Gitter, founder of a high-end resort and spa in Mount Tremper, N.Y., has been working since the early 2000s to get approval for another resort on Belleayre Mountain, was quoted: “It’s either ‘the borscht belt,’ which isn’t accurate and is long gone, or it’s just nebulous ‘upstate,’ wherever that is. Or else, like after Hurricane Irene, we’re just off people’s radar altogether.”

There is something so deeply frustrating about this. I think, quite obviously, another high end resort is quite possibly the last thing we need — in the Borscht Belt or elsewhere. The article goes on to say: “The idea is to make people think of the Catskills in terms of trout fishing, artisanal cheese and Zen retreats, rather than Simon Says, rimshot comedians and “Dirty Dancing.” Still, the proposed rebranding of the neo-Catskills has a bit of the feel of proto-Catskills publicity ploy, online.” And I have one resounding question: why? What is wrong with the nostalgia of Simon Says (which my Ukrainian students LOVED, by the way) or of Dirty Dancing. In an economy that’s in dumps that freak me out on a daily basis, in a global depression that probably won’t bounce back in the near future, when it’s clear that we have been living outside of our means for the last 70 years, and the whole system teeters on the volatility of our markets, our debt rising at a ridiculously frightening rate, unsustainable… Check out this real time U.S. National Debt Clock, and remember we live in a global world. So, hey, let’s build another fancy resort and spa and live in an automated world, and continue spiraling into a world that plunges into the void of future obligation to our desires. Yes, I can’t wait.

Rebranding the Catskills seems like a giant mistake to me. We have so much beauty and so much history that we have roped off, decimated, pulled into rubble and, left to decay, and then protect with barbed wire and men-for-hire. I’d be very happy to go to a more modest resort, not be expected to do yoga and eat artisanal cheese. Do the “old images” really no longer have “juice?” And do we really need to throw the borscht belt “out the window?” For what? For people to funnel their earnings into ridiculous week-long vacations to high end resorts.

Please. I hate borscht, but it matters to my personal history and to the history of my ancestry. I find it incredibly hard to believe that the Catskills won’t bounce back, and by extension all the other areas that retain some of their unique history, that we have really turned away from family-style resorts, from lives lived with more moderation. It seems to me that the idea is to throw out the Jewish history because it no longer sells, or, worse, to throw out the story of struggle, and to put in its place, something white-washed, sterilized, and grand in its trendy simplicity.

I really, really hope that as a country we can rise above this. That we can resist the urge to become exactly like everyone else. And I hope that we can embrace the history of our people, and their individual struggles. And, of course, there is the natural beauty.

“We’re branding countries, states, cities, business districts — everyone is yelling ‘Hey, look at me!’ ” he said. “It’s a brutal environment for getting anyone to pay attention.”

The article ends with Ron Rozman, a semiretired editor and entrepreneur who grew up in the area. He reasons that if the mountains, rivers and valleys are the ultimate brand, why not just leave them be? “It seems silly to rebrand the Catskills,” he said. “It’s like rebranding a black walnut tree.”

Let’s throw some jalapeños, lima beans, and a whole lot of love into the recipes we know. The costs are literally low, and the good feelings of paying homage to where we have been, will serve us better moving forward — dirty dancing into tomorrow, and into our much more distant futures. Seems like a significantly wiser investment.

I hate borscht, but the smell if it drifting through the house made me happier than I have been in quite awhile. It’s not the meal I usually prefer, but I would feel terrible if it, somehow, disappeared forever. It seems that we are the offspring of people who struggled so much, but came out riding the wave of WWII consumer-demand driven economic growth, and raised the next generation to believe that we could change the world. Which, again, was passed down from our parents to us. While Dirty Dancing’s Baby was “faced with the hypocrisy of a long-shunned minority enacting its own unexamined exclusion, this time on class grounds…” she was running, full-speed ahead, into the world that was expanding rapidly before her eyes, she became something greater than the sum of her parts. I think that the story captured in Dirty Dancing is an important one, and one that’s worth remembering, even and especially because we continue to live in a wider world where we can think, say, be anyone that we want to be. But can we remember how we got there?


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