Sailing Back Home on a River of Borsch

I Hate Borsch!- written and illustrated by Yevgenia Nayberg
Eerdmans Books for Young Readers, 2022

Proust had his madeleines; Yevgenia Nayberg has her borsch. Unlike Proust, who didn’t seem to have memories of being force-fed his favorite pastry, Nayberg associated the bright red beet soup with childhood instructions to consume everything on her plate, or in her bowl.  Later, like many of us, she returned emotionally to the point where negative memories become infused with nostalgia, and separated from the kinds of rebelliousness that converted perfectly delicious foods into nightmares.  In her picture book about this experience, Nayberg’s inimitable gifts make this universal experience into a poignant, colorful, and joyous reflection on identity. (I have reviewed other books by her here and here and here.)

I admit I was partly drawn to the subject of this book because I, too, was fed borsch as a child.  Since I am Jewish American, I spelled and pronounced it “borscht,” an error which Nayberg rightfully mocks.  Sometimes my mother or grandmother made the soup, but other times, it did indeed deserve the author’s condemnation: “It came out of a jar and tasted like…nothing!” (I also hated halvah, but would always eat a little bit when my grandfather gave it to me, to avoid hurting his feelings.)  

Nayberg grew up in Ukraine before emigrating to the United States. Her dramatic opening illustration shows a sea of red rising in a wave like a Hokusai painting.  A spoon labeled “Ukraine” dips into the soup, and a young Nayberg, who has confessed to hating it, chants an ineffective spell: “Get away from me, you red, thick, disgusting soup!”  The rest of the book charts her course from borsch hater to borsch supporter, as she puts back together the pieces of her child and adult lives.

Part of the book’s brilliance lies in its composition.  Oversized beets, carrots and tomatoes dominate two pages. Then, a rhapsodic, leaping man demonstrates the obligation to love borsch in his homeland as he carries the ingredients to prepare the dish. A table covered with labeled dill, sour cream, and black bread may appear inviting, but the author feels stranded, “…Robinson Crusoe, stuck on a deserted island of sour cream in a red sea of borsch.” Each image is completely original, yet also resonates with the reader’s memories.  Two angels surround a golden sunflower, although it is not an approved ingredient for borsch.  Ukrainian knights, as legend has it, pour borsch on their enemies. Pictures with collage elements of photos and postage stamps signify Nayberg’s voyage to the land of peanut butter and American cheese. Eventually, two black pages with one line of white text each state the truth: something was missing from Nayberg’s life.  Something which she had once hated, but now longed to prepare becomes the book’s focus.

I Hate Borsch! concludes with a lovely author’s note and a recipe.  But the book’s message and stunning imagery remain with you, like Proust’s madeleine, or your own long-absent food from a childhood, especially one controlled by immigrant parents and grandparents desperately committed to feeding and loving you.  Yevgenia Nayberg has produced a poetic and graphic house of memories, free of sentiment but as rich with evocative sense impressions as a red bowl of soup.

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