MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
Among the many Olympic statistics we've seen, this one sure got our attention: 70,000 gallons of borscht are expected to be served up at the Sochi games. The hearty deep red soup based on beets has graced the high table of the Kremlin and was a staple peasant food across the former Soviet Union. Anya von Bremzen considers herself something of an expert in cooking up a pot of borscht. She's the author of "Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking: A Memoir of Food and Longing," and she joins me now from New York. Anya, welcome to the program.
ANYA VON BREMZEN: Thanks for having me.
BLOCK: And why don't you explain to the uninitiated just what is borscht.
BREMZEN: It's a beet soup. It contains potatoes, tomatoes, usually beef, very often pork and it's a national dish of the Ukraine. So we have a little bit of a geopolitical irony here that at the Russian Olympic games, which are, you know, the pet project of Vladimir Putin, they're serving all those gallons and gallons of borscht. Whereas in the Ukraine, just recently in December, as part of, you know, anti-Moscow and anti-Putin protests, they were also serving borscht affirming that it's Ukraine's national dish.
BLOCK: It's just a cross-cultural thing we have going on here.
BREMZEN: It's fuzzier than that because Ukraine means border and all the bordering nations, Lithuania, Poland, Belarus, Romania, also have their own versions of borscht and they claim it for themselves.
BLOCK: So lots of variations from country to country and I imagine also from house to house, from one kitchen to another you could get a completely different version of borscht.
BREMZEN: Absolutely. And it's dictated by what you have available. For instance, I remember so fondly my mom's very frugal vegetarian borscht that she whipped up seemingly out of thin air, you know. Just a can of tomato paste, you know, a forlorn beet during the Soviet days when food was so scarce. Here in America, borscht is considered a Jewish dish because it was brought over when Jews were immigrating after the pilgrims in the early 20th century.
So you have the borscht belt borscht, which is often cold and sweet, whereas a Ukrainian woman says that, you know, the real Ukrainian borscht has to have pork and sallow, Pork fat back, and is eaten with sour cream. You know, pork and sour cream it's as anti-Jewish as you can get. But I think both versions are correct.
BLOCK: So if people listening are actually headed to Sochi for the Olympics, what would you tell them to look for or maybe smell for for a good bowl of borscht.
BREMZEN: Well, it has this kind of sweet and sour aroma and the earthy smells of vegetables, but, you know, how can you make a great borscht for that many people? I'm just wondering. It might be that institutional kind.
BLOCK: And that would turn them off forever.
BREMZEN: Or maybe with a shot of vodka, not so bad.
BLOCK: Anya Von Bremzen is the author of "Mastering The Art of Soviet Cooking: A Memoir of Food and Longing." Anya, thanks so much.
BREMZEN: Thanks for having me.
BLOCK: And we have Anya's father's luxurious borscht recipe. It's at our food blog, The Salt, at our website npr.org.
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