My very first solo apartment in Manhattan was a miniature studio on East 11th Street, nothing more than a quiet room with tall windows and a stove. But I felt so mature having it — a place I was entirely responsible for rather than slipping into the extra bedroom of a space where someone else’s name was on the lease and the electric bill. I was exuberant on the sunny day I moved in. Clicking the locks to the hollow echo inside; unpacking the crumpled newspaper-stuffed boxes of my things in quasi-monastic silence (there wasn’t even the vibrating hum of the half fridge, because Con Ed hadn’t arrived yet); and placing my jelly jar of writing pens just so on the ledge.
But even with the satisfaction of feeling freshly adult and self-reliant as I set up my futon by the window, I remember also feeling edgy and alert. Who else might still have keys to the apartment? What if I couldn’t make rent? It was getting dim and hard to see, everything in silhouette, by the time I had stacked my books carefully on the shelves and put my toothbrush in a cup by the kitchen sink — that apartment’s only sink — and found myself ready for some dinner.
There was a clean and well-lit Polish diner just up the avenue called KK that was perfect for beginning your new adult life: inexpensive and inviting in that old New York City way, where no one noticed you, and your anonymity, your permission to invent yourself as you wished, could go perfectly unchallenged. Plus, the whole place smelled fantastic from the smoked meats, and a fragrant moist humidity hung in the air, fogging the windows from the array that sat in their hot-water baths, if I remember correctly, 24 hours a day. I ordered a large white borscht for $2.50, which came with a free side of soft challah smeared heavily and unevenly with margarine. The white borscht was chunky with potato and sliced half-moons of kielbasa, and the broth had significant body. But it was not a puréed soup. You could see all the components, a little leek and chopped dill, and floating on top were hundreds of beads of fat from the kielbasa. I ate slowly, reading my book for as long as I could, availing myself of the diner’s electricity and postponing having to go back to a pitch-black room that may or may not have had its locks changed since its last tenant.
Those Polish and Ukrainian restaurants were mainstays of the East Village when I first moved here — Kiev, Polonia, Leshko’s, Odessa — and were my introduction to all the types of kielbasa and smoked pork chops and pork loins, and also to the profound high quality of Polish butchery itself. The sausages with their natural casings and the subtle spice of juniper were infinitely superior to what I had ever known in a supermarket. During my scared-about-money years, these diners and their steam drawers of pierogies and sauerkraut and hunter’s stews kept me not only fed but secure, and even after I had reliable income, I always returned for the white borscht. It remains one of my favorite soups of all time.
White borscht — that’s what they called it at KK, though I still don’t know its true Polish name — falls in the tradition of the Ukrainian sour soups, and there are recipes that use everything from buttermilk to sour cream to vinegar to sauerkraut brine to achieve that special sour flavor. Traditionally it should have a few tablespoons of fermented sourdough starter, but I didn’t want a recipe that requires a four-day lead time while your starter ferments, so I reverse-engineered one by using a stale hunk of particularly sour bread, soaking it in the broth until it turned flabby and swollen, and then I blended it into the soup for the same particular sour taste.
If I had been the chef of that Polish diner, I would have cleverly used the very seasoned, very fatty, very smoky steam-table water as the base broth from which to make the white borscht. But here, in a recipe that I’ve tried to recreate from memory, capturing the flavors of a place and time long gone, a two- or three-pound garland of kielbasa boiled for half an hour in three quarts of water is the best approximation of what the original really tasted like. And it’s close!
Thirty-five years ago, I thought the challah that came with the soup was awful — too soft, too sweet — but after making this soup so many times and still wondering what was missing, I finally realized it was that buttered challah. It added so much to the taste. Or maybe just to my memory. I wish KK still existed.
When I returned after dinner that first night to the little cubby studio on 11th street, I worked my new keys into the two locks and struggled, not yet familiar with which key fit which, and pushed open the door not to the pitch black I had been dreading but to a gorgeous soft pool of yellow light cast by a street lamp across the sloping wooden floor. The smoke and spice of the kielbasa and the sour tinge of the soup still lingered in my mouth, and I made a real adult decision: I went to bed without brushing my teeth, to savor those tastes longer.
Recipe: White Borscht