Artist in the Kitchen

Artist in the Kitchen: A wife remembers her husband through shared memories of beloved flavors
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I’ve been subconsciously testing how long beets will last by keeping three large ones in the vegetable drawer of my fridge.

It’s going on a year since I bought them for my husband so he could keep our pots filled with his cold-weather borscht—one of my favorite dishes he prepared each winter.

But my husband shockingly and tragically left this mortal realm last year before winter had truly set in. Thus the beets stay in the drawer, under the peppers, onions, carrots, and the parsley and cilantro (his favorite). Every few weeks, I reach in and squeeze them to make sure they haven’t shriveled or become limp. No, they’re firm and fat, juicy and solid, and I’m sure they would make a fabulous soup. But he’s not here to make it.

It was a magnificent process. After the dinner dishes were cleared away, he would shoo me out of the kitchen, sharpen his  knives, and commence chopping carrots, peppers, cabbage, potatoes, onions, and ruby red beets. All of these he would lightly sauté with tomato paste while braising the meat—usually beef—to flavor the broth. The fresh aromas of the autumn garden would emanate from the kitchen and reach me in the bedroom as I tapped away on my laptop. The scents of dill, cilantro, and garlic triggered memories of place for both of us—his of the Caucasus Mountains in Russia where he was born and raised, and mine of eastern Europe and Russia where I spent my 20s. Our collective memory of this dish was a tradition started on cold winter nights in our cottage in the Montford neighborhood of Asheville. He would make cauldrons of the borscht for Soup Sundays, which were spent with our family and friends.

Guests might bring an appetizer or salad, receiving in return an icy vodka served in a cut crystal ryumochka before hearty glasses of red were poured, and many toasts followed.

Accustomed to spicy and pungent flavors, my husband created dips to spoon into the bowls to add heat or a degree of savor to the soup. One was typically sour cream mixed with garlic, peppers, and fresh herbs, while others were pickling potions—his experiments with the art of flavor.

The borscht seemed to last forever, its rooty essences deepening with each day. A third of the remaining pot would go with him to his downtown art studio, a third to my parents, and a third stayed home, so my husband could enjoy a hot borscht breakfast.  

I’m not quite sure for what occasion I’m saving those three beets. In the summer, I could have cooked and shredded them, added finely ground walnuts, cumin, chopped cilantro, a touch of olive oil, and seasonings to create a Georgian salad. But I didn’t want to disturb them, these last vestiges of my husband’s home life.

I closed his well-visited painting and sculpture studio some weeks ago, having sorted through endless papers, tools, equipment, and materials over many months. On the final day, just before handing in the key, I gathered up his collection of tiny pickling jars filled with his spice and herb concoctions. As I packed them gingerly and transferred them from the studio, the “artist’s kitchen” as he called it, to my own, I knew I had the ingredients for my first borscht of the season.