Eating and (mostly) drinking with Fyodor Dostoevsky

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‘Take some cold coffee and I’ll pour a quarter of a glass of brandy into it, it’s delicious …”

A man after my own heart. Unfortunately, he’s a baddie. Fyodor Kamarazov is the father of The Brothers Karamazov – licentious, wheedling, self-exculpatory, self-indulgent. Nonetheless, he had the right idea about ice cold coffee. I have it every morning. It’s basic. No frills. Nothing to cook or bake. On a tense, nervous afternoon pounding out a rough draft, half-a-shot of brandy in very strong coffee works wonders.

He knew a thing or two about onions, too.

Ahhh… the simple life. Gluttony is thought to be on the way out – or is it?  Go into Whole Foods. See the pyramids of oranges and onions. Watch the worshippers crowding around the displays, conducting pilgrimages through the aisles. You tell me that’s not a temple? Food has become both the religion of our time and the object of worship.

No surprise. We live in perhaps the first era in history where food is not the biggest chunk of our budget – it’s dwarfed by our Wifi bills, car payments, rent and mortgage. We can get plenty of anything from the supermarket – from kimchi to kiwi fruit. So now  we want not quantity, but quality. A certain tiny fish from the mid-Atlantic, lightly sautéed in organic butter and sage leaves, served on patta sal. Then we take selfies with it and post them on Facebook.

Fyodor Dostoevsky‘s  The Brothers Karamazov is perhaps my all-time favorite novel. So I was intrigued to see Valerie Stiverlatest entry in her “Eat Your Words” column in The Paris Review here.  This time she’s “Cooking with Dostoevsky.”  You can even make learn to make kvass from fermented Russian bread. The chef d’œuvre, however, is the onion vatrushki.

Her take on the Russian masterpiece is so-so, but she appreciates the virtues of a good onion:

“An Onion” is one of the most famous chapter headings in Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov and refers not to Russian cuisine, in which onions are a staple ingredient, but to a story the character Grushenka tells about a wicked old woman being pulled up from the fires of hell by holding onto an onion proffered by her guardian angel. The woman lived a bad life but once gave an onion to a beggar, and it’s this single good deed that might save her. The anecdote is meant to demonstrate the possibility of God’s forgiveness, and its teller, Grushenka, says of herself in one of the book’s climactic scenes, “Though I am bad, I did give away an onion,” indicating her readiness to be saved. (As for the old woman, the other dammed souls try to grab her feet and be pulled up too, and she selfishly starts kicking them away. The onion breaks, “and the woman fell into the lake and she is burning there to this day.”)

And that, of course, sent me to my bookshelves, for I remembered that the same story is retold, in a slightly different way, in another of my favorite books: Life and Fate by Vasily Grossman. I didn’t find it, but I found this instead: “Kindness is powerful only while it is powerless. If Man tries to give it power, it dims, fades away, loses itself, vanishes.” Grossman was a reporter for the Red Army covering the defense of Moscow and the fall of the Berlin during World War II. He was also Jewish, and reported on the opening of Treblinka. He continues:

“Human history is not the battle of good struggling to overcome evil. It is a battle fought by a great evil struggling to crush a small kernel of human kindness. But if what is human in human beings has not been destroyed even now, then evil will never conquer.”

Meanwhile, enjoy Grushenka’s pear tarte – “Grushenka,” of course, means “little pear” in Dostoevsky’s Russian.


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One Response to “Eating and (mostly) drinking with Fyodor Dostoevsky”

  1. George Says:

    In a homily I heard years ago in Sullivan County, Pennsylvania, it was a carrot–but perhaps the priest chose it as the better prop. I see no reason the Diocese of Scranton shouldn’t have had its seminarians read Dostoyevsky. On the other hand, a distant common ancestor seems an equally likely explanation.

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