Last summer, after a long day of mowing in the meadow, my husband broke out in a blistering rash, far worse than any poison ivy or sumac we’d seen. When it failed to heal, he went to the doctor, who diagnosed it as the “Vermont plague,” brought on by cow parsnip. I’d never paid much attention to this wildflower before, except to admire its beautiful white umbels. So of course I was curious to find out more. Heracleum, named after Hercules by the great taxonomist Linnaeus for its great height and sturdy stalk, has several varieties that grow wild throughout Siberia and the Caucasus. Apparently the Siberian variety doesn’t cause the dreaded rash, though the Caucasian one does. As I read on, I was startled to discover that the Russian name for this plant is borshchevik. My husband, it turns out, was poisoned by the plant that gave rise to one of his favorite soups, borshch!*
Well before anyone was putting beets into water to make a garnet-colored soup, they were using the leaves of cow parsnip instead, which are said to taste something like asparagus. They can be simmered like fresh spinach, sorrel or nettle into a dark-green soup. Like nettles, the leaves must be picked early, when still young and tender.
We have the Ukrainians to thank for introducing borshch made from the beet root, sometime around the fourteenth century. The soup likely made its way to Russia only after the sixteenth century, since it’s not mentioned in the Domostroi, the book of household management. The association of borshch with Russian cuisine, especially in the United States, can be attributed to the influx of Russian Jewish immigrants in the late nineteenth century. They popularized the hearty version of the soup in delicatessens. Borshch turned glamorous with the post-Revolutionary wave of White Russian émigrés, whose haunts like the Russian Tea Room in New York City served up a clear, elegant beet soup called borshchok.
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