Veselykh svyat!

Today was a perfect day to be celebrating the Orthodox Christmas Eve. With temperatures dipping to minus 7 degrees celsius, and swirling snow dusting the cityscape white, all that was needed was a warm spot, some hearty food and a good story. Each of these were readily provided by Tom, the guardian of an iconic eating house in the heart of the East Village. Veselka is a legacy of all things Ukrainian. I was met with people exchanging holiday greetings in their own language, Christmas borscht being served with the traditional ear shaped mushroom dumplings, and a 12 course dinner awaiting the festively famished. Everything is as real as it looks, and even though the original Ukrainian community may be more of a New York community now, the slavic soul is a generous survivor.

Sixty years ago a small candy store on the corner of 9th and 2nd Avenue sold essentials such as milk, lighter fluid and coffee. Like an early 7/11, the store was open 24 hours a day and offered simple food, diner style, thanks to a group of Ukrainian women who came in the evenings to cook for Tom’s father-in-law and his friends. There was no english and there were no recipes. It was a place to share conversation and food – borscht, cabbage rolls, potato pancakes and pierogis. The Vietnam war was on, there were students on the street along with partying hippies looking for good inexpensive food.

When management of the store passed to Tom in 1967, one of his first tasks was to create menus in english. About the same time the plastic lettered Pepsi menu board on the wall was replaced, the restaurant space doubled in size, overseen by the benevolent Ukrainian holders-of-title. But the food did not change. In the kitchen old staff taught new staff how a dish should be prepared. While Tom said there are as many recipes for borscht as there are grandmothers who make it, there was consistency of style. But secrets were another thing. When Tom was approached five years ago to write a Veselka cook book he just laughed. There were still no recipes!

Borscht has been on the menu for 61 years. Made with beef and pork in a three day labour of love, it’s probably listed with the City as a national treasure and will be there forever. Let’s hope so – it’s rich, soulful and satisfying. Same with the pierogis. Four women work 40 hours a week just to keep up with the demand – that is, about 3,000 a day. A day! And such delicate dumplings. Potato is the most popular flavour, maybe because of the perfect combo with caramelized onions – although the apple sauce and sour cream condiments made me save the farmer’s cheese pillow until last.

Location scouts knock on the door regularly looking to capture the authenticity of the store on film. Tom holds that his regulars – many of whom come at least once a day every day – are the backbone of his business. They are also his friends. So it takes a personal connection from a movie house to turn the restaurant into a set. Spielberg has no sway here. Last year a director approached Tom wanting to use the location for a shoot, just as he had years ago as a student of the nearby film school. Tom’s support at that time helped to start his career. So he was in, again. I guess it also helped that the star of the film, Julie Anne Moore, was a regular of the restaurant, and the director’s wife…

It turned out the book publisher would not take no for an answer. After much cajoling, dishes were made by the kitchen, then analyzed and reconstructed by a third party. It was a good compromise. The secrets were safe and the recipes were shared in a book that in the end was not so much about the food as the flavor of the people who shared it. For Tom, Veselka is about ancestry and history. It is about his regulars. It is about a special not-so-small corner of New York City that has become his life’s work…

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6 Responses to Veselykh svyat!

  1. Lyndl Marshall says:

    Gabrielle — this is a truly seductive FitzyReport! Take me to the Lower Eastside! It is a fascinating neighborhood, yes?

  2. Chrissy Hirst says:

    That’s one of the best menu’s you’ve taken us through dear Gabrielle!

  3. valerie says:

    I have not had borscht for years now I am hungry.

    • The borscht was fantastic! I have only ever made this soup as a cold beetroot consommé with hot potato and sour cream dropped in. Which is delicious of course, but nothing like Veselka’s….

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