Grand Forks is known for many things, chief among them its sunshine and borscht. In fact, legend has it that was exactly what the sign welcoming visitors to our area said back in the 1990s. Now, of course, it urges you to ‘settle down.’
Borscht is one of the main staples of the Doukhobor diet and is available at pretty much every restaurant in town for eating in or taking out.
There are many different ways to cook borscht but the main ingredients remain: vegetables, butter and cream.
A few months back, filmmaker Nik Green, formerly of Grand Forks, made several promotional videos for the city. One of the videos that ended up catching the most attention was a short one about the proper spelling of borscht/borshch.
While the more popular spelling is borscht, there are other spellings. The USCC (Union of Spiritual Communities of Christ) urges the spelling borshch. A letter in the Gazette from local Russian teacher Rob Stevenson urged people to use the proper USCC spelling of borshch. For a while, there was plenty of discussion in town between different sides on what the correct spelling should be.
Wikipedia lists many different spellings of borscht including borshch, borsch, borstch, borsh and more.
Borscht is popular in many Eastern and Central European cuisines including Poland, Russia, Ukraine and Belarus. As much as there are different spellings, there are also many different types of borscht.
According to a local lore, in the 1990s writer William Rezinskin transliterated many Doukhobor words into English. He said that the way borscht was spelled in English was not close to the actual way it was pronounced in the original language. Rezinskin said that in order for Doukhobors to be true to their heritage, they should spell it borshch.
Dawsha Hunt of the tourism centre at gallery 2 said that they get many requests during the year for visitors asking where to get good borscht in Grand Forks.
“We prepared a list of the top 10 most frequently asked questions by visitors and where can I get a good bowl of borscht is near the top,” said Hunt. “It’s really one of the main things that people stop in for in Grand Forks. They know our culture; they’re curious about our history. Those that have tried it before keep coming back.”
Hunt said when ask visitors where they got great Russian food from, they always say somewhere different.
“As far as I’m concerned they’re getting good borscht and good Russian food at all the restaurants.”
As for Hunt’s favourite borscht it town, she says her mom’s without hesitation. As for the spelling, Hunt says there is no argument: “It’s spelled b-o-r-s-c-h-t. That’s the only way to spell it. It’s just the way I learned how to spell it.”
As for Stevenson, who teaches Russian at Grand Forks Secondary, he said he was prompted to write in to the Gazette because he felt the video did not properly respect the Doukhobor heritage. Stevenson was born and raised in Grand Forks with a Doukhobor mother and English father. He continues to be an active member in the USCC.
“It wasn’t so much the spelling of borshch but the lack of cultural sensitivity with was apparent in how the video was made,” said Stevenson. “It appeared to me that the producers of the video didn’t collaborate with the members of the Doukhobor community to ask for our feedback on how we feel about the image of Doukhoborism and the Doukhobor culture was framed in it.”
Stevenson admits one of his pet peeves is the spelling of borshch. “It’s not something I’ll go ballistic over,” he said. “We’ve been a big part of the community, a founding part of the community over the last 100 or so years. I thought we were past the part where one group would make assumptions about our culture. They could come and ask us and get our feedback on it. If you want to make a satirical video on borshch there’s a culturally sensitive way to do that.”
Stevenson said the borshch spelling is phonetically correct.
“That’s my personal preference,” he said.
Spelling aside, Stevenson says he does love his borshch. His mom continues to make the soup dish for the big functions at the USCC Hall. They also regularly can 40 or so quarts every so often, he adds.
“It’s a staple.”
Stevenson said there are two main variations of borshch: summer and winter.
“Winter borshch is primarily cabbage,” he said. “Whatever people think of as Doukhobor borshch, that’s winter borshch. My favourite is the summer borshch (also known as green borshch) where you add the cabbage, rhubarb leaves, swiss chard, a whole bunch of green, leafy vegetables. They have a sour taste to them. It makes for better borshch—because the tang is the important part of it.”