Russian Food and a Camping Trip
In 1963, a rotund and wickedly jolly lady named Florence Storgoff led a band of almost 1,000 faithful followers on a trek from the Kootenay region of eastern British Columbia to the province’s Fraser Valley, a distance of more than 600 kilometres. It was a unique and epic journey that kept the police busy, annoyed motorists who had to travel the same westbound highway, and captured the public’s attention for months.
Florence was a Freedomite Doukhobor, a smallish militant offshoot of a more tranquil religious group that had its roots in Russia but that, in the last part of the nineteenth century, had found the lifestyle and religious freedom it was looking for in western Canada.
For reasons that became immediately apparent when you encountered her babushka, her shapeless clothing and trek-friendly shoes, 250-pound Florence was known as “Big Fanny,” a name she seemed to relish as a moniker of honour. And when the Freedomites added the occasional nude parade to their ongoing propensity to bomb and burn public and/or important structures, the name — bless her — became even more appropriate.
Big Fanny had already served time for arson in Ontario’s Kingston Penitentiary for Women. Emerging from incarceration bigger and bolder than ever, her 1963 trek was yet another protest; this time, she hoped to lead her followers to the fences of bomb- and burn-proof Agassiz Mountain Prison in BC’s Fraser Valley to draw attention to the fact that other Freedomites were in there for what she figured were unjust reasons (even if the courts had seen it differently).
As a journalist, I was assigned to tag along on the trek to stir up copy on what, at that stage, had already grown beyond the local headlines and was, for the rest of the world, a tale of social and political significance.
For the Freedomites, who between stretches on the long road, occupied public campsites under the watchful eyes of the RCMP, trekking had become a way of life. Apart from the threat that something might be bombed or burned, or that a nude parade could provide a photo-op,there was little to write about.
Quickly on a first-name basis with Fanny and any number of her followers, and enjoying the idyllic mid-summer life we were all leading, I scraped the bottom of the news barrel around the campfire one starry night by asking the suddenly famous Fanny if she could share with me her recipe for borshch. (Or depending where in Europe the soup is served,“bortsch,” “borchtch,” “borscht,” and other similar variables.)
She agreed, and the recipe, cobbled together by a woman who had other things on her mind and certainly had no written record of what actually went into this always-palatable pot, immediately went gastronomically national.
Fanny’s trek eventually reached the coast and quietly dissipated after a short siege at Vancouver’s war memorial. Big Fanny, a mighty icon in the province’s colourful history, died of cancer a year later at the age of fifty-six.
At the time, I had to modify the recipe from “a bit of this and a bit of that” to make it work, and must admit that like all great soups, my own borshchs are invariably a product of whim and the availability of certain ingredients. But there are always beets, which give borshch its familiar stamp, colour and flavour. You too may wish to modify things to make it your own, and vegetarians can exclude the beef or beef stock and substitute their own flavour base. Borshch is best made one day ahead.