Canned Doukhobor Borsch?

by Greg Nesteroff

Canned soup? Sure. But canned borsch? “Why not!” thought two young Doukhobor entrepreneurs in 1955. Using an age-old family recipe, they marketed their ready-to-eat Doukhobor vegetable soup under the Kootenay Valley “Genuine Borsch” brand.  The world, however, was not ready for canned borsch and the enterprise failed before it began.  However, it left behind some colourful labels, now prized collectibles.  Reproduced by permission from the Castlegar Current (October 25, 2007).

Canned borsch?

Hey, why not, thought Peter Makonin and Fred Makaroff in the spring of 1955. The two Glade men formed a company, Kootenay Valley Food Products Ltd., and went to a cannery in Kelowna to whip up some test batches. Jars were, for whatever reason, deemed unviable.

The Makonins ran a store near the ferry landing and were natural entrepreneurs. But the enterprise failed before it began: health regulators said the cabbage had to be boiled for 90 minutes, by which time it turned to mush. So the duo gave up, although not before they printed thousands of labels.

“There were cases of them,” recalls Makonin’s son, Peter Jr. “I forget exactly how many.”

Kootenay Valley Brand “Genuine Borsch” label (obverse), 1955. 

The labels periodically pop up on eBay, selling for $1 to $10 each. In 2006, a woman in Ontario bought an old house and discovered 4,000 in her basement. She’s since been selling batches of 100. Nick Denisoff, also of Glade, has about 90 which he sells in handcrafted frames: “I got ahold of them and ended up making kitchen plaques, just for fun,” he says. “I do the matting and framing.”

The label has also appeared on at least one t-shirt.

As for the borsch itself, “the recipe was my mom’s,” says Makonin’s daughter, Elaine Strelive. “Just a regular Doukhobor borsch recipe.” She recalls her mother and aunt going to Kelowna to supervise the test run.

Kootenay Valley Brand “Genuine Borsch” label (reverse), 1955. 

Today Strelive does some catering, and says the secret to making good borsch is “all the fresh ingredients you can get. The vegetables are most important. Then you need cream. It’s very time consuming. If I start making borsch I have to set aside at least two or three hours.”

The world may not have been ready for canned borsch, but at least it left behind some colourful souvenirs.