The photo essay 33 Hungarian Foods the Whole World Should Know and Love grabbed my attention last week. Topping the list was lángos, a thick fried dough slathered with sour cream and sprinkled with cheese: Fat upon fat upon fat! Seeing the photograph, my saliva glands erupted geyser-like as I recalled this snack. Gulyás (goulash) was number two. The third item, palacsinta (thick crèpes), my late father used to make. They were part chemistry experiment, part magic. Getting the batter the correct consistency required a combination of memory and intuition. He often had two or three burners going as he flipped the thin pancakes in the air with a flick of his wrist, a feat I had trouble replicating. Once he had created a large enough stack, he spooned a sweetened cheese mixture on top of each, rolled them into long thick bundles, snuggled them in a pan and baked them under a tinfoil blanket. Despite my wanting to know every five minutes if they were done yet, he refused to remove them from the oven until they were ready. Next, we topped them with sour cream and confectioners sugar. My brothers and I often devoured his hard work, more than an hour in the making, in minutes.
When I lived in Budapest in my early 20s, I learned that palacsinta could take other forms. A couple I befriended favored rakott (stacked) palacsinta. After making dozens of crèpes, they placed one on a plate, smeared it with powdered sugar, Nutella or lekvár (jam), added another thin pancake, a layer of a different filling, and on and on until a high pile formed. They sliced the stack like a cake. Eating more than one wedge necessitated the unbuttoning of trousers and could send the uninitiated into a sugar coma. The anticipation, preparation and consumption formed an evening’s entertainment.
Scrolling through the article and seeing dishes I had forgotten about, like rum-sweetened gesztenyepüré (chestnut purée) and körözött (a cheese spread), I felt something rouse inside. Like a sullen caged animal whose normally stingy keeper was approaching it with a fresh, whole carcass, it roared: I WANT! The desire to board the next flight to Budapest to have a hotter-than-paprika ménage à trois with Fat and Sugar overwhelmed my distaste of the corrupt government and the rise of nationalism. Maybe I’d even invite red meat, which I haven’t consumed for years, to join us for an evening. Yet, were I to make my way through even a third of the list I’d probably suffer serious digestive distress, dizzying mood swings, plus pile on the pounds.
“I don’t care!” growled the animal within, ready to sink its teeth into everything.
Back then, just before and after the demise of the Berlin Wall, I could pack away a large meal, wash it down with half a bottle of red wine and wake up with relatively few ill effects. Eat. Drink. Repeat. Not every night, but often enough that I took pride in my capacity for enjoying food. Never did I nibble daintily, feign a lack of appetite or leave food on my plate. I hadn’t yet heard the term mindfulness, but I was familiar with “belly-fullness”. With a low cost of living, my hedonist happily visited pastry shops and sampled their sticky, gooey cakes, like dobostorta (#8 on the list). Bakeries abounded. My metabolism helped me rebound. To eat well, I believed, was to live.
I posted the photo essay on Facebook and asked some Hungarian-born friends if any of their favorites were missing. One woman listed nearly a dozen dishes. One of the healthier ones, uborka salata (cucumber salad), my father prepared frequently, minus the sour cream. I make it occasionally, and still strive to slice the cucumber and onion the way he did, into slivers as delicate as dragonfly wings. Even though I often watched him as he cut the vegetables, I couldn’t pinpoint his sleight of hand. There seemed to be a mysterious element beyond the sharpness of the knife, the steady pressure, the laser focus.
I began to remember even more beloved foods. Savanyúság (literally, sourness) such as cucumbers, thinly shredded cabbage and other vegetables in brine, often colorfully combined in glass jars or large plastic buckets. At the cavernous Great Market Hall vendors scooped the sour mix into small plastic baggies as a tangy sidekick to sült hal (a whole fried fish), succulent, greasy and messy. I ate it with my fingers, stripping it to the skeleton, while standing at a table alongside laborers in baggy blue overalls. Perhaps the primal, hearty food and bracing spirits offered consolation to the Magyar nation for frequently being on the wrong side of history, subject to invasions and territorial dismemberment. Even the fattiest of dishes, with orange globs of paprika-infused oil pooled on the surface were, at least, made of real ingredients. No one, as I recall, counted calories, substituted margarine for butter, turned dinner into a referendum, deconstructed meals or created dietary strategies to optimize performance. Food was solid, eaten with hands or forks, not liquified with protein powder and gulped from a glass. Maybe what my inner animal wants is the sheer, unabashed sensuality of eating: nutritional, political and spiritual correctness be damned.