Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Edible Complex

As I was listening to The Mountain (my normal preoccupation while tooling down the road) on my way to work, Marty and Jodi were discussing an upcoming interview with Andrew Zimmern (he of Bizarre Foods). They were perusing various emails from people describing the bizarre foods they'd eaten. It put me in mind of the trip I took to Hungary when I was 16 years old.

The first night in Budapest, as excited as I was to be with my 'other' family, I was pretty much a waste of human flesh - I'd been awake for 36 hours and was dealing with the strange flux that comes with overwhelming jet lag and landing in unfamiliar territory (it had been six years since my last visit) amid people I could barely understand. I was so tired that I all but fell asleep in my bowl of cold cherry soup (Meggy Leves - don't knock it 'til you've tried it; I could eat the stuff daily). The only thing that kept me going until I crashed at 9 p.m. was my fascination with a rerun of Bill Bixby's The Magician, which was dubbed in Hungarian.

So, it wasn't until the next night that we all (Cousin Laszlo and his wife Marika, their two daughters, Marianna - 15, and Zsuzsa - 12, and Marika's mother, Línus**) went out for a bona fide Welcome to Hungary (and the flavors of Hungary!) dinner. As it is in many restaurants there, the meal was brought out family style - big heaping bowls of all manner of deliciousness. There was cucumber salad, dense (but fresh) bread, a veritable heap of unsalted butter, paprikas, gulyas, dumplings, red cabbage, cabbage rolls - all of which I was accustomed to (and even knew the Hungarian names for) because The Amazing Grandma Schmutzer used to cook all of that good stuff (now I do!).

Grandma had often lamented the fact that we (Americans) wasted so much food by throwing so many usable parts of an animal away. I never completely understood what she meant until that first night out in Budapest. There, floating unfamiliarly in a bowl of paprikas, were the head and feet of the chicken. Zsusza, being an impetuous child, immediately grabbed the spoon and went for the chicken head. Marianna balked and a heated argument ensued over whose turn it was at the chicken head.

Marika stepped into the role of Solomon and said, "Barbara is our guest, so she gets to have it." I did my best in my halting Hungarian to politely decline and felt fortunate that I was able to convince them that I really did not want it. It was then decided that it was, after all, Marianna's turn for the wee cranium. Whereupon Marianna scooped it out of the tureen with a spoon, picked the tiny dripping skull up off the spoon, put it to her mouth, and sucked the brains right out of it with a satisfying slurp. Zsuza, not to be completely outdone by her older sister (and much to her mother's chagrin), quickly dipped her fingers into the tureen and plucked out (pun intended) a chicken foot, and using her arm as a crane lowered the foot into her open mouth and sucked the skin right off it.

Right about that point I politely asked someone to please pass me the red cabbage and bread.

I ate many a fine meal in Hungary (I could, and probably should, write a gustatory book on the subject), and I had many a fine adventure there, and countless moments that will forever be part of my favorite internal DVD collection. However, none was quite so memorable as that meal, or rather that moment at the table with my cousins. (*heavenly sigh*) Perhaps I'll whip up some paprikas tonight... minus the upper and lower extremities... miért persze.

**Yes, her name really was Línus. However, in Hungarian it is pronounced LEE-noosh. Out of respect, I always added the familiar néni (aunt), and called her Línusnéni. She drove me nuts - she was one of those old ladies who, if she felt a draft of air, was convinced that everyone was catching pneumonia (and likely dying from it). That I actually chose to run around barefoot most of the time nearly rendered her apoplectic. May the gods rest ye gently, dear Línusnéni.


  1. Thank you once again Kemosabi for giving us a little insight into your wonderful and colorful family...I love hearing your stories about any and all of them...you make it so I feel I am right there with ya, watching her eating the chicken brains right outta it's skull...oh man, puke city, but, I can as well imagine you running barefoot all around the house and having a blast and feeling a great sense of belonging with your other family...thanks buddy for sharing a little piece of your past with all of us...

  2. Barb, thank you for that wonderful insight in to Hungarian food / culture I'll know what to "avoid" or at least ask not to have in, goes to look up the Hungarian for "no chicken bits in my paprikas please."
    Of course barb didn't you know by running around "naked" in the cold your saying to those "cold germs" here I am come get me and they leap up from the floor and latch on, I think we all have an aunt / sister / mother / cousin like that somewhere in our family tree, although some are more eccentric than others.


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