A Brief History of Hungarian Food

Vivian Wagner

In the Nagycsarnok, or Central Market, in Pest, vendors sell mounds of plump cherries and apricots, asparagus and lettuce. Stacked jars of pinewood, aster, and milkweed honey. Small plastic bags of yellow Hungarian saffron, bright red cans and jars of paprika, stacked as tall as the men selling them, and braids of dried red peppers.

My husband Todd and I explored the market, watching as women pulled carts and bought bags of cherries. German, Japanese, and American tourists pointed and marveled at the wares; children followed behind their young mothers; young men stood in the upstairs stalls eating sausage and bread. Surrounding everything, wafting in the air and hanging on clothes and hair, like a spice leavening the crowd, floated the sharp, pungent smell of paprika.

And at the heart of the market were the meat stalls, filled with thick loins, steaks, and chops; whole chickens covered with fresh feather holes; streaked and mottled sides of beef.

Across the street from the csarnok, my grandmother had told me. The Wagner & Son Deli. I found the street a few blocks from the Danube, running along the east side of the market. Pipa utca, or Pipa Street, where the deli would have been, at least until it was looted and burned, the windows smashed, the paprika spilled on the ground like blood, a yellow Star of David painted on the wall.

It was a quiet, narrow brick street, with a cell phone business, apartments, a hair salon, and no sign of a deli.

Disznósajt, or head cheese, is a popular Hungarian deli meat that combines meat from the feet, heart, and head. Véres hurka, or blood sausage, is made from a heady mixture of blood, meat, and spices.

The most common seasoning for meat in Hungary, paprika, is made from ground, dried sweet red bell peppers. It’s sautéed with onions, garlic, and peppers and used to flavor goulash, paprikás, pörkölts, and other Hungarian meat dishes.

The horse might have died on Lenhossék utca, right outside their apartment. After the bombing stopped, my father must have run out with his mother and grandmother and cut the meat of the horse’s leg, the neck, the chest, the ribs, the flanks, the head. They must have blotted the blood, wrapped the meat carefully in paper bags, and taken it in, stored it in the cool dark of the cellar. After a few days it must have grown rancid, requiring more and more paprika to cover its sweet taste of rot.

The six-year-old boy, István, or Pityu to his family, must have chewed the chunks of horsemeat flavored with paprika thoughtfully, gratefully. They must have calmed for a few moments the long slow roar that had been growing for days in his stomach.

Sometimes on the way back from shopping trips to L.A. we’d stop at a Hungarian market along a desert road in Apple Valley. My father would buy his favorites: head cheese and blood sausage.

“How can you eat that,” I’d say to him as a grimacing six-year-old, standing by the counter waiting for the butcher to cut thin slices of the meat and wrap them in white paper, marking the price on each with a black grease pencil.

“I’m lucky to be able to get this,” he’d say, grinning back at me. “It’s going to be a treat.”

Once home, he’d layer the deli meats in white bread, slathered with sharp mustard. In the kitchen, I would study the open package of deli meat on the counter, at once disgusted and fascinated by the thin slices of head cheese, with its bits of snout and skin and heart.

In the displaced person’s camp after the war, Pityu’s father, given his experience in the deli, got a job working as a cook, smuggling extra bits of meat and chocolate and bread to give to the ten-year-old boy and his little sister at night, after meals.

The boy would take the chocolate and save it up in his bunk, taking bites off it in the afternoons or proffering it, like a black market good, to his friends in exchange for coins or slingshots.

The meat had hard bits in it. Somehow, the butcher had cut some bone or ligament into the ground meat of the steer we’d butchered on our ranch in the mountains of California.

“I don’t want to eat it,” I whined about the plate of spaghetti my mom had served me, with its bits of gritty meat. “It’s gross.”

“You’re going to eat it,” my father said. “You’re going to eat every last bit of it.”

I looked down at my plate of spaghetti, pushed the pasta around, the ground beef, agonizing over it, gagging.

“I don’t want to,” I said, pushing the plate away.

My father looked at me sharply. I stared back, with all the bluster and bluff of a ten-year-old. I could see him thinking about what to say, about how to articulate his anger, about what to do with the taut, tense line between us.

“Then go to your room” he said, finally, sounding suddenly tired and spent. “Just go.”

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The skinny sixteen-year-old boy, recently immigrated to Alabama with his family and renamed Stanley, liked to shoot squirrels and rabbits with a rifle bought with extra money he earned working at the pants factory with his father. Every time he shot one of these animals, he’d gut it in the field with his jackknife, slitting into the chest cavity, spilling the blood and intestines onto ground, peeling off the skin as if it were a grapefruit.

Then he’d bring the meat home, fry its thin gamey steaks in a skillet, and eat it.

All of it.

For my sixteenth birthday party, my father went to Blockbuster and rented The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. My friends looked over at me a little strangely when he brought it out of its bag and presented it to us, as if to say, so what’s with your father? But I knew what was with my father. Nazis and World War II and Hungary and the trauma of that and how he survived on a potato for a week with his family and another time ate horsemeat from a soldier’s horse and of how they hid his Jewish father in the coal bin in the cellar and how the Nazi soldiers tried to find him and of the bombing, the incessant bombing, of Budapest: these were stories I’d grown up with.

We watched it, all the way through. The black and white newsreels, Hitler’s voice, the narrator’s explanations, the train cars packed with people, the rail thin survivors, the drone of history and horror. My father made popcorn for us, and we sat there with him, while my mom washed the dishes in the kitchen, watching and watching for what seemed like years.

Afterwards, my father said to my friends, Michele and Jenny, “So what did you think of that?”

They smiled and shrugged, looked at me, then back at him. “Kind of sad,” said Michele, tentatively.

My father nodded, slowly, looking down at his slippers a moment, as if he saw a bit of dirt there, or lint.

“Yes, it was, Michele,” he said. “It sure was.”

I waited for him to tell the story about the coal bin, or the potato, or the horsemeat, half hoping he would, but he didn’t. He got up, stretched, and said good night.

Todd and I and our young son were visiting my parents one summer a few years ago, and they planned to grill steaks.

“We’re vegetarian now,” I told them, as we all stood in the kitchen. “That’s OK, though, we’ll just buy some veggie burgers.”

My father eyed me warily.

“You’re what?”

“Vegetarian.”

“So you won’t eat the steaks?”

“We’ll just eat veggie burgers. It’s OK.”

My father stood in the kitchen, sizing me up, at once frustrated and impatient, uncertain what to say.

“But they’re good steaks,” he said. “You’ll like them. We got them just for you.”

“It’s OK, Stan,” my mother said, trying to smooth things over. “Don’t worry about it. We’ll eat them. It’s fine.”

“But what about William?” my father said, his anger growing. “You’re not going to give him any meat?”

Todd stood there, looking first at me, and then at my dad.

“Kids can do fine without meat,” Todd said to my dad, but dad wanted to take this up with me, not Todd.

“I can’t believe it,” he said, shaking his head. “Just can’t believe it.”

“I’m sorry, dad, it’s fine,” I said, not sure what I was apologizing for. “I’m sorry. We’ll just eat veggie burgers.”

He threw up his hands, muttering, stomping out of the room.

“Whatever,” he said angrily. “Whatever. Do whatever you want.”

In Budapest, Todd and I found restaurant called Vegetarium right around the corner from our apartment, down in the basement of a building by a cobblestone street, and the first night I ordered mushroom paprikás. I fell in love with that dish, served with potato pancakes. It’s something I’d never thought to make, and I hadn’t used paprika much since we stopped eating meat.

We went a second night, and I ordered the same dish again, savoring the mushrooms that tasted like a forest floor, and the sharp, red sauce.

Sometimes, food is just food. Sometimes, it’s more than that, drawing into its tastes, colors, and scents the rush and roar of history, of trauma, of promises made and broken, of futures lost and gained.

And, finally, perhaps, all that’s left is to eat, to enjoy the meal.

Jó étvágyat.

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