Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Poland: Blood, Herring, and Pierogis.

Stuffed with love and bacon.
Ikh flee... sang Prince Nazaroff. I fly.... And fly I did. I have had a case of jet lag that would floor an elephant. I did a couple of concerts with the Brothers Nazaroff in the States in June, although I spent most of the time enjoying being with my family in Jersey or hunting down the Chinese food that I obsessed about while on a diet here in Budapest. I was pretty good about the diet in the states - basically, if the plate in front of me wasn't some regional Guangdong specialty prepared by a monolingual Grandmother in the back of a tiny doorway lunch place, I didn't eat it. I made a couple of exceptions for Shake Shack, of course, but somehow I managed to not gain weight in the USA, which is more than I can say for most Americans. But then the real test was yet to come. A few days after arriving home in Budapest, I had to go to Krakow for the Jewish Music Festival for several days with the Brothers Nazaroff. Poland: Land of Complex Carbohydrates.


A light lunch: pierogis, stuffed cabbage, kaszanka blood sausage.
Poland is a land of Well Mannered Gentlemen, Elegant Ladies, fine art, tragic history, and potatoes served a hundred different ways. We were in Kazimierz, the old Jewish quarter of Krakow for the festival. The festival organizers - Janusz, Kasia, and Robert - are some of the most professional and warm hosts in the European Gigantic Culture Festival Business, and it is probably Europe's most relaxed festival hang between musicians, the hard core Yiddishists, and the visitors who come to hear the concerts and attend workshops. Everybody wanders around the old core of Kazimierz, and you get to knock back a lot of iced coffee with folks who like your music.  Oh, and eat pierogis.

Little edible bags of  prepared food.
There is no doubt that Poland likes its carbohydrates. Not content with potatoes and bread, Poles eat a lot of buckwheat groats - kasha - the bane of my Bronx childhood. We Hungarian Jews weren't big on kasha, but everybody else was. Kasha was like the quinoa of Ashkenazic Europe. Eat it, it will make you strong! Fumie, being Japanese, loves buckwheat, but I have hard time loving grains that remind me of the late stone age. Luckily, the Columbian exchange introduced Poland to the potato. So what does one eat if not eating spuds in Poland? Well, there is pierogi. I love pierogi. I love them stuffed with meat. I love them stuffed with mushrooms and cabbage. I adore them stuffed with fruit, especially the tiny mountain strawberries that were in season while we visited. But lo-carb food they are not. So yes, I ate the pierogis.

Vincent's Pierogi Shop: Choose your poison.
How much damage could I do? after all one thing I discovered about Poland in late June was that the vegetables are some of the best I have ever seen offered in Europe.Yes, Polish tomatoes easily beat what I can buy in Budapest. I was buying bags of them like fruit (diet hint: eat tomatoes instead of chips!) The concert went well, as concerts often do when you are a band consisting of five leaders of different bands - imagine a small boat floating across the ocean crewed by five captains. Fun! the only thing that can top it is to visit a herring bar! Yes! A bar serving nothing but vodka shots and herring! Poland likes its herring - you can get it about a dozen ways but I always prefer simple herrings in oil with sliced onions. This is how you approach vodka at the Maly Sledz in Kazimierz:

Reb Fishl of Kroke.
And then, after midnight, everybody would drift to the market square across the street from the Alchemia Club and chow down on sausages. Our favorite is kaszanka, a blood and liver sausage similar to the Hungarian hurka, It tastes good and it makes whoever you are sitting with squeamish at the same time.

Not Kosher. Not Kosher at all.
One tragedy: my Nikon Coolpix died while I was in Krakow. Its in intensive care now at a small Hungarian repair shop, and I am going to Romania in a few days, so I'm keeping my fingers crossed as to whether the Coolpix does a Lazarus on me or else it is going with a ten year old Canon camera... photo quality may suffer. Most of the photos here were made with the camera on my Nexus tablet. Taking pictures with a tablet looks like the stupidest posture ever developed for any pursuit of Art: Look! I am holding a big square thing up! Thrill to my fuzzy photos! And when photo quality suffers, we all suffer.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

My Life is Valued in Pastrami, Pork Chops and Old Mandolins.

A 1922 Gibson F4
Not the Mandolin under discussion, but very nearly so. 
I am in New York for only a few more days, and it feels like I hardly scratched the surface. The city changes so fast that as soon as I realize that one funky old neighborhood has become yet another Fair Trade Hipstertown, yet another wave of Huddled Masses yearns to breathe free and moves in to replace the Refuse that is no longer so Wretched that they can't buy a nice two family place in Miss Liberty's Promised Land of New Jersey. (Apologies, Emma Lazarus...) Chinatown is always on my walking map - its the last place in Manhattan that I can afford to splurge on lunch. I cook Chinese food at home a lot, but recipes never tell me much about how a dish is supposed to taste. I have read a lot about Taiwanese Fried Pork Chops, but I had never had one, even though the raw ingredients are easy to get in my home base of Budapest. Luckily, on tiny Doyers Street (next to the Nom Wah Dim Sum House, the oldest Chinese restaurant still standing in Chinatown) is the Taiwan Pork Chop House - formerly known as Excellent Pork Chop House.

Order the pork chop on rice. Then consider your options.
You have got to love a restaurant that tells you what to order by putting it right in their name. Pizza Town. Burger King. Taiwan Pork Chop House. In we strolled and that's what I ordered. The menu also offers side dishes such as pork chop, diced pork chop, fried chicken leg, and seaweed, in case you need more pork or species diversity. (In fairness, the menu is classic working class Taipei.) And it was well worth the $5.95 that I invested in - a huge plate of rice topped with chopped Chinese pickled mustard greens, a ground pork and sesame sauce flavored with Five Spice powder, and a huge soy and five-spice marinated pork chop sliced into four piece for easy chopstick manipulation. If you know anybody who "doesn't like" Chinese food, take them here.

Jews, such as myself, may not enjoy this. But I did.
The pork chop was huge, and slightly marinated with five spice and dusted in corn starch giving it a crispy finish and a slight Asian fragrance. the pickled greens and pork sauce were perfect when mixed into a swill that alternated with cave man bites of pig meat on the bone. It was transcendent in a way that only swine flesh can appeal to a one who was once a pork avoiding Semite such as myself. This is how non-kosher meat is supposed to taste, at least if you are not at the A-Wah risking your eternal soul on their clay pot House Special. Did I mention the price? $5.95! As if this was not enough, we began our meal next door, in fact, at the Indonesian and Malaysian Chinese restaurant Sanur.


Like Louis Szekely's (yes, C.K. stands for that most unpronounceable of Hungarian names) pre-diet preparation, this trip was a "bang-bang" ( a lunch consisting of going out for burgers and then going out again for pizza, except in this case it was serial Chinese cheap lunch joints.) Another dish I had read about but never tried was Asam Laksa, a sweet and sour fish and noodle soup that every expat Malaysian Chinese raves about, but I had never actually seen. Every time Bourdain or Andrew Zimmern goes to Penang or Singapore they always start out by swooning over a bowl of Asam Laksa. I wanted in on the action.

Asam Laksa: Soup? Noodles? Fruit salad?
Big thick rice noodles swimming in a sour tamarind fish broth, raw onion, a chunk of boneless fried mackerel in the middle, and oddly enough, chunks of pineapple swimming around in there. Again, cheap and good, but it didn't match the splendor of Fumie's Curry Laksa soup, which had the required chili burn that I need at least once a meal. New York has lots of Chinese communities: Cantonese, Fujianese, Northerns, Szechuanese, but it never got the influx of southeast Asian Chinese from Singapore, Indonesia and Malaysia that you find in Canada or Britain. Our loss.

I'll have what she's having...
And then, stuffed to the gills, I went up to the village and did my gig with the Brothers Nazaroff at Joe's Pub. the day before, however, we had to do the ritual trip to Katz's Delicatessen. This blog has chronicled my obsession with Katz's and with pastrami in general over the last decade, ever since man first set cuneiform into the wet clay interface offered by Blogger, freeing us from the HTML of the paleolithic era. Corned beef and pastrami are flavors that one can only find in New York (and Newark and Montreal, and maybe two other places) and it is what I miss most when I am not on that stinky island off the coast of Trumpland.  Katz's had had to raise its prices and pander to the tourist trade in order to survive the astonishing rent costs that have made the once gritty Lower East Side into one of NY's most sought after bits of real estate, but it is still worth a visit. I heard that they had switched meat suppliers, perhaps just a rumor, but my pastrami was a bit saltier than I remember and lacked the funky background smoke that I used to expect from the King of Delis.

The Hot Dog course is served alongside the main pastrami course.
This is where we end up arguing between Katz's Deli and Schwartz's Smoked Meat in Montreal. It is an argument kind of like arguing which religion is the True Religion, but it must be done. As a New Yorker, I am like a lapsed Catholic regarding pastrami. Full of guilt. Hate the sin, love the sinner. I love Katz's, I mourn the loss of the Second Avenue Deli and will not try its new and even pricier uptown reincarnation. I acknowledge Loesser's as the best regular Pastrami sandwich in the city, and I would say Liebman's in the Bronx is the best Jewish Deli for general dining, including pastrami, but it generally comes down to Katz's versus Montreal's Schwartz's. At the moment, I am going to have to award a point in favor of Chez Schwartz, and say Schwartz's is actually better in the hand-sliced spiced salted beef department, even if they are using a different belly cut of beef which is not acceptable as New York orthodox "pastrami."


But there is a new kid on thre block... I got a chance to try the Mile End Deli on Hoyt Street in Brooklyn. This is a new place, relatively speaking, opened by a young Jewish Montreal expat who smoked his own sides of beef in Montreal style, and actually makes the pickles in house and used to import Montreal style bagels daily. It was new enough to send my local Guru for All Things new York, Bob Godfried, into an angry spiral of despair, muttering dark things about "hipster delis" destroying our New York traditions with their upstart Canadian imports.


Of course I had to try it, and since I was on my way to pick up a mandolin at nearby Retrofret/Musurgia music on Butler Street, Mile End was a given. It is a small place, not overly crowded on a weekday for lunch. And the french fries were voted "best in New York" by NY Magazine, and I had not eaten a french fry since last summer so it was going to be a chance to break my french fry fast as well. And it was great. Not overstuffed, and subsequently, not overpriced, the fries were crispy and delicious, and the pickle was the size of a small car. Having watched the decline of delis in the New York area over the last few centuries (I'm talking about you, Tabatchnik's!) I'm overjoyed to see a new deli that manages to be both new and traditional and - hopefully - successful. I would like a Mile End Deli on every street corner, and if I get my way, there will be one, as soon as Bernie Saunders wins the election and monkeys fly out my ass.
What the no-harp zone of Heaven looks like.
Oh, yes, that trip to Retrofret. Retrofret does excellent fine instrument repair, and is twinned with Musurgia, a fine vintage instrument shop that sells quality old guitars, mandolins, banjos, and the occasional theremin and lute. My old friend Steve Urich is one of the founders, and I had not seen him since he visited me in Budapest back in 1990. Another buddy - Claude, King of the Yekkes - had asked me to pick him up a nice old Gibson mandolin while I was in the USA. His modest needs grew in scale until he asked me to arrange the purchase of the mandolin of my dreams - for him, not me, mind you. A 1917  Gibson F4, the top of the line at its time, which sings like and angel and plays like a Stradivarius with double strings. When I started playing mandolin in a bluegrass band in High School, a buddy of mine - Jeff Grisman - got a loan of one of these F4 models from a shop in New York to try out. We played it nonstop for two months before he had to return it because Steven Stills - of Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young -bought it for $600. Today it would be worth at least ten time that much. It has haunted my dreams ever since.

The Mandolin that has haunted my dreams... now your baby, Claude! 
Gibson started as a mandolin manufacturing company during the heyday of the instrument in the early 20th century, when mandolin orchestras were all the rage and Gibson's carved top, flat back mandolins replaced the Italian bowl back mandolin as the main form for the instrument in the United States. Subsequently they played a big role in the development of blues and bluegrass in the United States, and remain widespread and popular throughout the US. Gibsons are a bit more rare in Europe, but still widely available in the USA - they still show up in attics and estate sales regularly. They were so well built and age so well that an old Gibson in good condition is a far better investment than most new mandolins, in my deeply prejudiced opinion. At least I know this F4 will be living nearby. Until then, I am happy with my trusty 1934 Gibson A50, although if anybody wants to donate $1500 to me I would jump at the chance to pick up an oval hole 1917 Gibson A1. Or perhaps a 1922 Lloyd Loar Snakehead A4 model? Because money can't buy love. But it can buy mandolins.

A Gibson mandola, the A1 model that I want, and two amazing "snakehead" mandolins that I will never own unless you help by sending me tons of money. 

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Feed My Soul: New York in Spring



It is the annual pilgrimage to the Big Apple. "New York, just like I pictured it, skyscrapers and everything!" I have been eating a restricted diet in Budapest this year, justifying it by telling myself that if I refuse the bowl of rice or the roll of bread today I can make it up later by eating something fantastic when I am in New York... It has worked so far - I lost quite a bit of  weight - so I am allowing myself a measured bit of leeway while I am in New York. Leeway as in Chinese food, Indian food, and yes, an occasional Shake Shack burger. I have been traipsing about the city for weeks, but the sad story is that the New York I knew growing up is shrinking into oblivion. Manhattan is almost lost amid a flood of new construction and condo-madness. Harlem is no longer a majority Black city - it is yupping out, filling with hipsters and losing the century old sense of soul that is baked into its stoops and sidewalks. Times Square is Disneyland, The East Village junkies and punks have all become acai berry juice moguls, and Yorkville hasn't seen a Hungarian sausage in over a decade.
Dim Sum beneath the Manhattan Bridge on East Broadway
The old ethnic neighborhoods have disappeared as rents rise and families flee to the suburbs. Brooklyn is gentrifying as people who seem cloned from the cast of "Girls" move in establish artisan fair trade coffee shops and yoga centers. But it isn't all lost - there is still the Bronx. The Bronx will never gentrify. Its the place I was born and raised, and it still defies the trend towards hipster homesteading that has raised the rent in traditionally immigrant and black communities. The Bronx, No Thonks! remains the borough's best defense.


Bob Godfried, a born Bronxonian and one of the stalwart holdouts of the old Jewish Bronx, took me up to the Norwood section off of Mosholu Parkway for the Bangladeshi Festival along Bainbridge Avenue. Never have I seen so many Bangladeshis doing what Bangladeshis do best - teem in overpopulated masses. From one end of Bainbridge ave to the other sari clad women sold spicy chickpea concoctions and samosa while others listened to the painfully loud live singers.

Not bad for a neighborhood once known for its Irish bars and the last secular Yiddish school in New York. I've been in New York for several weeks - much of it spent in New Jersey, and several of those weeks were without access to a laptop so I was not updating the blog. Jersey is the Bronx of the future. Since Bob G had taken me to the depths of sub-continental Bronx life, I responded by taking him to the deep South Indian enclave of Newark Avenue in Jersey city.


For about four blocks, Newark Avenue is wall to wall Dosa joints, Indian sweet shops, bakers, and Mandirs - small storefront temples dedicated to Hindu worship, whatever that may be, we non-Hindus will probably never know, but it is comforting to know that if there are Hindu temples around, a good rice pancake is probably not far. Since a lot of the recent immigrants from India are from stricter vegetarian Hindu and Jain communities, you can get excellent veggie food unlike what most of us know from meat heavy North Indian restaurants. Straight to Sapthagiri, the all vegetarian Restaurant I lucked upon last year.


Twelve dollars gets you a huge south Indian thali selection of vegetarian curries, tamarind broths, pickles, chapatis, lentil, and rice. I wrote about Sapthagiri last year, and if you really love Indian food it is worth the trip out of Manhattan on the Path train to Jersey City - it is only about five minutes from the PATH station. But man cannot live on vegetarian offerings along, especially if you like to eat meat as much as I do.

A-Wah's House Special Clay Pot Rice: roast Pork, Chinese bacon, sausage, and minced pork patty.
For that we have Chinese food. Living in Europe - specifically Hungary - I can get a lot of Chinese ingredients at the shops serving the Chinese community and cook myself, and there are always a few decent Chinese restaurants, but I was raised in New York and I am spoiled by the range of small, affordable eating places serving local Chinese cuisines for their own communities.Lacking Chinatowns of our own in Budapest, I have to make up for it with reading food blogs and watching YouTube, which is how I came across this: Chinese American food maven and host of the Double Chen Show Mikey Chen getting characteristically excited about the Clay Pot Rice dishes served at a tiny place in east Chinatown that I have been passing by for years - The A Wah.

I have seen recipes for Clay Pot Rice, I have seen the little clay pots for sale in Chinese shops, and I have lived around Cantonese people for much of my life, but I had never tried the stuff. Boy was I dumb! Its far more than its individual meaty-ricey parts. It was the best Chinese food experience that I have had since discovering the Golden Mall in Flushing a few years ago. The window betrays nothing: ducks hanging, strips of pork dripping, the same as dozens of Chinese BBQ meat joints around lower Manhattan that serve cheap take out lunch to the local Chinese workforce.
The A Wah, one of NYC best restaurants, for clay pot rice dishes, at least.
But in the back there are tables and the tables are filled by that indicator of good Chinese regional food - namely, Chinese people eating. All New York Jews know that Chinese food should only be eaten in a place filled with exclusively Chinese people. (Look, I would love to give you all some valuable financial advice and Jewish trade secrets, but I can't, so you will have to be satisfied if I tell you the secrets of how we know where the best Chinese food is.) Chinese people: why have you been keeping these pork filled clay pots hidden from us New York Jews for years? Did you want to retain one deep, pork filled secret from us after years of Jews slurping your noodles and scarfing up your dim sum and disdaining out-of-towners who don't know the difference between a PJ Changs and Palace 88? Is there something about Tianshen cuisine you don't want us Jews to know? In any case - this stuff was amazing: meat cooked inside a rice filled bowl with crispy burned rice sticking to the bowl which becomes the star of the meal when dizzled with sweet soy sauce. And if pork, pork, pork, and pork cooked inside rice isn't non-Kosher enough for you, there is also roasted eel, which is about the most unkosher thing you can eat that is not a rabbit, a lobster, or the House Special Clay Pot Rice from A-Wah's.

Eel! Eel!

No more eel, but crunchy, crispy burned rice!


Thursday, April 21, 2016

April in Budapest: Mostly Music.


I don't like going out in the winter. Maybe I used to, but not anymore. Since the caribou ceased running through Budapest on their winter migration I no longer leave the house between Halloween and Easter. I like Hungarian traditional music. I like to listen to it, I like to play it, I like when other people play it. I used to attend a dance house someplace in Budapest almost every night. Those days are over. Now I prefer to simply take the elevator downstairs and hear the Erdőfú band play at the Rácskert on Fridays. 



I have to walk all of four minutes - depending on how fast my elevator is that day. Spoiled? Maybe, but the one saving grace of living in the 7th district is the fact that on most nights there is some traditional band playing someplace within ten minutes walk of my flat. Spring has blossomed in Budapest over the last couple of weeks, so I went to the Táncháztalálkozó - the "National Dance House Meeeting" - a few weeks back. 


Citera - zithers - were the first instrument I learned when I was a kid. 
The Táncháztalálkozó is about close to being the Hungarian National Folk Festival. Why it isn't called that is a mystery. There are a lot of festivals around Hungary - particularly in the summer, but the Budapest Spring Festival has been hosting a space for the folk dance movement since the late 1970s, when playing Hungarian traditional village dance music was considered a vaguely suspicious activity for youth. Now - 40 years later - all those one-time youth seem to be grandparents and school principals and the Dance House festival is dominated by school dance groups and less by smelly village bands consisting of old men with battered fiddles and drinking problems. 


Miniature bagpipers.
I've written about the Táncháztalálkozó before, and with fewer village musicians invited to participate in favor of stage and school preforming groups it really doesn't excite me the way it used to, but if you are interested in Hungarian folk life, it is well worth a visit - its all in one place on one weekend. In a huge concrete sports stadium... OK... but it is all in one place. It is also one of the most extensive traditional crafts fairs, and short of traveling to Transylvania, this is where I buy a new straw summer hat every year. It isn't easy to find unfashionable straw hats anymore. I don't want a jaunty Panama or something that looks good on a yacht on the Riviera. I want a straw hat. Something I can wear while harvesting straw


Straw hats for work, not fashion. 
It has taken me years to suppress my acquisitiveness regarding buying folk stuff: textiles, ceramics, instruments. I've loved east European peasant art my whole life and living here is like living like a kid in a candy shop. Fumie magically prevented me from buying a large woven Maramures Romanian wall rug: in my mind I was saying "for a Hundred bucks you could own this amazing unique museum piece, or you could walk away." We walked away. My old flat used to look like the storage room at the Folk Museum: in our new place we opted for plain white walls as an alternative. I've gone cold turkey. (On the other hand, I have to go out today and buy moth spray to preserve the huge cardboard boxes of old peasant weavings that I have - undisplayed - in storage here in the new flat.) 


Tooled belt bags. The Gucci of traditional arts.
As always, the best place to hear music at the festival was out in the bus parking lot - the "folk bar" area where people could light up cigarettes and have a beer. I don't smoke anymore, but I do not know how anybody can expect to host East European music in a non-smoking atmosphere. It can't be done. 


Florin Cordoba from Palatca with Nagy Zsolt jamming in the bar.
The Táncháztalálkozó was barely over when the next concert event popped up - the great Moldavian band Tazlo with special guests Muzsikás at the Eotvos House in the 6th district, a full fifteen minutes walk from my front door. Tazlo is one of the most experienced groups playing in the Moldavian Csángo idiom - they have researched the music, traveled those roads, learned from the old masters. And Muszikás? They have already become old masters themselves.


Saturday, April 02, 2016

The Morel of the Story.

Sure signs of Hungarian spring: new cabbage!
Hungarians do not eat a lot of vegetables in the winter, unless you consider potatoes a vegetable. And pickles, another important Hungarian category of vegetable, although winter pickles are usually the sweet vinegar-ed "csemege" version - you need summer warmth and fresh cukes to make the yeast fermented kovaszos uborka that I love; they won't be around until June or so. Other than that, one can buy vegetables, as long as you aren't a stickler for variety. Hungarians don't really do fresh vegetables - some do, but most like them boiled, fried, or pickled. Főzelék - cream sauce stews - are a beloved Mama's kitchen memory that has made a comeback as downtown luncheries discovered a way to get the office crowd to pay FT 1200 for a zucchini and an egg. My Mom's squash főzelék was my favorite food as a kid in the Bronx.
Spinach főzelék -  a food photographer's worst nightmare!
There are some vegetables for sale that have no Hungarian cultural background - Chinese napa cabbage for example. What do Hungarians do with it? I'm clueless. Daikon radishes are everywhere, great news for mixed Nippish-Yiddish households like ours, but what do the Magyars do with it? I have no idea. Since we now live in downtown Budapest, we biked out to our old neighborhood of Zuglo to see what spring had delivered the Bosnyak market, the last of the real old fashioned peasant markets. This is where people do not simply supply themselves from the central vegetable casting agency. They bring it in from the villages themselves.
Fuck you, kale! 
And there it was: new cabbage! My favorite vegetable! The soft, tender babies that are culled before being cynically hardened to become corporate grist for the benefit of Big Sauerkraut. I have no idea why the kale-obsessed masses in the USA haven't discovered these things yet - I can eat one a day chopped into a salad. 

Terrence McKenna thought that these are sentient beings from space. We ate them. 
But even better  it is morel season. These are called kucsma gomba in Hungarian. Kucsma are the lamb's fur hats you see peasant men in Transylvania wearing. Wild mushrooms are a common item in open markets. Hungarian markets all have an official mushroom examination truck to verify that wild mushrooms sold in the market will not poison you. We picked up two kilos of morels and set most of it apart to dry in Fumie's mushroom-drying net. 


Next year's pizza.
These will go into mushroom risottos later in the year when I get around to experimenting with eating carbs again... until then, it was a nice mushroom sauce on top of chicken breast. And a side of spinach and new cabbage salad. Bikini season, here I come! 
There is chicken underneath that, in theory.
On the way out to Zuglo we passed the Budapest city park. The park has,unfortunately, come into Prime Minister Viktor Orban's plan for his massive mega-makeover of the city - a kind of egotistic monument to himself more worthy of the Turkmen Bashi than a European leader. But the man does love his cement - and his family does love owning the concessions to sell that cement, so there it is. Now the plan is to move all the museums into the park - so that Orban can move himself into the Buda Castle. Orban is, supposedly, an elected official, but he wants that castle anyway.,. and is willing to blast away the face of Budapest to get it. Last week the city began to chainsaw trees in the city park, particularly in the area which has been home to Kertem ("my garden") an outdoor garden bar where we have spent many a wine filled evening enjoying live folk or jazz music (actually, the jazz always sucked) and chowing down on Serbian grilled pleskavica. 
This used to be Kertem. Now it ain't.
Kertem was a laid back, budget option, a kid and dog friendly place that served the Hungarian urge to drink and eat cheaply outdoors - simple wine gardens used to be located all over the pre-1990s city, now replaced by skeezy bars and pricy pubs. Citizen activists arrived to demand that the ersatz municipal lumberjacks gleefully chopping trees cease and desist - triggering a delightful shouting match between a FIDESZ  politician with Green sympathies and an overenthusiastic policeman ensued, videoed for all to enjoy. For the time being, a civil encampment is on the site to protect the trees - necessary because even though the original tree slaughter was illegal, when The Party wants something done it gets it done, and The Party brooks no legal roadblocks from NGOs or civic organizations.  


"Park Guardians" - green activists - keeping vigil against the chainsaws. 

Which brings me to: what is it with Hungarians and trees? I am usually careful when talking about cultural tendencies (ten years of graduate anthropology will do that to you) but for years I have asked Hungarians who were raised abroad what they most remember about maintaining Hungarian identity outside of Hungary. Apart from the chicken paprikas and the wilted cucumber salad, lmost all of them mention they remember their parents obsessively cutting down trees - often creating problems with neighbors or city officials in their unending war against the trees. I noticed it here as well - you wake up on a fine spring morning to find your neighbor out chainsawing whatever lonely tree is blocking the sun's path to his kitchen window, raring for a shouting match and a nice shouty visit by the city council tree supervisor. I think it has something to do with the fact that the trees just grow... like, uncontrolled, you know? Nature. It triggers an irrepressible control response that makes people here reach for a chainsaw. I once asked my cousin why all the trees in Veszprém were fifteen feet tall and trimmed to look like a six year old drew them in crayon. "That's how trees are supposed to look" was the answer. 


How trees are supposed to look.
You drive around Hungary and the scraggly trees are laid out in straight lines, and all are the same height. The national parks here look like tree farms. When you cross the border into Romania or Slovakia you see tall, majestic late growth forests everywhere. No, its not just the unhinged Prime Minister... its deeply imprinted into the tradition here: remove the trees! 


Entirely unnecessary view of the flat just below ours, to illustrate how people can express feelings about "nature."

Tuesday, March 01, 2016

Vienna: Ich bin der Kaiser und ich wölle Knödel!

Wiener Melange. Starbucks, go fuck yourself!
Hungary has a very strange relationship with Vienna, in fact, with all of Austria. As the closest "western" neighbor of Hungary, it was the place that defined "freedom" for most late commie era Hungarians. Freedom meant consumer goods, and the border town of Nickelsdorf was crammed with discount appliance shops and currency exchange kiosks serving the Magyar cross border shopper. That all disappeared in 1990. During the early 1990s the Hungarians somehow got it into their heads that they were going to "share" the proposed 1996 Vienna World's Fair, even though neither Vienna nor the International World's Fair organization ever remembered inviting Hungary to do so. Budapest still has a few "1996 Budapest Expo" bar umbrellas around today. It is understandable, though. After 1989, everybody in Hungary thought we and Austria were going to be Best Effing Friends and doing fun things like post-Hapsburg sleepover weekends and sharing clothes and churches and money and stuff. But no. It didn't work out that way.  


Actually, I like our St. Stephans Church better. Nyah, nyah!
Only three hours and thirty Euros away by train, Budapest and Vienna (and by extension, Hungary and Austria) are now distant worlds apart. They are like two kids on the same block who never talk to each other. One kid lives in the Richie Rich mansion with servants and fancy stuff, the other lives in a shabbier, somewhat hillbilly version where Jughead sometimes crashes. Not in the same league. You notice it immediately when you step outside of Vienna's spanking new Central Train station. Everything is very different - shiny, clean, exuberantly efficient. You are now in the West. 


Musical Toilets! The West has everything you dreamed of!

You may think that the old mental division of East-West disappeared after the fall of Communism in 1989, or at least in the years that followed. No. Vienna is in the West. Budapest, although increasingly well dressed, is not a West European city.  It is merely an Eastern European city without donkey carts in the streets. (It has been nearly twenty years since I saw a donkey cart delivering firewood in Budapest, alas.) While Vienna, in fact, has loads of horse carts in its streets - fiaker, especially during Opera season - these are very Western horsies driven by people dressed as the Monopoly Man. 


Der Pooper Scoopser is visable under the horse's tail.
The fact that the two cities shared a lot of architects a century ago means nothing beyond window fixings and doorways. Budapest used to have a lot in common with Vienna - cafes, effete antisemitism, operetta, a surfeit of psychoanalysts. No longer. Walking along Fumie asked me why Vienna could have such a prosperous downtown and not Pest... basically, if you see a nice shop in Vienna, that means it is doing decent business and paying its taxes. Yay, Capitalism! If you see the same in Budapest you have to figure out which sub-mayor and city council member is taking how much of a kickback on each individual business, right down to the roast chestnut vendors and organized Romanian gypsy beggar squads. This explains why the worst insult one can hurl at a Hungarian is to label anything here as "Balkan." In the Balkans corruption is widespread, but it always has a realistic price tag. In Hungary corruption has become overt government policy and the sky is is the limit. Yay, Capitalism!


My digs in 1965. Notice the flags. Hol a Magyar? Hol a Magyar!
Thus: not The West. And, unfortunately, not the Balkans, either. I remember my first visit to Vienna in 1965. I was a kid, and after visiting my Mom's family in Hungary we stayed a few days in Vienna at the Bristol Hotel, which is right downtown across from the Opera. After three months in Hungary we were elated to walk around without being followed by State security agents and there were no tanks in the streets. It was a Radio Free Europe TV advertisement come true. Also, it was clean: none of the bomb damage that was still widespread in Budapest from WWII and 1956 was to be seen in Austria (it pays to surrender without a fight!) and the City had come a long way from the days of the Allied occupation.


The Rathaus. Transformed into a skating rink. 
Of course, there is only so much cleanliness and good service that one can bear. Now we visit Vienna to see what could never have been. It is what Budapest would look like if only Budapest's City Fathers did not require bribes for every minor cash transaction. And we came to eat schnitzel! Although in fact the reason for visiting was that Fumie had a bit of work to do in the Austrian capital and we spent a few days wandering the chilly streets. 


Kiaserschmarren: smearing the Kaiser with sugar and syrup.
Winter doesn't mean less tourists in Vienna, just colder ones. But who can complain when the February carnival season comes along. As a Catholic nation Austria does carnival in style - by setting up a huge open air skating rink in front of the Rathaus, the City Council. In rural Austria they still do dress up costume carnival, usually in cast off Lady Gaga costumes, and last year we enjoyed carnival in Ptui, Slovenia, the northern limit of the Balkan kukeri tradition. But here the city council decided to shell out for some ice, not just a little patch of ice, but a vast, parking lot sized wrap-around skating rink. The idea is to have fun and eat lots of good stuff before the fast of Lent. The Austrians are Catholics and kind of serious about this. No fun for the next 40 days...


The Vienna Ice Dream. 
And if you are doing carnival, you got to eat, especially donuts. Austrians eat a lot of donuts at this time of year - and also various high carb stuff like - noodles and kaiserschammren, or "Kaiser's Mess" - hot cinamon sugar bread. Looked great, but I didn't dare eat it. Jelly donuts - krapfen - were on sale on virtually every flat surface in the entire city of Vienna, filled with traditional chocolate, jelly, or cream, or even weird vegan reiki green tea-flavored versions at the bio-cafes that cater to the healthy crowd. 


Mmmm.... krapfen!
But having eaten no carbs for months by this time it was time for my birthday treat: Wurst and sandwiches! These were just OK - eat them and you are not hungry anymore, but I have a soft spot in my heartburn for the classic Viennese Leberkäse sandwich. 


Mega-chunky hunk of steamed baloney, get in mah mouth!
Leberkäse is a sort of baloney meatloaf that is steamed and sliced into sandwiches, a sort of Teutonic street meat that predates the Turkish doner sandwich. it is the perfect food for four year olds: soft, bland, warm, and leaves no solid memory in your brain of having eaten anything at all. Which brings me to the most glorious expression of Hapsburg mediocrity of all! Wiener Schnitzel


Flat. Boring, Good. 
Now, we eat a lot of schnitzel in Hungary. In fact, it is the meal my band guys order most often while touring in Hungary or even abroad. We call it by its rural Hungarian name: lapos hus. Flat meat. But in Vienna it is more than just flat meat - it is a celebration of Viennese culinary self-identification that takes its inspiration from the Hapsburgs, a dynasty of underachievers and pervs whose taste was as colorless as their wits were dull. Kaiser Ferdinand was one such developmentally challenged ruler of the early 19th century: his only recorded coherent command was one winter when he told his staff that he desired plum dumplings, which were not in season. His response is preserved in history: "Ich bin der Kaiser, und ich wölle knödel!" ('I am the Kaiser, and I want dumplings!') 


You can help Emperor Ferdinand... or you can turn the page...

Ferdie's successor, the Emperor Franz Joseph, obviously didn't spend much time on oral hygiene: his teeth were so rotten he had to have his meat and vegetables carefully overcooked so that he wouldn't have to chew. The result, a splodge of boiled beef, root vegetables, and stock called tafelspitz is loyally on offer at nearly every restaurant in Vienna today, even though the modern Viennese can boast excellent dental care. But the Schnitzel... it shines. Nothing more than a slab of meat  with the shit pounded out of it, breaded and fried, vainly aspiring to the mediocrity that is the unique quality of nearly every Hapsburg achievement, and yet... it is good. It is a nice piece of fried meat. So bland, so nondescript, yet so satisfying.  


Oom Pah Pah Mani Hum!
For our schnitzel pilgrimage we went to the near legendary Zum Figlmuller,  around the corner from the Stefansplatz smack in the heart of downtown tourist Vienna, for our schnitzel. Figlmuller is famous for its schnitzel, although the house specialty is made from a pork cutlet instead of the traditional veal. Toss in an extra few
Euros and you can get the veal version, and I had wanted to try the "suurschnitzel" - a pickled meat version, but at the last minute decided to go with the specialty of the house.  



As thin as a sheet of cardboard, and just as tasty.
What can I say? It was a flattened ply of pork and thin breading that overlapped the plate, served with an excellent potato salad drenched in the classic Austrian black pumpkin oil that looks like a Jeep crankcase dripped on your salad. If they had served it with with a side of pencils and ski-lift tickets the meal would have represented the sum total of everything produced by the Austrian economy. After dinner we were strolling around before heading back to our hotel, and we passed the Opera house on the evening of the grand Vienna Opera Ball. 


They wish they were a baller, wish they were a little bit taller,..

This is the social event of the season, in which the hoi polloi and all of the upper crust of Austria gather to strut in top hat and tails and drink champagne and schnapps and then waltz the night away as if it were still the Good Old Days of the  Hapsburg Empire and nobody had granted any civil rights to stinky Slavs and Vlachs yet. Bankers and civil servants and reality TV show stars spend the day dressing up like Metternich and  giving interviews to the Austrian TV stations and hoping that the local Anarchists won't be tossing stink bombs at them as they arrive at the Opera House for their evening of Smug 'n' Smarmy waltzing and hand kissing. Personally? Give me the East. On the other hand, to be fair, the train station does offer free wifi to refugees. As I said, we are in the West now.