Friday, January 12, 2018

New Year, New Jersey. 2018

The New Jersey New Year arrived in the middle of yet another "Polar Vortex" - the term that news anchors use when they don't want to say "freezing your ass off." Because news anchors are always polite, even when the Clown in Chief is ranting about "shithole" countries and wishing he could find Norwegians willing to clean his toilets, groom his golf courses, and prep his fast food lunch, a thing which, incidentally, Norwegians do not do. But a month in the USA of Donny the Dick will do that to you. This place is warped, soured and divided by a year of the Orange Asswipe. Trump is on the TV constantly - he doesn't want you to turn him off or change the topic of conversation. After all, it is all about the ratings. Almost makes me anxious to get back to Hungary and our own dickweed politicians with their own idiot haircuts (an obvious reference to this weenie.)
The Mighty Passaic River stopped by a polar vortex.
The New Year for us started with a visit to the Great Falls of Paterson, NJ, the second largest waterfall east of the Mississippi River. Ice formed where the spray hit the cliffs, and with temperatures hanging around -10 centigrade, there were not too many other visitors willing to face frostbite to see the amazing glacial gorge covered in ice.The rocky gorges and huge boulders that are strewn all over this part of new Jersey are what is left over from the last Ice Age. It's like the glaciers drove down to the Jersey shore, enjoyed the free parking for a few hundred thousand years, and then - like everybody from New Jersey - they left, probably bored or disgusted by some prehistoric Chris Christie or the Blue Laws, leaving their glacial garbage behind to remind us that nothing can last forever in New Jersey. Everybody leaves Jersey. Everybody.

Practicing the Downward Freezing Dog yoga position!
Just around the corner from the falls is one of Paterson's iconic cultural landmarks: Libby's Lunch, a small diner specializing in the "Texas Wiener" style of hot dog that is one of the unique cultural treasures of the Silk City and its neighboring towns. Essentially, its a "chili dog" but the chili is actually a Macedonian meat sauce flavored with paprika and oregano, and cowboys looked a lot more attractive than Chetniks and Komitadji on the highway signs that used to advertise these places to truckers looking for a quick meal before pulling into New York City. There are at least a dozen "Texas Wiener" restaurants in the area, which we sampled during hot dog pilgrimages on earlier trips.

The least photogenic food on earth.
The most famous Dog House is Rutt's Hutt in Clifton, featured on lots TV shows, and of course, Bourdain's favorite in Fort Lee, Hirams. These are deep fried hot dogs, but Libby's doesn't go for the artistically incinerated object d'art that makes Rutt's famous. Libby's are just good wieners. Big, fried, and covered in, well, a pile of shit. Tasty shit, yes, but you are definitely not the first to comment on it. It is all part of the provincial New Jersey charm of the dish. Until recently, we were partisan for Clifton's Hot Grill, but I think Libby's has taken the ribbon for Vest Value in an Aesthetically Unpresentable Food. The menu does not seem to have been examined by an economist since the late 1970s.

Taylor Ham. The NJ state Sandwich.
Of course, man does not live by hot dogs alone. There are also hamburgers, and that means either Hackensack's White Manna or... the decidedly more upmarket Shake Shack. Shake Shack used to be the hobby of the owner of the Union Square Cafe. Stuck with trimmings from the various aged steaks they served, he opened a classic burger stand in new York City offering a high quality beef burger.  These are not in the same category as McDonalds... and are usually compared to the burgers sold on the west coast at In and Out Burger.

You want me, don't you? You know you do!
Yes, I love Shake Shack. I like them so much that I do not eat any hamburgers in Europe - well, at least not outside of Berlin - because they will only make me sad at their inability to live up to a Shake Shack burger. Shake Shack is not the only burger in the world: I like a good diner burger, and some truck stops and country restaurants can also turn out a great burger. I've even had a decent cheeseburger in far distant Canada!

Bacon cheeseburger, because you will die someday and you can't do anything about that.
But European burgers.... oh... please, no.... especially the ones sold at the trendy burger joints in my nabe, Budapest's 7th district, designed to lure in the tourist and yokel trade. Note to chefs: NEVER use a brioche bun on a hamburger! If you think that brioche buns are some sort of creative fusion, you are wrong and you do not know anything at all about hamburgers beyond the mere shape of the bread. Walk away from the kitchen and find a job you are qualified for. Or go to Paterson and learn how to do it right.

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Christmas in New York: Puerto Ricans, Jews and Chinese food.

"Saludos, saludos, vengo a saludar!" If you are a native New Yorker, that is what a Christmas carol sounds like. A real Christmas carol is sung in Puerto Rican Spanish, accompanied by pandereta drums - jingleless tamborines. This is plena, a style that originated in Ponce, Puerto Rico but has deep roots in Africa and is a crucial element in the New York Puerto Rican musical scene that eventually fused these local music traditions with Cuban son and rumba to create salsa. But at Christmas and New Year, bands of Pleneros still appear on the streets of El Barrio - East Harlem - to serenade local businesses serving the Boriqueno community. New York has dozens of ethnic communities who maintain their traditional music, and those from the many Latin American communities have settled in to become regular new York traditions. As always, we were tipped off by my buddy Bob Godfried - the reigning cultural ambassador of the Bronx - to the annual parranda procession by Los Pleneros de la 21, in East Harlem, and we were soon being serenaded by some of the best pleneros in New York.
Puerto Rico has gotten a bad deal this year: their economic crisis was topped off by a devastating hurricane and a venal American President. Even now, months later, half the island has no power or phone service. We all watched that turd-eating assclown Trump on TV throwing paper towels at people in dire need, and taking twitter shots at the Mayor of San Juan. But the real venom of Trumps hatred of Puerto Ricans - which has deep roots in his background as a New York real estate developer - came out with his new tax law. It redefines Puerto Rico as a foreign country for tax purposes, essentially driving out any American businesses based on the island. The result will be more misery on the storm battered island and a growth in Puerto Rican emigration to the mainland - mostly to Florida, where they may easily tip the voter base to make the Cuban emigre supported republicans lose their majority on the swing state that brought us the last two Republican presidents.

Mike Winograd, Dave Likht, Dan Blacksburg, Zillen Biret, Stu Brotman. 
Taking the #6 subway from 116th street in East Harlem we popped out at 14th Street, a few blocks away from the opening dance of the Yiddish New York Festival. when the legendary Klez Kamp event shuttered its doors in the Catskills, some of its most enthusiastic alumni - including clarinetist Mike Winograd, vocalist Sarah Gordon, and folklorist Peter Rushevsky - decided to organize a week of Yiddish culture taking advantage of New York City as a venue and using the magic trick that had floated Klez Kamp: Jews will always be looking for an event between Christmas and New Year. And thus one of the best teaching and jamming workshops happens in those grey days when little keeps us Yehudis busy besides ordering Chinese food and going to movies. This year the opening dance also celebrated the betrothal announcement of my Brother Nazaroff Dan Kahn and his bride to be Eva Lapsker.

A Nazaroff in lib.
Serious followers of this blog (are there serious followers of this blog) will have already learned that I like Chinese food, Jewish food, anything Balkan, and cheeseburgers, pretty much in that order. Most of that I can not get in my home base city of Budapest, so while I am in NY I take advantage as much as possible. Christmas was, of course, Chinese take out, and Fumie and I have already been poking about in the Cantonese places that have been popping up east of Broadway, but more about that later.

It has been a couple of years since I stopped in at White Manna Hamburgers in Hackensack NJ. Its located just across the street from the Giant Market - the huge Mexican/Korean bulk grocery where I buy my veggies while in Jersey, but it is usually packed with people ordering 30 burger lunches for the entire office. On Christmas Eve, however, its was quiet, and since the present owner is an Israeli guy, rather welcoming to visit.

The real thing for Hanukkah!
These are the tiny burgers that recall the great depression, when a tiny bit of meat was stretched with a mountain of caramelized onions and tossed on a soft potato roll to provide a cheap lunch. Today they sell for a whopping $1.60 for a single cheeseburger, up from $1.05 when I first wrote about them in 2006. This is the reason I don't do gourmet hamburgers. This is good, honest food. This is the taste of home. Thank you, New Jersey.

Wednesday, December 06, 2017

My No-Collusion Trip to Moscow

I grew up in the USA during the cold war era. As a kid back in the 1960s, my impression of "Russia" was that it was a scary place inhabited by something called "communists" who operated out of a fortress called "the Kremlin" in someplace identified as 'Moscow.' It was not a place any child of the Cold War ever imagined visiting. Russia terrified us: it was Lex Luthor, the Joker, Khruschev banging his shoe at the UN, Red submarines lurking around Cuba. It represented everything that Superman and Batman and all the other superheros stood against. My family tradition was not much help. My Grandfather had left Bessarabia (today's Republic of Moldova) after serving in the Tsar's army in World War One, and his story of emigrating to the USA began with a series of bloody pogroms in his youth and ended with him fleeing the Ukraine by soaking his overcoat in the freezing waters of the River Bug and using his frozen coat as a sled to skid across the ice into Romania. Whenever my Grandfather mentioned "Russia" it was generally accompanied by ritualistic spitting. My Mom was from Hungary - not much of am improvement in public relations from her or from the refugee 1956ers living in our basement apartment in the Bronx. No, I was not raised to imagine ever visiting Moscow. Which is why I was delighted to step off an Aeroflot plane last week and find myself in... Moscow!

No collusion... absolutely no collusion at all!
The Balassi Institute - which represents Hungarian culture worldwide - brought Di Naye Kapelye over to perform a concert as part of a series of Yiddish culture hosted by Moscow's Eshkolot Center, a major Jewish educational initiative in Moscow. Moscow has over 100,000 Jews living in it - not bad, considering that the city was outside the traditional Pale of Settlement where Jews were allowed to settle, and as such Jewish presence there is a 20th century phenomenon, reflecting roots in other parts of the empire and a gradual loosening of traditional life ways, such as musical traditions and Yiddish language. In response, Moscow (And St. Pete'sburg, to be fair) has a lot of enthusiastic young people learning Yiddish and taking a very active interest in the roots of Ashkenazic culture. Which is to say the concert went very well - the crowd knew what we were doing, and took me for my word when I told them that a DNK concert is not a music museum - they got up and danced. We had brought my small cimbalom as cabin baggage on the plane - there are actually no cimbaloms for rent or lending in all of Moscow. Which was interesting because there were about a dozen Hasids on our flight, and one of them had a fiddle, and we ended up talking in Yiddish at the end of the flight. they had been to Dej in Romania for a Hasidic pilgrimage gathering, and were off to Hashem-knows-where in Russia for another.

Di Naye Kapelye at full blast.
Moscow itself is overwhelming, even to a New Yorker like myself. It is huge - the scale of the city is mind boggling. It had twice the population of New York city, and since it is not confined to a series of islands, it gives a sense of infinite urban growth. Moscow doesn't fade off into suburbs - its all tall buildings. The downtown area seems endless, and the city was originally designed to impress visitor's with - serially - the Tsar's greatness, the Soviet's Greatness, and eventually, the Oligarchy's Greatness.

Window of GUM dept store.
I can now completely understand why Donald Trump would be so impressed by this city: it is built by, and for, supernaturally wealthy billionaires, full of shiny luxury shops, humongous ministry buildings, and eight lane boulevards. To use a New York frame of description, imagine Park Avenue mixed with Washington DC and maintained by the people who do the lights for Disneyland.

The GUM  department store and outdoor Christmas market in Red Square.
We didn't have much free time to sight-see - such is the gigging musicians' life - but on the way to our concert Sasha from the Balassi Institute had our van driver detour so we could experience Red Square. There it was: the Kremlin in all its red revolutionary glory, the Church of St. Basil, and best of all: Lenin's tomb. It was too late to get into see the century old pickled remains of the mastermind of the Communist Revolution. So I did what any self respecting left-leaning American-Hungarian Yiddishist would do one hundred years after the October Revolution: I took a selfie.
Do not wake up Lenin!
Moscow is also expensive: very very expensive. You need to visit an ATM machine merely to walk into a McDonald's. Sorry, but no food porn, no close ups of twenty varieties of dumplings or tips on where to get the best blinis. We stopped in a supermarket, I bought some Russian black bread and ate a salami I brought from home for the weekend. You gotta remember: we musicians do gigs to make money, not spend it in one of the world's most expensive cities. The Balassi people were good enough to take us to an upscale cafeteria on the night of the concert, so we did not go hungry...

The Workers demand blintzes! 
I put edin and edin together and got dva: blini is the equivalent to blintze. Man, this place was getting way to close to home. And almost as quickly as we had come, we were gone: back to Budapest! It is Karacsony time in Hungary: two days in Moscow, a three hour flight and bingo! And today in Hungary  is Santa Claus Day - Mikulas - for all of you waiting for a Jolly fellow with gifts. We went to the big Holiday market downtown and caught a set of fine gaida music from Bulgaria played by a young group from the village of Kalofer. Gaida is my joint.... nothing says Xmas like sheepskin bagpipes.

And within one week I will be gone yet again: flying to New York (OK... Newark) next week for a month and a half. Chances are the next post on the blog will have either Shake Shack or Japanese food waving in your faces. Check in on the Yiddish New York festival: there will be a lunchtime showing of the film "Soul Exodus" as part of the video program. And afterwards, maybe we can grab a slice of pizza... or a blintz!

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Playing for Ghosts: Tranzit House in Cluj, Romania

The Tranzit House (Casa Tranzit / Tranzit Haz) is a cultural center that opened twenty years ago in the Transylvanian city of Cluj ( in Hungarian: Kolozsvar) Romania. Originally it was the Poalei Tzaddik orthodox Jewish synagogue, but by 1990  the Cluj Jewish community had shrunk to about 200 and had few resources to maintain the many abandoned synagogues in the city. When I first saw the shul it was a miserable ruin - broken windows, collapsed roof - hidden in a courtyard along the Somes river in downtown Cluj. Csilla Konczei, an anthropologist known for studies of ethnic minority folk culture in Transylvania, established the Tranzit foundation to promote multi-ethnic and independent arts, rented the abandoned building on Strada Baritiu, and set about restoring the building as a cultural center. When they formally opened the restored shul as a performance space in 1997, Di Naye Kapelye was invited to play on a bill that included the Palatka Band. This year, I was invited back to play again to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the opening.

Tranzit House, Str. Baritiu Nr. 16.
Before the concert they showed a bit of video of our performance in 1997. Twenty years ago we were a smaller band, and I was twenty years younger. It seemed a bit cruel to have a twenty foot tall digital image of my younger self on the wall for instant comparison with the grubby old Jewish guy scraping away on a fiddle just below it. For this gig there wasn't the budget to bring Di Nayes so I played with a couple of younger Hungarian folk musicians from Cluj and with a couple of hours of practice we managed to pull off a set.

Di Naye Kapelye, Tranzit Haz, 1997
Even when there isn't a big budget I am willing to play Cluj just to underwrite a free visit. It is my favorite town in Transylvania, my second home in Europe, and a lot of my warmest friends are there. Also the memories of friends who are no longer among us - Saska Jeno, the Armenian Priest of Szamosujvar, Carmen Titrus, the daughter of the great Gypsy violinist Alexander Titrus, the Palatka fiddler Marton Kodoba, and my fiddle mentor Berki "Arus" Ferenc: Feribacsi from Mera. I miss them all, and when I play in Cluj I feel like I am presenting a concert for ghosts. Don't get em wrong - I'm fine with the living who come to concerts. They pay for tickets, at least.

Éljen Árus!
Also, there is the flea market - the Oser de Haine - on Saturday morning. The Cluj flea marlet used to be a huge sprawling mudfest of used clothing, motorcycle parts, and live rabbits for sale that spread over several kilometers of an outlying district of Cluj and snaked along the railway tracks to add a frisson of danger as one browsed amid whooshing trains and stray dogs along the tracks. Even today the streets leading to the market are clogged with people peddling stuff.

Better than Walmart
Inside the market there is a lot of stuff that would rate as "junk" to some but treasure to others. People still depend on bargain hunting in Romania, and used clothes are a big seller, as is kitchen equiptment, gardening tools, and abandoned creepy dolls that could be in an art school film class project.

We didn't get to visit the Fair at Negreni this year, but I managed to make up for it by picking up a knife sharpening stone and three hemostats for less than five Euros. I checked around just in case anybody was selling eighty year old diatonic accordions - if a vintage single row diatonic Monarch in repairable condition is ever going to show up, this is where it ought to be. And then... lunch!

Be sure to visit the food court on the lower level!
Let's be honest - I was as guilty as anyone of promoting Romania during the 1990s as the last wild and primitive place in Europe, full of grimy factories, depressing block flats, pristine villages and food that would pass as inedible in a Brazilian prison. Back then horse carts did roll around downtown and sheep grazed in the city parks... but no more. And remember: nobody wants to be called the last primitive place in Europe.

Civilized dining in classy surroundings.
I have since watched Romania surpass Hungary in total amount of trendy cafes, Neapolitan pizza, middle eastern lunch joints, internet wifi speed, wild trout streams, and anti-corruption laws. You really have to search for anything that reminds you on Romania as it was in the grey 1990s. The flea market is that place.

Chef's special: meat with no kale and no quinoa.
To be honest, I love eating at the flea market, or anywhere Romanians go to eat mititei, also called "mici" which can, justifiably, be called "primitive" As far as ground meatwads go, the Romanian version is the least civilized, compared to Bosnian cevapi, Turkish kofte, Serbian cevapcici, and even the dreaded cuminburger Bulgarian kebabche. Its basically a log of ground cow, garlic, and salt made rubbery buy the addition of soda bicarbonate, eaten with bread and mustard. But when in Romania, do as the Romanians do: eat the mici!

Monday, October 16, 2017

Budapest: No News is Fake News

Nearly an entire summer passed without a blog update, perhaps the most gaping lacunae in the history of this blog. I should hang my head in shame, but it has been a low key summer: no grand travel plans, a tight economy, and a scorching midsummer heatwave made sure we didn't stray far from Hungary. No new Balkan wars broke out, no sea of refugees flooded Hungary's borders, nobody poisoned the paprika this year. Our football squad lost a World Cup qualifier to Andorra (which had not won an international match in 13 years.) Our politicians are still abject sleazebags and thieves, and our women are beautiful. There are too many tourists and they are badly dressed and loud at night. There, that's it. That's Hungary in 2017. How many posts about the corner pastry shop can anybody bear? So, no new updates. Who the heck still blogs anymore in this age of  Facebook and Twitter? (Twitter? Abject sleazebags.) And now, just to let you know I am alive...

Note: No cakes were eaten during the maintenance of this blog...
Let me tell you about my corner pastry shop! Our "staycation" was marked by the opening of a new cafe and bakery at our local market: The Lud (The Goose) Cafe is run by the woman who runs the quality vegetable stand at the Klauzal ter  market, and it is worth the trip in itself. Apart from serving the most affordable coffee in Budapest they bake  a lot of their goods in-house, and feature old school cakes like Rigo Jancsi and Dobos Torta that you can't find in Budapest pastry shops any more without the intrusive fusion touch of some chef who has watched too may cake baking reality TV shows. At the Lud the Dobos cake has a hard caramel topping, and the Rigo is dark chocolate. It ain't retro, its real. The Lud is our new afternoon caffeine refill station.

Roast goose carcass for lunch!
A couple of doors down from the market is the legendary Kadar Etkezde, a lunch-only restaurant that specializes in the untrendy and unhealthy staples of Hungarian food that are quickly being forgotten by a generation of young chefs. Yes, it is actually hard to find good old Hungarian food in Budapest. The old "Grandma's Sunday lunch" stuff started disappearing as soon as Grandma got a microwave and a deep fat fryer for Christmas. Our little secret, which I will share with you, is that there is one day a week when the Kadar's revolving menu  features a goose pilaf using bits left over from the geese they use for their goose leg and the goose meatloaf that they serve on top of their solet, the Hungarian Jewish version of cholent that is the specialty of the house at Kadar. (I could tell you which day, but then I would have to shoot you)

Solet with goose "meatball" at Kadar
On that day the goose pilaf is absolutely the thing to order, but if you suppose that you live just across the street, and you order it to take out because you were too lazy to make lunch that day, and they know you as a local who shows up with fashionable foreign ethnomusicologist guests from time to time, they give you a whopping huge portion consisting of an half a roast goose carcass and three goose wings on pilaf. After stripping the meat off the bones I had enough for three full meals of roast goose (including the spongy and slimy black goose lungs which, I discovered, are really tasty and I want to eat them for breakfast every day.

Pide, the Turkish entry into the world Pizza competition. 
We don't really go out to eat very much besides the occasional 30 meter trek to Kadar's, but there are exceptions. Budapest has a lot of "Turkish" fast food grills but no real Turkish restaurants. There is, however, the Secret Turkish Place Where Turkish Truck Drivers Spend their Weekends While Grounded in Budapest by the European Union's No Truck Driving on Weekends Law. Also known as the Istanbul Kebab House (Orczy ut 48) it is, basically, part of a Turkish Han complex, a place where Anatolian truck drivers chill out and sip tea and play backgammon until they can legally get back on the roads on Monday morning. It is located near the Chinese market, literally inside a Lukol station, a carwash and indoor garage off of Orczy ter in the outer 8th district.

Lahmacun: better than pizza.
They do offer the doner kebab that has become so beloved of Hungarian office workers as well as some very popular Turkish lokanta dishes (chick pea and beef stew, tas kebab, sutlac) and a killer lamb shank soup. But we come here because they bake Turkish pide and lahmacun. Really good pide and lahmacun and cheap too. FT 500 a lahmacun makes it worth a bike ride, plus we go shopping at the Chinese market when we are done.

By now we are well into the autumn: the heater is on, the sweaters are unpacked, and we are already planning our seasonal migration to the marshlands of New Jersey and the Burger And Taco highlands of the Bergen County, the hand-pulled Noodlefields of Queens, and the rich Knishlands of the Bronx. Now that will be something to blog about!

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

The Magnificent Glory of the Hungarian Summer Tomato.

In Hungarian we have a term for the summer doldrums: uborkaszezon. Cucumber season. Its the time of the year that the newspapers have so little to report that they fill up their pages with feature stories on the cucumbers ripening, or the glut of zucchinis in the market, or the multimillion Euro political manipulation of the watermelon market within a one party system (this is Hungary, after all...) But there is one thing we in East Europe (or more accurately, the Eastern East Central North Balkans) have that makes summer here so enjoyable is the quality of tomatoes. Yes, the humble red emigrant from North America that comes into season around this time of year (fuck you, cucumbers!) tomatoes make summer in Hungary 600% better than summer in the United States.  Because we have tomatoes. Real tomatoes.

Kalenic Piaca, Belgrade, Serbia.
 The tomato in the USA are the product of so much genetic fuckery and market compromise that the original product - the tomato - has disappeared and been replaced by a uniformly pink and flavorless tennis ball shaped orb of cottony mush. Americans today can not really buy a real tomato. It simply is not available. There are some folks who do grow them, and maybe a few farmers markets that sell them, but I have not tasted a fresh tomato worthy of the name in the USA for decades. If you want to taste tomato in the USA, you get a canned Italian tomato. You can got to trendy restaurants in New York and the chef makes your salad with slices of those watery pale pink grainy, mushy tomatoes because there is no way an American chef under the age of forty is going to remember what a real tomato tastes like, much less where to get one. My brother is a chef, and he states that the taste of a modern tomato in the US is simply "wet."

Central Market, Zagreb, Croatia
When we travel around in Europe, we always make a beeline to the local open market, and since staying in a hotel rarely provides us with anyplace to actually cook, we end up eating a lot of tomatos, and then rating the countries not on their cultural success or political arguments, but simply on the quality of their salad ingredients. The absolute best? Krakow Poland in early July. Not kidding. Big whopping tasty tomatoes. Second Place: Croatia. Those folks have never played genetic Orphan Black games with their salad ingredients. Hungary barely edges out Romania in the tomato race, mainly because in Romania they still sell comically misshapen tomatoes that look like Richard Nixon's face covered with tumors, which taste great, but still....

Romania: where vegetables are still made of vegetable matter. 
As we've noted before, we still have farmers markets with country folk trucking in small scale produce from family farms to sell, and a lot of them are dipping into organic produce as well. After all, the European Union supports (read "pays for") organic farming and Hungarians like anything that is "supported" even if it means growing outlandish alien vegetables they have no idea how to cook, like napa cabbage and daikon radish. Living in a Judeo-Japanese household in eastern Euope, we go through a lot of daikon and napa cabbage, but we have to ask: what the fuck do Hungarians do with these? I never see any recipes in the foodie media about how to deal with either ingredient, and yet you can buy them everywhere...

The tomatoes of the village in Moldova where my Grandfather was born.
Hungarian supermarkets basically stock cabbage, carrots, onions and potatoes, while peppers, tomatoes, and most fruit remain seasonal. When I came here in the late 80s that meant you simply did not get a fresh pepper or tomato between October and June. That has changed - greenhouses and international agribusiness have seen to that - and you can get tomatoes and peppers year round now, but we still have recourse to the farmers markets. This year we have fallen in love with the tart, dark "black tomato" which has become popular. As far as I know, these are either the Dark Crimean variety or the Carolina Black version, both of which are delicious but trigger unfortunate memories of the last USA Presidential election. Sad.

My olive oil is better than yours.
Sure, this has been a simple excuse to post a lot of photos of tomatoes on the blog... it is, after all, cucumber season. And I basically eat a half kilo of tomatoes a day during the summer. But if you have cukes and tomatoes, well, all you need is to make a salad. For that you need olive oil. And we get ours on trips to the south of us: Croatia, Slovenia, or on our latest trip, Montenegrin olive oil bought in the market in Belgrade. Because we need to eat more food that have been grown near the sound of this:

Sunday, July 09, 2017

Trout Fishing in Serbia. In Yiddish.

I am a fly fisherman. I fish for trout. I am not always successful in the catching part, but the fishing for part I can handle very well. Trout fishing is not about going out and collecting fish meat for the table. You want trout for dinner, go to your local supermarket and pick up some farmed rainbow trout and grill them up! I prefer to let the wild trout be, and for the last fifty years or so most fly fishermen have adopted the practice of releasing their catch. Our trip to the Gradac river in Serbia with Claude Cahn and his lovely family was strictly a catch-and-release operation. The Gradac is home to a healthy wild strain of brown trout, with some grayling. Careful management of the fishery has made the river able to produce huge fish without resorting to tossing in stocked fish from hatcheries, and the purity of the water is such that the insect life that feed trout is extremely diverse and viable. We stayed with master fly tier Sasha Bencun who runs the Rokafly operation and guest lodge on the Gradac. Sasha maintains the river as well as drives the tiny four wheel drive jeep that negotiates the narrow donkey path down into the canyon. Why do I love fishing for trout? Because you catch trout in the most beautiful, wild places. 

Fumie with a healthy Gradac brown trout.
I began fishing at five years old - dunking worms for sunfish from a pier - and, like any kid, I hated worms. Worms are disgusting, especially the horrific looking sandworms we used for catching flounder off the Bronx. You may not realize it, but New York is full of fisherfolk. It is surrounded by water, and that means its surrounded by free food. My Dad and his friends were dedicated ocean fishermen, working class Jewish New Yorkers in pursuit of the wily flounder of Long Island Sound off of City Island and Orchard Beach. After the Great Migration from the Bronx to New Jersey I found myself in a Boy Scout troop that went on fishing trips to catch bass, perch and pickerel, classic New Jersey lake fish - on worms. Say what you will about impaling living slime tubes on hooks, worms always catch fish. The grownups, however, used fly rods and caught these beautiful torpedo shaped trout, a fish that I knew only from outdoor magazines, and then they would stand around saying adult things like "Hey! Will ya look at those speckled beauties." Soon I got mixed up in the excitement of catching fish without having to vivisect worms!  Most of what I knew about fly fishing came from outdoor writers born in the early 20th century, like Ray Bergman, who fished wild brook trout in natural waters a few miles outside of New York City and used tackle that predated fiberglass rods and nylon lines. I'm still a luddite when it comes to tackle. I like to keep it simple and cheap.
Claude fishing in 1896. 
I used to throw huge size 6 Mickey Finn streamers and wet flies at the trout and - of course - never caught a one. It wasn't until I was in my twenties that I actually caught a trout on a fly. Once that happened, I was, ahem, hooked. I learned to tie flies (I couldn't afford to buy them) When I moved to Europe I was able to suppress the urge to catch trout for a few years, but once, while on a weekend Sixtus Kapolna pub retreat with Claude Cahn in North Hungary, we decided to (illegally) fish one of the few Hungarian streams reputed to hold trout. It did. We got away with the crime - this is Hungary, after all, and crime is legal - and since then we have been combing East Europe and Balkans looking for trout, and mucking through the sometimes arcane bureaucracy of getting a fishing permit in order to do it legally. We fished Slovakia a lot until Claude's job posted him in Serbia and he discovered Rokafly and the Gradac.

Removing a fish from the water before releasing it is actually a very bad idea. 
And so we found ourselves in western Serbia last week, at the bottom of a deep canyon knee deep in cold, clear water, casting fly lines at wild brown trout the size of my leg, locked in a complex duel of wits and skill with simple vertebrates whose brains are the size of a lentil. (Trout fishing resembles politics in this aspect.) We wrote last September about visiting Valjevo, where Sasha Bencun runs the Rokafly fishing lodge. Back then fishing was slower: late season always is. This year Claude - known in Talmudic circles as the Maimonides of the Dry Fly - booked Sasha's guest house for June, prime time for trout. We arrived at the tail end of summer's first heat wave, but the canyon shaded the river and the fish were still active.

Maimonides with a heavy Gradac Brown Trout.
The Gradac is said to be one of Europe's cleanest rivers, and the trout are wild brown trout that breed in the steam - no stocked rainbows here. There are Grayling as well - not as many as in the past, since comorants - fish eating ducks - have invaded the interior of Serbia. I do not like comorants: they have pretty much ruined the fishing on my favorite Slovak stream, the Revuca. The grayling are always their first victims. Grayling have mouths on the bottom of their heads, so they don't notice dangers from above, as the trout do who feed at all stream levels. They are also somewhat less skittish than trout and tend to form schools in shallow water, making these little goobers easy prey for dive bombing ducks, which can eat two kilos of fish in a day.

So no, we did not eat any of these fish. Instead, Sasha's wife Biljana cooked up some of the best farm-fresh Serbian food imaginable: our first day lunch was a platter of grilled meats, cevapcici, chicken, and cutlets, pickled red peppers, clotted cream kaymak, cheese, salad, and fresh loaves of somun bread. Nobody would want to eat a fish instead of a Serbian grill feast.

Light lunch
Sure it isn't everyday you see two Jewish guys out fly fishing. (In Serbia this is even more rare.) Traditionally, fly fishing is a sport of the gentile elite, of English gents and Wall Street bankers, of Wyoming ranchers, guys who answer to names like Chip, and Wiley. That's what I love about fishing in the Balkans: nobody cares that the cast of Fiddler on the Roof is double hauling dry flies to the mayfly hatch at 7 AM. I don't wear much identifiable fishing gear: no waders, no fancy vest, just a baseball cap from Katz's deli. I talk to the fish in Yiddish: kim zhe arayn, reb fishl! nokh a bisl mer, reb fishl!  Claude, however, is a Yekke and speaks perfect High German. He  looks like the Orvis fishing company took out an advertisement in Der Sturmer.

And yet, the 19th century father of genteel British dry fly fishing, Frederic M. Halford, was Jewish. According to no less of an authority that Wikipedia,  "Frederic Halford, whose first book,Floating Flies and How to Dress Them, was published in 1886 and took the upper-crust world of British fly-fishing by storm...Halford was born Frederic Michael Hyam into a wealthy Jewish family of German ancestry in 1844 in Birmingham, England." 

Halford established the English obsession with using dry flies exclusively, and corresponded with the American outdoor writer and fisherman Theodore Gordon who imported the idea - and the flies - to the Catskill Mountains a few hours north of New York City. The Catskills region has since juggled two influential cultures: the gentleman fishermen who pursue trout in streams like the Nevesink and Delaware, and the millions of New York Jews who went to spend their summers in hotels and bungalow colonies. To this day, there are Hasidic summer colonies throughout the region. If a Jew is involved with trout fishing, it probably started in the Catskills. Our family friend, Frank Plotnik, a Warsaw Ghetto partisan veteran , taught me about bass fishing in the Catskills on vacations at the Tamarack Lodge - including the information that fish speak Yiddish. Trout are not, however, the most Jewish of fish. A Jewish fish is something you can haggle for in a fish market, something you can take home alive and keep in a bathtub until the time comes to kill, cook, and eat. Carp is a Jewish fish. Pike is a Jewish fish. The entire genus of overgrown bony minnows called  "whitefish" are Jewish fish. Basically, if something is a beautiful sport fish that you can eat freshly filleted, it is not a Jewish fish. A Jewish fish is a bony, fatty fish gets chopped and denatured and extended with bread or matzoh, formed into gelatinous balls. and stuffed back into the fish skin, a practice still observed in East Europe and Turkey. The "stuffing" lends the fish its name: gefilte fish. Nowadays we more modern Jews leave out the re-stuffing of the fish skin and just eat the stuff from jars.

The Memorial to Reb Fishl.
The Talmud doesn't require any special ceremony or incantations when you dispatch a Jewish fish - just whack it on the head and begin the process of boiling, chopping, and deflavoring. The reason is that cows, sheep, or poultry are animals that live on land - and they require a shekhter - a kosher slaughter - to purify them of the baser elements that go with things that live on earth (such as Fox News, Domino's Pizza, Ebola virus, and Senator Paul Ryan.) Fish, living in purer water, merely need to be "gathered." No blessing, no pricey rabbinical presence, just scale 'em, fry 'em, and you are good to go.