Sunday, June 10, 2018

Not All Americans are Assholes: Anthony Bourdain, 1956 - 2018.

Back in the early days of blogging, before twitter and instagram and snapchat I wrote a post "Anthony Bourdain does Romania: National Scandal Ensues" which remains the single most visited page on this blog. Last Friday afternoon Fumie looked up from her tablet and quietly announced "Anthony Bourdain has died." The news that the host of CNN Parts Unknown had taken his own life in an Alsatian hotel was, perhaps, the only time a celebrity obit ever shocked me. I don't put much emotional value in celebrity passings, but Bourdain was in a different category. He may have had the most popular show on CNN, but he was no celebrity. He may have been the most recognized kitchen worker on TV, but he would be the first to reject the label celebrity chef. Bourdain was a normal guy... maybe hyper-normal. He was... a mensch. It is a type we know well in New Jersey... raised in the 1970s within walking distance of the George Washington Bridge, close enough to New York to catch the late shows at CBGB's but far enough to lack any street cred. It is a kind of massive chip to carry on your shoulder, and Bourdain carried it with a vengeance. In the suburbs either you got a Phd or you became a line cook. All my friends got Phds. I got a job as a garbage man for the Hackensack Sanitation Department. (My brother became a line cook. My sister, however, is a doctor.) So when I watched or read Anthony Bourdain's stuff, it felt awfully close to home. You could almost smell the Meadowlands stench on it, just aching to get to the toll booth at the GW Bridge and cross those rusting steel beams to the city of dreams.

Bourdain was raised in Leonia, NJ, about three miles from where I lived in Teaneck when I went to High School. We were both born in the same year. His local new Jersey hot dog stand was Hiram's in Fort Lee - ours was Callahan's, across the street. We both hung out at the Culinary Institute of America in Poughkeepsie NY at the same time in the 1970s with about the same amount of commitment. At least I was not enrolled - I played blues fiddle with the near legendary Chops McCoy's band in the CIA pub on weekends. I can't claim to have ever really met Bourdain, but I remember Chops once taking me off campus to buy a baggie of pot from a dodgy off campus guy who may well have been Bourdain - all I remember is that the guy was an asshole and the pot was... as Chops McCoy put  it "You don't smoke it, you season lamb with it."  Bourdain also partook of one major dirty, delicious secret that I am also guilty of: Popeye's fried chicken.

Bourdain was a competent chef - his specialty at Les Halles in New York was the bog standard French steak frites - but his real talent was storytelling. Bourdain loved food, but his real skill was describing the people who made it, from producers to dishwashers to chefs. Bourdain had no fear of words, no writer's block, and a knack for that wry twist that only comes from somebody who has puked tequila and beer at a Ramones gig. (As such he was a story editor's dream.)  He read widely and idolized  William S. Boroughs, Hunter Thompson, George Orwell, and Joan Didion among others. He read with an editor's eye, but he wrote as if he were talking to a table full of close friends at an after hours bar. At the age of 44, an article he had written "Don't Eat before Reading This" made it to The New Yorker, and from there to a publisher who reworked it as Kitchen Confidential. My brother - who has never held any job in his life that did not require holding an onion in one hand and a knife in the other - posted this on Facebook: "Before that book I could tell people what I did for a living and it was as if I was speaking in tongues. After "Confidential" people knew what we did and they respected it. I always wanted to thank Anthony for that. He made being what I was when I woke up, and what I was when passed out and absolutely everything between acceptable, even desirable."

Kitchen Confidential led to a successful career on television. Bourdain's style was unique - he didn't conform to the stereotypes expected by the Food Network or the Travel Channel, he smoked, he drank, he had opinions, he told stories of his drug days, and occasionally rolled one up and inhaled on camera. Some shows worked, some did not (Romania stands out in this regard.) but the viewer always knew that Bourdain was trying to show something honest and real: Truth in television rarely intrudes on travel or food shows. He eventually came to roost at staid CNN with Parts Unknown at a time when, in hindsight, we needed him the most. Anthony Bourdain taught Americans that they did not have to be afraid of the world. Sitting with iranian families sharing a meal, talking to regular folk in Gaza, knocking back a beer with Obama at a bun cha stand in Hanoi, or chowing down on greasy megashnitzels at Budapest's obscure and beautifully grungy Pleh Csarda, Anthony Bourdain showed the world that there actually were Americans who were not assholes. He used his airtime to describe the lives of normal people in places like Gaza, Laos, Armenia, and Beirut to Americans and others who, like him, did not want to be assholes. At a time when the United States of America is identified with one of the most repulsive assholes to ever hold public office, Anthony Bourdain presented an hour each week of tolerance, decency, and a willingness to listen to and learn from people not like himself. Anthony Bourdain touched a lot of people, and will be sorely missed. We needed that hour each week of learning to not fear people. Now more than ever. Now more than ever. 

In Memoriam: Anthony Bourdain visits my home town, the Bronx:

Wednesday, May 09, 2018

Spring comes to Budapest's Party District

We want to come and live underneath your bedroom window !
...and thus ends the longest hiatus in the history of this blog! We haven't posted since that New Years day in icy Paterson, New Jersey. There are a lot of reasons for that. One is the simple realization that my daily life in Budapest is simply not that exotic, and how many more posts do we need about spring vegetables in the local market, or recipes for liver sausage? Of course, if you don't live here you may think it is exotic. My neighborhood - the historic Jewish Ghetto of Budapest's 7th district - is fast becoming the center of Budapest's drunk and loud nighttime tourism flood. This is not the yacht crowd, or even the seasoned backpacker crowd you may find in a Nepali mountain hut. Think "accounting department of a property management company in Liverpool stag party" meets "football fans from Lyons  on a crazy weekend getaway" with beer one quarter the price of what it is in Olde Blighty. It gets noisy. And messy.

"Le Grand Rue du Bad Restaurants"
Half the flats in my building have turned into Air B&B rentals or semi legal hostels, indeed half the residences in my neighborhood have become budget rentals for fly-in weekenders and Hungarian flatlanders who flock here for the rebranded bulinegyed or "Party Quarter." Ten years ago there were about four really good pubs in the area - and there were about three "ruin bars" - alternative spaces set up in abandoned or condemned housing. Today the real "Ruin Bars" are all gone, replaced by pricey courtyard garden bistros or by lots of cheap "Eight shots for a five bucks" tourist bars. Then there is the Godzsu Udvar, an uber-kitsch testament to bad taste and disastrous city planning which turned a unique piece of urban history into the food court of a sad mall. The majority of these places are owned by families and companies with close funding ties to the Ruling Party That Rules Everything. The Szimpla, which was one of the original ruin bars, is now a self conscious tourist magnet for those who want to visit something of the alternative past - sort of a hipster ride at Disneyland - but so crowded with tourists at night that they actually have a velvet rope and doormen to face check you as you enter.
The Szimpla Kert in the quiet moment before it becomes an Australian backpacker meat market..
Still, the Szimpla - as the oldest and probably the last of the original ruin bars - does keep a sense of community, at least, hosting an organic farmer market on sunday mornings, periodic bicycle markets, and dance houses on some weekday nights. I used to maintain a live and let live attitude towards the changes that were engulfing the 7th district: after all, it maintains its daytime character as the Jewish district and a place where you can get a shoe fixed or a zipper replaced at the corner tailor shop, plus we have an Indian grocery, a cevapcici diner, and a decent cheap Bengali place for cheap take out biryani. But this summer the pressure is building. Local residents are growing angry at the noise levels and the nighty trashing of the streets - on Sunday morning the sidewalks are literally covered in vomit, broken bottles, and yes, excrement. A few days ago I had drunken people - tourists, unless Hungarian drunks have switched to French and Mancunian after midnight - howling beneath my bedroom window until 4 in the morning.

On a lighter note - Hungarian Dance House Day held its annual festival on Ferenc Liszt square and I dropped in for a set by Muzsikas. Muzsikas still top the list of my favorite trad folk bands in Hungary, still kicking after four decades of playing together. The festival was originally the brainchild of Bela Halmos, the fiddler and musicologist who ignited the revival of Hungarian traditional music back in 1971, starting an alternative youth movement that became a way of life.

Bela Halmos: a good friend, a great musician.
Sadly, Bela passed away a few weeks after I last saw him playing at Tanchaz Napaja in 2013. Since then the event has been held in his honor. Another simple reason for my lack of posts has been technical. My usual digital Nikon coolpix camera has gone insane. Taking photos with it is extremely hit or miss: will it turn on or will it not turn on? How about if I remove the battery? How about if I hit it? Aha! that did it.... so most of the time I use my Nexus tablet , which is not exactly the best option for photography and definitely not convenient. (See the photos above? The nice night time bar photos? Fumie's.) Most people simply tell me to get a smart phone... my answer is no. I am not a smart phone person. I'm not entirely a luddite or technophobe, but I see all those people walking around in the streets with their eyes glued to their little square phones and I know that could easily happen to me.... I could become one of them in a microsecond. Instant internet access. 24 hour Google maps. Apps for everything. Nope. Ain't gonna happen. At least not anytime soon. So we will see if the blog regains its graphic splendor. It all depends on a Nikon Coolpix with mental disorders.

FIDESZ 2010. We do not forget easily. 
Oh, and we survived the Hungarian election in April. FIDESZ won. FIDESZ always wins. And the poster above tells you why: a photo of George Soros with the words "Don't let Soros have the last laugh!" graffitied - as most were - with the words "Stinking Jew!" So helpful. Thanks FIDESZ. Enjoy your victory.

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!