Monday, February 23, 2015

Ptuj: Kurent Events

Winter is a time when everybody can use cheering up. Hungary has had a relatively easy winter this year, compared to the sci-fi frozen hell North America has been enduring. Everyone would surely be grateful for an invasion of horned demons coming to scare winter away. Here in the Balkan regions (I know, Hungarians hate referring to where they live by anything but "Central Europe... but its a culture spectrum and we gonna get Balkan now) there is an old tradition of winter Carnival figures masked in shaggy sheepskin costumes and wearing huge cowbell belts dancing through the streets around Mardi Gras time.

Hey Pocky Way! Spy Boy comin' from way uptown!
From as far south as Greece, where they appear as babouyeri,and up through Bulgaria where they are callled Kukeri and across the Balkans as far as Slovenia, these masked figures are actually vague memorials to the Dionysus cult which have adapted themselves to making appearances on the Christian calendar. You remember Dionysus? The ultimate frat boy of the Greek pantheon? Hung out with Pan a lot. Greek texts about Dionysus are one long Classical Greek ode to dicks and ummm... shagging. Sure, you can convert an entire civilization to Byzantine Orthodoxy or even Roman Catholicism, but an Orphic ritual  sausage party cult filled with wine and dick jokes never gets old. Might as well incorporate it into the official celebration before it gets out of hand and becomes the year round religion instead.

 Just as we have Mardi Gras to celebrate one big last blow out before the forty day period of lent so do the closet Dionysians of the Balkans have their Kukeri traditions. In Hungary we have the Busójárás in the town of Mohacs, a city on the Danube with a big minority population of Sokac, who are Catholic Slavs not quite Croat nor quite Serb. Their version of the Balkan Goat Devil Dance has since been re-interpreted into some kind of dimly fabricated and non historic fairy tale during which the busó masked dancers scared the invading Turks off. (Historical note: The Turks, in fact, won at Mohacs and ruled Hungary for 160 years.) It has become rather commercialized these days, but then, what Carnival isn't? The Slovenian variety are called kurent, and the festival and parade is the kurentovanje. There are two main varieties: horned kurent and feathered kurent. Never a lack of choice in Slovenia!

Birdman wins the Oscars!
So what do a non-skiing Jew and a Buddhist do when winter fever gets too heavy to bear and a vacation is in order? Head out to carnival in... Slovenia! Why Slovenia? Well, for one there is the town of Ptuj. One can visit Ptuj simply because of the name of the town. How many towns are there named for onomatopoetic sounds involving mucus?

Maybe next year we will visit Slurp!
Ptuj is, however, a jewel: the oldest town in Slovenia, with streets laid out and intact since Roman times, set in a hilly wine growing region, with castles and ancient churches and museums a plenty with great cheap accommodation and good food - which kind of describes about 70% of Slovenia's small towns. Ptuj is famous for its carnival, Pust, which draws crowds from all across Slovenia. I had seen photos of the masked dancers - who are classics of the Balkan Goat God syndrome - and suggested we check it out. Six hours on train, not pricey, and bizarrely friendly people everywhere. It did the job: winter blues gone.

What are you clowns doing here?
Carnival is not for the stuck up among us. In Hungary it has devolved into a party day for children to wear costumes, but in many Catholic countries like Slovenia it is hard core silly season, time to drink, act like clowns, literal clowns, and eat all that greasy roast pork that you are going to be abstaining from during lent. And what could be a better than an international festival parade of carnival masks! First we got the locals: whip snapping "ploughmen" who scare off the evil spirits of winter with cracking whips. And yes, they were skipping through the streets to Alpine accordion oom-pah music.

Skip to my Lou... with whips.
Few musical genres are as hard for me to bear as Alpine music. Living in a country next door to Austria has made me sensitive to this most cringe-worthy of repertoires. I play diatonic button accordion, and although invented by Germans in the 19th century, the squeezebox traveled the world over becoming the paleo-synthesizer of the poor and technologically needy, producing dynamic and funky modal traditions of music like Zydeco, Madagascar spirit possesion music, Slovak mountain music and Irish reels. Alpine music, however, are those variety shows you see on Austrian and Bavarian TV in which geriatric people swig beer steins seated at benches, swaying while a series of singers clad in dirndl and lederhosen warble through a slick, geeky song and dance routine based on the worst Heidi of the Alps stereotypes imaginable. As if that's not bad enough, watching one of these shows on a TV in an Austrian motel for more than an hour will reveal a fetish with novelty singers: Africans dressed in lederhosen yodeling, underage teenage twins playing accordions on inline skates, and the soundtrack to the obscure but widespread genre of Alpine softcore porn. Singing raccoons and thalidomide babies can not be far behind. You know that video with the goofy guy wearing a suit outfited with bicycle horns beeping away as he dances to an oom-pah band? Yes.. Konis Hupen - with almost 3 million YouTube views - is a classic of the genre. (Warning: if you click on that link be sure to have something to protect your eyes. They will burn.)

Where is your God now, human?
So forgive me God, I had to face my fears and look the demon of Alpine accordion music in the face and scream "Do your worst! You can't hurt me!" Understand: Slovenia is an incredibly diverse country with about six separate climate zones, about four distinct cuisines, and about 50 dialects of the Slovenian language, There is some really good, funky Slovene music, especially among the Slovenes living just across the border in the Resia Valley of Italy, played on fiddle for Carnival, one of the most stubbornly traditional fiddle traditions left in Europe, great stuff - I have been there and even got drafted into playing a dance when the local fiddler passed out drunk (you get free food if you play music, too!)

But you can't get to Resia without a car and we were in Ptuj. Which is the heart, soul, endocrine system and gallbladder of Slovenian Alpine accordion music. And Slovenia is the heart of the Alpine accordion world - the home of Slavko Arsenik, the Paganini of Oom-Pah. In the USA there is the Slovenian style of polka music, which still depends in large part on playing these technically limiting diatonic button accordions. Of course, Slovenes have also played on piano accodions - both the legendary FrankieYankovich and the oddly unrelated but similarly named Slovenian American Weird Al Yankovich are prime examples.

Their melodies shall haunt my nightmares forever.
And the kids playing them - kids, still wearing braces on their teeth - were in the Hendrix range of control on their instruments, masters of some of the most annoying melodic phrases in the history of popular music. And by late afternoon, as the parade had ended and all the kurrent masqueraders were busy tying one on at the main market square festivities, they would pogo dance to this music, creating a wild cacaphony that drowned out everything else while they shook and jumped and just made noise, glorious noise, noise to scare the winter away. In the tent were the two main attractions of a Ptuj carnival: beer and donuts.

A Slovenian Homer Simpson Happy Meal.
Lots of donuts. On every corner... crates and crates of donuts. When we went out to lunch the next day before returning to Budapest, we went to a local restaurant to see a room full of old people at 11:30 AM drinking wine and eating donuts. Our waitress - helpful and friendly as all Slovenian waitresses were - pointed out the daily special - donuts! - and explained that the donuts there were house made and very special. We passed. there is only so much Goat God and donuts one person can deal with in a weekend.  Oh.. and this helped.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

The Patriotism of Pastrami: Hobby's Deli, Newark, NJ.

Around about this time of year - during the short grey days of a Central European winter - I become consumed by a burning need. I need a pastrami sandwich. I need it now. And I can't have one.  There are none here. They live only in the Western hemisphere, and yet I can smell one, I can almost feel the texture of fatty squishy spiced meat on my palate, the salty savor of half-sour pickles, the satisfying swig of the second can of root beer. I can not have that here in Budapest. Not at all. Never.

The best thing in the entire world. Really. No exaggeration. This is why we live on earth.

Of course there are those who would debate me. Budapest boasts its own micro-media of foodie porn, and there are at least four places in Budapest now offering something they label pastrami. But having watched the video  of a guy checking out some Budapest pastrami sandwiches I can't bear to even experiment. (Imagine a homesick Hungarian wandering the streets of Manhattan lured by a sign announcing "Gulyás leves" only to find some kind of thin red broth with vanilla foam and a single olive mockingly served in a large Chinese soup spoon. You get the picture.) Previous Budapest food fads have included a burger craze: there are at least six new burger restaurants in my area of Budapest alone. If I want a cardboard meatball on a sweet brioche bun with a chef's salad piled on top and squirted with German BBQ ketchup I will know just where to go. Alas, White Manna is thousands of miles away, as is most of  the hallowed ground of New Jersey. If I want a burger I wait until I get back to the USA - specifically, New Jersey. The other is pastrami and corned beef. I have written about most of the New York's Jewish delis and their steamed, smoked and sliced versions of heaven on rye bread.

Al Gore and Russian PM Viktor Chernomyrdin at Katz's, 1996. (Photo: NY Daily News)

Katz's Deli - which has recently jacked its sandwich price to $19.95 for a pastrami on rye - has been featured many times. And let's face it: Yes, I will still go to Katz's and fork over a twenty for their sandwich simply because it is the best and it supports an cultural institution that is otherwise economically impossible to maintain in downtown Manhattan. In truth, I have started to look beyond Manhattan and back to my native Bronx in search of affordable deli sandwiches. The annual report - covering New York, Montreal, and Toronto delis - was published here a few months ago. We also made a special ancestral trip to Loesser's deli in the Bronx just to be completist, and we were glad we did. It is half the price of a Manhattan pastrami sandwich, and you get free refills on your freshly made cole slaw. But looking back over some of my files, I realized I had left out one very special NY area deli: Hobby's Deli in Newark New Jersey.

In New Jersey, everybody is a patriot. Everybody.
Hobby's is located smack in the downtown heart of Newark - a boarded up and depressed ghetto neighborhood near the Essex County Courthouse. But like a lot of America's old style delis, Hobby's survives because its lunch clients are a mix of courthouse lawyers and local workers in the predominantly black downtown Newark area. Before the 1960s, Jewish delis were often among the only restaurants in downtown areas that were willing to serve Black customers. Today many of the best delis in cities like Chicago, Baltimore, and Philadelphia are located in downtown ghettos. Corned beef and pastrami were made from cheap, tough belly cuts of beef that sold for pennies. In the globalized world, however, that beef gets shipped to China, and the price has risen like a rocket.

Deli etiquette: there can be no mystery to your lunch.
Delis used to be considered cheap places to eat: you could fill your belly for a couple of bucks. When I was in high school even I could afford lunch at delis - which is something since I went to High School in the late 14th century. If you had to eat lunch outside of school you could afford pizza, a cheapo burger, or a deli sandwich. Jersey used to have a lot of decent delis. Teaneck had an excellent deli in Tabatchnik's on Cedar Lane. Tabatchnik's is now called "Noah's Ark" and has been reborn as an Israeli kosher place serving the modern Orthodox congregations - people whose main culinary concern is limited to "which rabbi declared the food kosher?" Overnight the identity of "Jewish" food switched from Ashkenazic Jewish to Israeli Kosher, from food to fuel. The corned beef sandwich and kugel gave way to the falafel and chicken shnitzel, and the knish was re-purposed into a healthful vegetarian option. Knishes are not supposed to be healthy. Deli food is not supposed to be healthy. If I wanted healthy I would not be seated in a deli, popping sodium-packed pickles at a doctor-defying clip while balancing a salted cut of fatty beef in my other hand. The loss of Tabachnik's served as a emblematic lesson in the decline of Jewish delis in America in David Saxe's outstanding book about the deli tradition "Save the Deli."

All gloriously yours: your blood pressure will thank you!
The pastrami at Hobby's... it is a many splendored thing... who knew that something so good was hiding in Newark, New Jersey? Like almost all of the great NY delis, Hobby's cures its own pastrami and corned beef in their basement, meaning that the fermentation is triggered by bacteria that are essential to the final product. Like a fine French cheese or an Italian salami, a pastrami tastes of its own specific place, its terroir - in this case, the terroir of downtown Newark, New Jersey. You can search for flavor hints of the Newark Airport, the Jersey Turnpike, Raritan Bay, the Meadowlands and the enigmatic Kill Van Kull. Hobby's should get an award for most militantly locavore artisanal  product in the New York area.

"My love is a fever, longing still, for that which longer doth nurseth the pastrami..." Shakespeare, Sonnet 147
The sandwich is a thing of layered beauty. Hobby's uses a mechanical slicer: this is not actually bad in and of itself, and it helps keep prices down by eliminating waste. Hand sliced meat - such as is served at Katz's and Schwartz's in Montreal - wastes a lot of meat. There ends up only being about five sandwiches in a whole brisket. Hand sliced means thicker slices which cool down slower. And that is the thing with pastrami and corned beef: it is served steaming hot, but as it cools down it transforms into something dryer, denser, less appealing. It is the only food that deteriorates in quality as you eat it. Nobody ever wants to take leftover pastrami home, and it doesn't reheat well. The mustard seen above is my finishing touch: with that much meat you need a good deli mustard. The rye bread is really just a way of holding the thing together.

We were once a mighty civilization, and now we are this.
Nobody really takes side dishes seriously at a deli, But I had heard that Hobby's makes old style onion rings. Nobody does that anymore, because most onions are agro-farmed and that means they have too much fertilizer induced moisture in them to fry well. Most places serve pre-made onion rings made from a slurry of onion-like alien intelligent beings who were captured during intergalactic warfare billions of years ago, their planet destroyed, and they were shipped to be processed on a desert planet owned by Walmart. Not Hobby's. Real onion rings. Of course they go soggy after five minutes. You don't savor onion rings. You eat them. Fast. Now, in order to get to Hobby's you need to get to downtown Newark. Newark's Grand Central train station is about three blocks away, and despite its bad reputation, nobody will harass you walking through the downtown of Newark, especially during the day. That's because Hobby's also closes at around 4 pm every day. It is a lunch deli, not a full service restaurant. If you go to eat  in Newark at night you ought to be in the Ironbound neighborhood, anyway, eating Portuguese seafood or Brazilian hamburguesas.  But I had to convince my little brother, Ron, to brave the traffic and drive down with me. Because I don't drive. That's right, I spend time in New Jersey and I do not drive cars, I do not have a driver's license. I have a network of "Spanish buses" (also known as "guaguas")  and a little brother. It somehow works out.

He used to be such a cute baby.
Ron is a chef, and when it comes to straight forward New Jersey food, you can not fool him. He knows the real thing (as long as we are not discussing barbecue, I mean.)  And Hobby's is the real thing. And he was impressed by the patriotic interior design at Hobby's. New Jersey likes to wear its patriotism on its shirt... right next to the mustard stain and that spilled coffee. You can't escape it. Giant flags are painted in parking lots, 9/11 memorials everywhere, even murals celebrating historic victories from Bull Run to Bastogne, from Hue to Panama City. Jersey loves its vets. And so does Ron. My brother wasn't in the army. He was born into an unexpected era of peace and had already picked up the chef's trade when his nation might have used him to dice enemies into a tasty mince. I know he would have loved to have joined the Army (if only they didn't have all those hangups about discipline and taking orders.) If he had, however, he would likely as not wound up as a bit of beef jerky fluttering on a fence next to some empty combat boots in Kuwait. so I am actually glad that he missed those opportunities. As a Jersey Patriot, Ron stands by Operation Salami Drop, an effort by hobby's owner Samuel Brummer - a WWII vet himself - which sent thousands of salamis to American soldiers fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. We are not to be toyed with. When you bite into pastrami, you bite into America.

You can have my pastrami when you can pry it from my cold, stiff fingers!

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Rocksteady Attila: The Pig that Took Budapest by Storm.

We rarely use this blog to discuss the local Hungarian news. Other web sites do that so much better, and the last few months of Hungarian news has been crammed with tales of corruption, political intrigue, of rivalries between Our Great Infallible Leader and his former allies and room mates and his Swiss bank accounts and his new BFF Vlad Putin. We have had a series of demonstrations in support of a democratic Hungary led by people who can't wrap their heads around the notion of organizing a democratic opposition to participate in political change. On a more spiritual level, our Jewish community just fired the recently appointed community president, a former Catholic chorister, Evangelical deacon, and transsexual cabaret performer who was caught embezzling funds. It gets downright depressing at times. As Fela Kuti used to say "Oh my people... Oh my poor poor people." Then suddenly a news item pops up that puts everything else in perspective, something that overshadows the corruption charges and the political rivalries and the new taxes and the trannie Catholic Jewish community presidents and all the other random BS that fill the Hungarian 24 hour news cycle.

Rocksteady Attila running down Rakoczi ut.
Budapest is being taken over by wild pigs. Yes, wild boars roam the streets of the Hungarian capital at night, blithely running down the boulevards and sauntering past the fast food joints and the trolley stops. It is almost biblical in its apocalyptic sense of timing. And lo! The swine shall be seen in the streets of your city, Yea, even next to the McDonald's and that new store, ye know, the one where they verily sell the newest Gucci... If you don't live in Hungary you are really missing out on fun news. We have all the scandal and outrage of any small European nation... plus... wild pigs!

So sweet. So fat. So tasty. So crawling with parasites!
There actually are wild boars which live within the confines of the city of Budapest: out in the hills of Buda there are special parks and reserved areas set aside just for the animals. Obnoxious upper class twits - you know the type, dressed in green wool and wearing Austrian hunters' hats - join clubs to "hunt" these semi tame porkers out in the suburbs, luring them in with baited corn and blasting at them from elevated platforms in what many assholes call "a noble sport." A few of the wiser pigs opt out of the sport and take their chances in more urban contexts, digging under the fences to freedom. But they rarely wander into downtown, and for some reason, there seem to be a lot of them all of a sudden. This was the situation with urban piggery last week. 

Budapest has gone to the pigs.
The guys at snarky news website have been tracing the swine explosion and had identified three main offenders and given them names. Pig Zrinyi and Pig Konfuciusz are both in Buda, where they probably arrived by following the green park lands down from the Buda hills and along the Danube to settle into relatively bucolic areas near the Novotel and Technical university. But my favorite is the Pig that Got to Pest, Rocksteady Attila. This fellow probably crossed one of the bridges spanning the Danube and has settled down in the area around the Vamhaz Market and Corvin university. This is one slick porker. But within a couple of days more wild pigs were sighted along both banks of the Danube (and have had names bestowed on them by the editors who love them.) 

The invasion of Pest has begun! 
Now, there isn't really a grave danger to the people of Budapest from any of these pigs - they probably feed on garbage and hide during the day, like so many local pensioners. Unless you are traipsing around the woods dressed like a dickwad in Austrian hunter clothes, attacks by wild boars are pretty rare, especially if they are not guarding any of their extremely cute baby pigs.  Personally, since moving to Hungary I miss seeing large dangerous animals in urban settings. In the USA there are always news stories about bears walking into shopping malls in suburban New Jersey, about Moose - often insane moose driven violently mad by weird fly larva growing in their ears - sauntering into New England mill towns and attempting to have sex with cars. A Rutgers college student was eaten by bears last September in suburban West Milford, New Jersey, about a twenty five minute drive from New York City. I used to have to contend with a large raccoon that used to walk into our house - by opening the back door, of course - and help itself to the cat food bowl when I lived in downtown  Boston, way back in the 20th century. 
Rocksteady Attila on the run!
In fact, considering how much pork the average Hungarian family eats in a year one should think that these wild swine should be running as far away from centers of Hungarian population as possible. Most people in Budapest know wild boar mainly as an item on restaurant menus. Are these innocent wild pigs putting themselves in danger, blindly fleeing into a teeming pit of ravenous humanoids hungry for pig? And when will these poor misplaced swine finally be resettled into an environment more conducive to their rooting, nomadic lifestyles? Only then will our news outlets be able to return to those simple, pigless political stories about the swine who remain.

Humor site Hircsarda interviews Zrnyi the Pig. 

Monday, January 05, 2015

Beans: How a New Years Dish Ruined Europe's Economy.

Eat Me! I will cause wealth to magically flow to you! I will!
It was a good year, 2014, and I'm kind of sad to see it go, but all things come to an end, even arbitrarily measured segments of intangible time. In Hungary, shops close on Xmas eve for three days straight, so if you haven't stocked your pantry you are in trouble. That's why a lot of our local seasonal foods depend on old style smoked meat - stuff you don't have to worry about keeping in the fridge. People forget that there was a time not very long ago - before 1950 - when one didn't keep fresh meat around the house. Milk was delivered daily, potatoes were stored in a cellar, eggs were gathered in the hen house next to the garage. Fridges changed all that. Luckily, nobody told our butcher on Klauzal ter. They still stock a full range of smoked meats, including goose leg.

This is why our food tastes better than yours.
Goose leg used to be the preserved meat of choice for Jewish Hungarians who rejected eating pork. Goose fat was the primary cooking fat for Jewish housewives, and although a rare sight today, huge flocks of white geese used to wander the streets of Hungarian villages waiting for their turn to become gribenes and schmaltz. All over Europe there is a tradition of eating a New Years meal which includes a bean or lentil dish, Italians eat lentils and zampone (a sausage-stuffed pigs leg) or cotechino sausages. The lentils look like little coins, and so if you eat it on the first day of the year you will cause you to make a lot of money. I have news for you Europeans: it won't. People in the Deep South in the USA have been eating black eyed peas with collard greens for hundreds of years on the same basis - it looks like money and so it should augur wealth - and they remain the poorest part of America. Millions of poverty stricken peasants in India eat nothing but lentils their entire lives. No, take it from me, eating lentils won't make you rich. Beans, however...  well, there is a possibility at least. The French, slightly more informed about personal economic growth factors, prefer to use nice big white beans for cassoulet

Economic disaster on a plate: Italian zampone and lentils.
This goes a long way towards explaining how the early European mind envisioned capitalism. Lentils! Of course! Have the Church declare banking a usurious sin and presto! - 1000 years of serfdom leading to Marxism and eventually along come people like Nigel Farrage and Silvio Berlusconi and Viktor Orban.  Well... it might not be sound economic policy but at least it tastes good. Around these parts the New Years dish is usually just plain old lentil soup (served alongside cheap pork hot dogs) but we went for smoked goose leg and beans. On rice, because that's how this house rolls. Fumie gets her Rising Sun nationalist rice fix, and I can close my eyes and imagine myself siting in a Dominican diner on 205th Street.

Beans: Be it ever so humble.
Smoked meat and beans is about as hearty a meal as you can eat. Beans love pork. Pork loves beans. And just about everybody short of my clarinet player and my rabbinical school teaching buddy loves beans with pork as well. I have previously blogged about my favorite eateries in Europe, the Varzaria in Cluj, Romania, which specializes in smoked pork with cabbage and beans, and about the truck stops in Ciucea and Poeini, Romania, on the road between Oradea and Cluj that specialize in huge plates of pork knuckles and beans to tide over the long haul truckers on their way to Bucharest. 

Never eat anything bigger than your head!
Of course, not everybody needs beans all the time. Serbian cuisine is deeply related to Hungarian cooking, but with more Balkan grilling elements and Turkish vegetable dishes. Serbs have even discovered unique ways of eating smoked pork without beans! Serb stuffed cabbage, however, sticks very close to the Hungarian variant, and we got lucky just before new Years when we went to a party at Ellato Kert catered by Nenad Angelic, the Serbian chef at the neighboring Serb bistro 400

Nenad taking steps to reform the world's economic trends.
Nenard - an old friend - is a fanatic when it comes to technique, and he was adamant that Hungarians had forgotten the technique for making proper stuffed cabbage: a huge clay đuveč pot propped up on a wood fire where the stuffed cabbage and smoked pork simmered for six hours. This was the stuffed cabbage at the end of the rainbow, the Stuffed Cabbage Mother of Them All, filled with huge chunks of tender smoked pork, rice, and cabbage. This is one of those foods where you think you could be happy eating one single thing for months on end. Considering that the crowd wasn't all that big, and a lot of them were pork-averse Muslims, the stew pot - about the size of small bath tub - was quickly emptied. 

Stuffed Cabbage Serb style. Forward! 
Of course, if pork avoidance is your issue, you can make all these same dishes with smoked goose and never notice a difference. We Hungarian Jews have been doing that for hundreds of years. That goose leg can be made into meat loaf and served with the Hungarian version of cholent, locally called sólet. Jewish tradition forbids the lighting of fires on sabbath, so a solet pot was buried in coals on friday afternoon and left until lunch on Saturday, providing a hot meal.

Sólet at Kadar's: the key to economic growth!
Why the difference in names? I read in some obscure Yiddish linguistics journal that the the Hungarian Jewish term sólet is possibly the older term. Sephardic Jews call their Sabbath stews hamim. Hungarian sólet are thicker and less soupy that classic Yiddish cholent, and instead of the big brown and purple soup beans used in cholent it uses both smaller white beans and barley cooked together to produce a thick legume-y mortar guaranteed to stave off hunger pangs at least until the next Sabbath arrives. Your best bet for a good one is, of course, to go for lunch early on Friday at the Kadar Etkezde on Klauzal ter. And I mean early: it often sells out by 12:30 pm, and Kadar's only stays open until 3 pm. (And it is "Jewish Style" - not kosher!) Across the park from me. Enjoy, And happy new year!

Thursday, December 25, 2014

The Butter Letter: German Christmas Cakes and Religious Schism.

Φλαυίου Ἰωσήπου ἱστορία Ἰουδαϊκοῦ πολέμου πρὸς Ῥωμαίους βιβλία
Merry Christmas and Happy Hanukkah to all our readers out there in virtual land! Its been a busy year with too much travel and a lot of music and this is the time of year when I get to spend a week at home doing absolutely nothing but reading web comics and it feels great! Christmas in Hungary is a holiday reserved for families: people go home on Dec. 24th and basically barricade themselves with their nuclear families for the next three days. There are the ritual feasts at the family table each day, fortified by gallons of wine and palinka and followed by howling hangovers to be cured by "the hair of the dog" so as to be ready to attend the next rigidly timed feast of leftovers from the previous feast. Also: you had better like to eat carp.

The term for this fish in the Romanian language is... "crap."
Yes, carp. Apart from the heavy rolled opiate pastries called beigli the most emblematic Magyar Christmas dish is fish soup made from carp and fried cap to follow. Carp - a fish regarded in North America as an invasive trash fish so full of pointy Y-shaped bones as to be inedible - is the centerpiece of the Christmas table. Yum. Mama in the kitchen boilin' up a carp! I will be honest here: I do not like carp. I do not like eating it. I do not like the idea of fishing for it. And I certainly do not like the idea that this boney, fatty, nearly inedible coarse fish should be the culinary embodiment of Uralic family cohesion on this most significant of days. Go ahead and say it: I am a Carpist. The other thing Hungarians like to snack on around Christmas is kürtos kalács, the sweet Transylvanian cake baked on a log that we can get at all the Christmas gift markets at this time of year. I can get along with yeasty sweet cake. With carp - no.

BBQ cake. Should be introduced to New Orleans.

As a rule, Hungarians do not communicate or interact outside of the family during the three days around Christmas - it is considered bad form to even call a friend or meet for a drink outside. If you are not connected by DNA or a wedding ring to a web of Hungarian family, you get a pass on this practice. Believe me, you should consider yourself lucky. You get to go to Tom bácsi and Amy néni's Christmas Eve dinner party, as we did this year, and relax with the cream of the foreign, unfamilied crowd. Tom - a stellar host - stands proudly, proclaiming "Give me your tired, your poor / the humble masses yearning to breathe free / The wretched refuse of their teeming shore..." Brits, Amcsik (that's US for you outsiders) Poles, Serbs, Celts, and the occasional Egyptian all find a welcome on this most exclusive of evenings. And best of all: no gifts!
Deak ter: a perfect storm of hot wine and consumer goods.
Gifts are de rigeur for the breeding members of our species at Christmastime, and finding them is effortless. Avoiding them, less so. Christmas markets are everywhere, and always packed. It isn't just about shopping - there is a lot of eating and drinking, particularly things so unhealthy that you would not even consider them at other times of year. Hot spiced wine is the preferred  tipple, although it is often sickeningly sweet and has little to commend its origins in wine at all. I was up in Berlin on biznitz last week and had just enough time to check out a couple of their Christmas markets. Same deal.

The pretzel is Germany's most successful engineering wonder. Then comes the VW Bug. 
Germans are serious about their hot spiced wine, and some stands were serving unsweetened wine, and often fortified with an extra shot of schnapps. And for some reason, huge saute woks of garlicky mushrooms count as holiday fare in Germany. Stands all over were offering hot, whole regular supermarket white mushrooms sauteed with sour cream and garlic to be eaten outside from a paper plate with a toothpick. While drinking spiked hot wine. I had to say no to that - my days of staggering drunkenly around Berlin are over. My days of wolfing down bockwurst are not.

Yes, the bad puns get wurst.
I love wurst. Wurst of any sort: bockwurst, bratwurst, pflazer, bauernwurst, weisswurst, blut wurst, frankfurter, krakower... if it is meat in a tube I will adapt my sunny personality to it and absorb it into my Borg network of Bob-molecules. Except for currywurst. Currywurst is the Berlin junkfood that takes something perfectly good and pure - in this case, a regular good German wurst, either bock or brat - and perverts it into a chimera of nastiness that makes other junk food turn and run away screaming and retching and abandoning their children as they flee. Slathered with ketchup and a shake of curry powder, curry wurst can be eaten safely only at stands like the legendary Konnopke's in P-berg, and possibly at markets like this. I passed on the curry - and worked my way through bock, brat, and krakower wursts dressed only by delicious German mustard. Brought home a few jars of Löwensenf Extra sharp to boot.

You can not have these things at other times of the year. Really.
And instead of beigli... there is stollen cake. I was to carry home a whole Christmas stollen cake in my hand luggage for Fumie. Stollen is a Christmas seasonal cake made with candied fruits, marzipan, and sprinkled with powdered sugar to sugest a snowy landscape... it is quite rich and doesn't go stale quickly, due to the fact that it contains something like a quarter of its mass from butter! Not only that, but this cake was a major issue at the Vatican Council of Trent in 1545, at which time the Counter-reformation was imposed, condemning the doctrines of Protestantism and establishing the Catholic church as the supreme interpreter of scripture. Stollen were first noted in 1329 in Nurnberg, its shape symbolizing the Baby Jesus in swaddling clothes. Butter was forbidden during the Advent season, and stollen cakes were considered "poor" and made with oil. In Dresden and the eastern German Saxony region, however, butter was cheaper than oil for baking. Prince Ernst of Saxony appealed to Pope Nicholas V in 1450 for an exception, which sat around Rome and was ignored or debated by four Popes and answered only in 1490 by Pope Innocent VIII - the guy who wore the Papal beanie just before the outrageous and profligate Borgia Pope Alexander VI.

Dude.... I know your're the pope, but maybe lay off the cake a bit, OK?
We chiefly remember the unwisely named Pope Innocent as responsible for naming Torquemada as Chief Inquisitor of Spain. Pope Innocent's communication became known as "The Butter Letter." (I am not making this up.) The Pope allowed the use of butter but only in exchange for a fee, which would be used to build churches. Once the Saxons found they could use butter in their Christmas cakes, it was only a matter of time before they and half of Europe all turned their backs on the Catholic Church and the raging Borgia maniacs in Rome. Martin Luther was a monk in Saxony when he nailed his 99 theses against the sale of indulgences by the Catholic Church to the door of the church in Wittenburg. This small act led, eventually to the profoundly unpronouncable Schmalkadic War and jump started the Counter Reformation and the Thirty Years War. Although a catalyst to centuries of devastating war, famine, and religious strife, stollen actually is a pretty tasty cake.

The cake that launched a religious war.
And so, with a dufflebag of newly purchased wurst of many varieties and a huge buttery anti-Catholic Christmas cake, I was on my Air Berlin flight and back in Budapest within 24 hours and ready for the holidays! Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night!

Sunday, December 07, 2014

More Ghetto than You!

So, we finally did it. We moved. A new flat... downtown. Our new home is smack dab in the middle of the historic Jewish Ghetto of Budapest, Klauzal tér Its almost overstepping the bounds of stereotype: Klezmer fiddler moves to Klauzal tér (tér means 'square' in Hungarian.) This area is one of the few historically identifiable Jewish neighborhoods left in eastern Europe. In 1944 the area was walled off to form the Budapest ghetto, and some 70,000 Jews were crammed into the buildings to await deportation to the German concentration camps, or, with luck, liberation by the Allied armies.

More ghetto than you!
Our house was once of the designated "Yellow Star houses" in which Jews were made to reside in 1944. But Jewish life is not all about what happened in the past. The Ghetto is still a center of local Jewish life with an Orthodox synagogue down the street, a kosher butcher shop offering the only beef hot dogs in Hungary two minutes away, and Hasids waddling the streets every Friday evening. I hear Yiddish spoken almost daily. We have Jewish bars (good!) and kosher restaurants (bad) and "Jewish style" unkosher restaurants, the best of which, Kadar Étkezde, is now just across the square, where the #2 tram used to run long, long ago.

No longer a convenient destination.
It is also the heart of the "bulinegyed" or Party zone of Budapest, based around the dozen or so "ruin bars" that sprang up squatting in abandoned houses but by now have grown into pricey drink-n-grope meccas for all our loud Australian tourist friends. I have always been connected by work to the Ghetto, but never lived in it. I am definitely going to miss Zuglo, and Fumie and I now consider ourselves proud members of the Zuglo diaspora. I will continue to go shopping at Bosnyak market when the weather permits a bike ride - the supermarkets downtown are all overpriced and pretty limited. I will miss the absurdly corrupt local politicians and the road signs in right-wing runic script. And I will miss watching the newly elected independent district Mayor Gergely Karacsony face off against implied threats of nastiness to come from the previous FIDESZ shitbird who held the post.

A life in boxes.
The actual act of moving our stuff was made easier by simply calling a company - in our case Tutiteher, which provided boxes and returned with three burly guys and a truck and got all our stuff transferred in about five hours for about the price of treating four people to a sushi dinner with beer. Suddenly, I was left in an empty flat, uncluttered with the material evidence of my existence, completely free of stuff. Stuffless. Its what the Buddha was all about!

Where once the happy sound of fiddles sang out... now silence abounds.
When you move, you toss out a lot of stuff. Yesterday's treasure, today's trash. I managed to toss about ten crates of crap. Old letters, old promo stuff from my band, English language magazines from the last century, books with no imaginable reader, cassettes of Albanian folk music bought in what was then still Yugoslavia, old floppy discs that can no longer be read by any machine, dead tape recorders, dead microphones, dead radios, leftover toys from when my son was a five year old, even unusable salt water fishing gear - Jeebus, what was I thinking... Hungary is landlocked!  We had a lot of stuff.

Be it ever so humble...
If any museum curators out there recognize my historical value and wish to accuse me of a crime against future scholars of Bob History, I gladly stand guilty as accused. And I was even more lucky than usual. Instead of worrying about where to put it all, I let Fumie decide. I made a promise to myself that I would not pipe up with any debate to any interior design decision made by her. If she wants to put the rug there, so be it. If she wants to get an Ikea shelf, well, how quickly can we get to Ikea. simple. No conflict. Effective! If you are a male, take my advice and never attempt to make a place look nice. It won't work. Men are, as is often observed nothing more than "bears with furniture."
our new space

We have one large room here which is basically unusable for anything except storage. Its got water stains on the ceiling, a huge antique couch, and art supplies from the landlady, and old furniture we won't be using stored in there. And I am going to attempt to excavate a private space out of that. Right now it is filled  some of our other unnecessary stuff, and most of my instruments. But soon I will make it into my own, my unlivable and unclean-able nook of bagpipe reed making, fly tying, bookbinding, and fiddle repair. It shall become my... Man-cave!

Its completely Boyash City across the way!
The view from the new flat isn't quite the forested vista we had in Zuglo, but at least we get a lot of south facing sun and there is no huge building blocking out the light. And for added delight, ours is the building that was the home of Vili in the 1989 Hungarian animated feature film "Vili a Veréb" - Willie the Sparrow, in which a little boy gets magically turned into a sparrow on Klauzal tér.

Thursday, November 06, 2014

Long Story Short: I travel too much.

Borthers Nazaroff with Slava Farber, Moldova.
I am finally home. After months on the road I am sleeping on my own futon, eating from my own kitchen, rummaging through my own desk and reading my own books. I have been on tour since July, and it does get a bit weary after a while, travelling in tour buses, waiting in airport lounges, spending days looking forward to those few hours in a strange hotel where "home" consists of a shower and some free wifi (damn you, Germany!) Oh, and traveling on boats. Boats everywhere, upstream, downstream, to nowhere.

On the Danube somewhere. Somewhere.
I can't divulge the entirety of what I have been up to but I can show some of where I have been in the last month since I left the USA... OK. Careful readers of this blog will know that I flew to the USA in July and very abruptly traveled to Canada soon after. After communing with my Bronx roots and eating a lot of Chinese and Arab food in New Jersey for a couple of weeks I flew back to Budapest. I had less than a week at home in Budapest and then I was off with the Brothers Nazaroff to the Republic of Moldova. By bus. Across Romania.

Chisinau, the capitol city of Moldova, is remarkably vital and prospering city, made that way primarily from the money sent back home by Moldovan workers abroad. thrity percent of the Moldovan work force is abroad at any moment. Think about that. Those grapes you had for breakfast? Probably picked by a Moldovan, Those that stay home may be happier, but money is in short supply. We met up with Yiddish singer Slava Farber - perhaps the last Yiddish wedding singer left in East Europe - and that evening did a gig with him at the hip Propaganda Club. The next morning, with the small amount of free time we had I hit the Central Market and picked up some of the pickles and prunes I had fallen in love with on my first visit to Chisinau in 2009.

Pickles of the immortals.
Moldova has been hit by an economic boycott carried out by Russia, formerly its major market for wine and produce, which meant that there was more excellent wine and delicacies at rock bottom prices for the home market and also in Romania. Moldavian food is excellent: you would never expect such  a fantastic cuisine after eating Moldavian food across the border in Romania. the difference is huge. Moldovan wine has come a long way due to the influence of Moldovan winemakers learning modern techniques in France and Italy. Moldova is for fressers! After a few days in busy Chisinau we headed north to Edintets to check in with the brass band there - old friends led by Anatoli Ciobanu - who still maintain a body of updated Klezmer style tunes for brass band.

Jamming in Edinets
We jammed out in the Edinets city park, with me on cobza. We were in a rush and the weather hovered between cold and outright rainy, but we had a great time marching around the woods blasting tunes. After a slow lunch of bad mititei and pickles we had to get back on the road to make it to Botosani, Romania, in time for a concert at the Old Synagogue, organized by the Jewish community of Botosan and Jake S.-Ment.

Like so many of Romania's Jewish communities, the one in Botosani is small, but it seemed a relatively well off and tight knit community, and nearly everybody we met could speak Yiddish. Plus, the Hotel we stayed in had once been intended as Nicolae Ceaucescu's residence when staying in Botosani! We got tasteless fascist design pluswifi and a great breakfast included! Next stop: Maramures! A mere six hour drive west of Bukovina!

Casa Pop, Hoteni
We stayed at the eco-pension of Ioan Pop in the village of Hoteni, just south of Sighet. Ioan is a well-known musician and cultural organizer (and leader of the group Iza who has toured worldwide) who is, as he says "A peasant from Monday to Friday, and a musician on weekends." He and his wife are two of the nicest people I know in Romania, and if you are ever up in these parts, look into booking a room at their Pensiune.

Meyske, Jake, and Ion.
This was the first time Meyshke has been to Maramures, and he was taking full advantage of it: fiddling, singing, and adapting to the three times distilled horinca that folks knock back in these parts when in need of alcoholic refreshment. Ioan had told us that our old friend Nicolae was still alive and kicking so we went off to meet him. Me and Jake have been visiting Nicolae Covaci for years, enjoying both his music as well as his ever growing tall tales.

Nicolae and Vassile Covaci
Nicolae is one of the last of the real old style fiddlers in Maramures, unaffected by the more showy style that was ushered in by the Fratii Petreus in the 1960s.We were surprised when one of his younger brothers, Vassile showed up and started playing along. I though Nicolae was one of five brothers, but it seems that his father must have been a very busy and sleep-deprived man. There is nothing better than double fiddles, especially when played by siblings and this was some great music. Jake and Meyshke provided rhythm while I "stole" the tunes on video. OK, does this sound like  its time to pack it up and go home? that would seem logical, no? Well, no actually. We get back to Bpest, spend one night at home, and off to Paris. On Ryan Air. As in "Musicians do not fly Ryan Air." (That will be a full post in the future.) But at least we got to Paris. Paris, a city of culture and... amour... literature... and boats. And croissants. There is nothing quite like the croissants of Paris.

And croissants on boats. And a very grumpy me on fracking boats in rainy, nasty weather that is cramping my old bones and making me want to be back in Moldova. The grey mud of Maramures was still on my shoes as we sailed past the Cathedral of Notre Dame. But we got to float down the Seine in a real French bat-oh singing in Yiddish and occasionally in English (the theme song to Gilligan's Isle) and Russian. Because that is how we Nazaroffs roll. Our gig at night was in a funky trad folk club in eastern Paris near Belleville,

My new idea for a hat.
In Paris we didn't have much in the way of free time: no sighteseeing, no shopping, no browsing the international CDs at FNAC, no flea markets, no leisurely strolls through African neighborhoods. This may have been the briefest and busiest trip I have ever made to the City of Light but we were due in Berlin for gigs at the Maxim Gorki Theater's Studio R club celebrating the 20th year anniversary of Oriente Records, the Berlin music label that has supported Di Nayes, Painted Bird, Jake and now Meyshkye's new project with Julian Kytasty. Til at Oriente is dedicated to good music and entirely open and honest with his stable of musicians. Oriente may be the last stand for quality Jewish music among labels at this strange time when nobody seems to be buying Cds anymore, but he still plugs on, fighting the Good Fight. So there was no way we were going to miss the Oriente Anniversay Festival. Which meant an overnight train to Berlin for the evening accommodations. There is nothing stranger than travelling alone in a sleeper car.

It is a heck of a lot better than sleeping with strangers in a sleeper car, but also a bit like staying in prison for a night: a very clean and polite German prison where they let you bring in a bottle of wine and a salami and PC tablet full of movies and the entire season of "Rick and Morty." Up in the morning and we taken off to Alexanderplatz where our rather ritzy hotel promises us that if we avail ourselves of their facilities we are nearly guaranteed to have "successful meetings!" (I can't imagine that they would wish their guests "mediocre meetings" or say "We hope your meetings suck!")

We stay at atmospheric Alexander Platz, which is a square kilometer of cement, steel and glass so tastelessly and relentlessly East German that back in the early 1990s when Berlin was busy burying its past there was no way to do anything with A-platz except let it stand as a monument to a supremely badly designed East German future. Berlin is actually one of my favorite cities: it is butt-ugly and has wretchedly bad Thai food (and virtually no Chinese food at all: note that China does not have a developed sex tourism industry) but nevertheless, Berlin is friendly and affordable and more than makes up for its blemishes by being home to thousands of Turks and Kurds and Macedonians.

And to dedicated readers of this blog: I have been on the road so much this year that I haven't been updating regularly. This post is just a place holder for some more fun stories to come. I will be back soon with high definition pictures of the world's great Klezmer fiddlers eating brightly colored things with their bare hands! Stay tuned!

There's more where this came from!