Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Waiting for the Easter Pig!

As we all know, Easter comes on Sunday next, and celebrates one of the most solemn observances of the Christian calender: the Resurrection of Jesus. And as we should know, prior to being sent down the Via Dolorosa and given the full Mel Gibson treament, Jesus, as a decent, if Essene-influenced Jew, celebrated a passover seder with his Apostles, as is attested in the Synoptic Gospels. So we can be pretty sure that the Son of Man was feasting on lamb, as can be seen in the Renaissance painting above. That's definately a lamb head. Definately kosher for passover. (It's doubtful, however, that the pious Jews of Galilee would have allowed a dog into the seder, though.) The rememberance of the paschal lamb, as it comes to be known, is one of the strongest traditions linking modern Christian observance to the practice of the earliest Judeo-Christian Churches. (The determining of the date of Easter traditionally was based on Passover, lunar date Nisan 14, as can be read in the early Christian Paschal Canon of Anatolius of Alexandria.) And sure enough, most Easter traditions celebrate Easter with some version of a lamb dish. I mean, the Greeks go positively lamb crazy, breaking their strict observance of Lent with lamb roasts, lamb gut soup, lamb heads, lamb anything after fourty days of no meat. Hungary, however - forever attracted to the untested territory of dodgy Third Way programs - disdains mutton on Easter and goes straight for pork. Pork is probably the single most significant symbol of the celebration of Easter in Hungary. From the original sacrificial lamb symbolism of the Last Supper, we get the National Pig Fest. The week before Easter in Hungary means one thing: ham everywhere. Hungarians love to sit down to a gigantic porkfest on Easter Sunday, and the preparations spill out of the markets and into the streets during the days leading up. We are not talking about some sliced lunch meat here, nor some watery salty pink porky spam that comes out of a can. Hungarians eat a lot of that too, but on easter it is time to go for the real thing. Big Ham. Kilos of ham. Tables groaning with ham. Families pay big money for the best quality smoked hocks they can get. This is the final swine event for a country that possibly consumes more pork per capita than any other nation in the world (Although I believe the official pork consumption champions are the Czechs, but that may be a sampling mistake foisted by anti-Magyar pork cartels.)Depending on the size of your family gathering, a Hungarian Easter lunch can go through anywhere from a mere lot of pork to a whole side of pig - smoked, brined, boiled and baked - in a sitting. Feasts like this are not so much about quality as about quantity. The hams above are country smoked hams seen in the Bosznyák tér marketplace yesterday. These huge babies will get soaked for a day or two in a tub of water to release some salt and moisten up, and then be baked or boiled for the Sunday Swine-a-thon.One single ham would never be enough for an Easter lunch - you need an entire array of smoked and salted pig parts to mark the resurrection of Jesus. Above are the budget snack meats of the ham family waiting to be snatched up - csúlők, smoked pig knuckles, which are pretty affordable at most times, but are laughably cheap when delivered by the trainload to every shop in town all at once before Easter. Same deal: soak 'em, bake 'em. Eat 'em up. Repeat. Hristos Anesti and pass the pork!
The newspapers are usually full of dark scandals involving the import of Slovak hams around this time of year, predictably because Slovakia has cheaper hams and with the EU borders now in place, anybody can import Slovak hams to their heart's delight. I have no problem with Slovak hams. As any Hungarian nationalist can tell you, these misplaced swine parts used to be Hungarian hams... in fact, they are still Hungarian hams in essence! Slovak ham, however, are pretty indistinguishable from the Magyar product, although I will admit that a good Slovak pig knuckle blows away the Hungarian version on any good day. But the question keeps coming back: why pork on Easter?I am not too sure that Art has the answer, but a visit to the Budapest Museum of Fine Arts a couple of weeks ago revealed a lot to me about the pig-for-pesach question. A lot of the medieval depictions of the last supper show Jesus sitting in front of his last meal... a pig in a basket, essentially. The Apostles all seem to be pointing at the main course, shocked and stunned, as if saying "Josh, man... you aren't actually thinking of eating that, are you? Oy vey!" Now, as a good Jewish leader and rabbi our Man would not have sat in the same room as a piece of chazzerei, let alone sit down to a seder with a piggy plate of treyf as its centerpiece. But most Medieval Europeans wouldn't have known that. And most modern Europeans, at least in this part of the world, would not know that either. They would prefer to believe that the Son of Man, King of the Jews, the point Man of the Holy Trinity would have eaten things that they themselves like to eat. (Be thankful that Mickey D's only came to Hungary in the 1980s... Give us this day our daily Big Mac, and supersize it!) And so, like a kid in a spiritual candy store, Magyars chow down on their favorite oinking snack every spring as Lent becomes a memory, and the ham trucks head home to Slovakia until another year.

3 comments:

Masoko Köztársaság said...

Actually ham is consumed from Saturday evening to Monday. Sunday lunch (midday meal, the main Easter meal) was traditionally from lamb, but gradually it was replaced by poultry, mostly (and pig, but not ham).

Pistefka said...

I think Lamb is still an Easter favourite in eastern Hungary, and I know for a fact that most Transylvanian Magyars have it - my wife is one, and managed to find some (horribly expensive) lamb to roast on Easter Sunday. Of course we got some ham too.
Easter is about the only time I have ever seen lamb on sale in the markets of Budapest, so there must be some other people who have it for Easter Sunday lunch.

Lynn said...

I've only spent a few Easters in the area - one eating various lamb parts in Csávás and one eating ham and eggs in Budapest. The latter was with my friends the Goldmanns', by the way (they also had a menorah-shaped candelabra on the table from the seder the night before). My orthodox in-laws would probably be horrified, though maybe no more than by having a shiksa join the family...