Saturday, April 02, 2016

The Morel of the Story.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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