Friday, May 10, 2019

Iran Cukrászda: Persian Pastries outside our door.

You may have heard a lot about how Hungary is hostile to immigrants, and how badly refugees are treated (declared by the government to be "migrants" and not "refugees" because, hey, linguistics, how do they work?) Hungary wasn't always that way, and even today - perhaps in contrast to the rest of the country - Budapest is still a place where you can see a number of cultures contributing to the whole of city life. Not on a scale that you might see elsewhere in Europe - a topic that causes Hungarian politicians no end of anxiety. Nutcase right wing Hungarian politicos regularly buy up ad space (on Government owned media of course!) declaring urban Hell-holes like Brussels, Vienna, or Manchester to be racial war zones waiting to infect pure, innocent, white Hungary. Living in Budapest's 7th district - the historical Jewish ghetto - I'm happy with the international atmosphere we have here in the 7th. It is sort of like an island of tolerance and cultural sanity - by day at least. (At night it becomes one of the world's worst hypertourism zones.) The 7th (and the 8th... and most of Budapest) has always had a healthy multicultural vibe - I like living near felaful stands, Turkish butchers, pho shops, and Indian groceries. And most of all, I like the Iran Cukrászda , a Persian pastry bakery  that opened in December on Nagydiófa utca 30-32.

Cukrászda means pastry shop. A cookie addict gets her fix.
Apparently, I am not alone in my admiration for the Iran cukrászda - just about every Magyar foodie blog (and there are a lot of them) has discovered this tiny hole in the wall on one of the less traveled side streets of the Ghetto. We were in the USA over the winter, so when we finally discovered this place - dangerously located about four minutes walk from our flat and open from 8am to 10pm)  - we thought it was simply another baklava baker. Wrong (but they do have excellent baklava. Stuffed with pistachios!)

Baklava with pistachio... (note the pan which says "Master Chef Ali)

Fumie began to systematically try out the cookies. Apparently these are typical pasties from the Azeri region of Northwest Iran, typical of what would be sold in Tehran as well, made by a family whose son was a student here - and the father is a master baker. These are flakier, crispier and chewier than other cookies. Many are only half as sweet or not sweet at all, and some are delicately flavored with spices unlike those used in western style baking: cardamom, saffron and ginger.

My wife ate these cookies. All of them.
Personal favorites include: the walnut filled cake rolls.... or the barely sweet flaky biscuits with pistachio on top.... and the soft coconut cookies. also the chickpea flour cookies .... there is no way to choose, so the best option is to buy an assortment: the guy behind the counter speaks English as well and can help you choose. Best of all, these are not expensive, even compared to other local bakeries: you can fill a box assortment for the price of a sandwich.

Thursday, February 21, 2019

Klezmer Pioneers Reunited

The View from here.
The last days of winter are on us in the New York area, it would seem. Time to head back to Budapest and watch the spring arrive. First we get the hovirag - tiny crocus flowers - popping up in Klauzal ter, and then, slowly, the arrival of baby cabbages coming in late march. Yes, I would forsake all the gaudy trappings of New York City for one tender Hungarian cabbage. I am a simple man. I haven't been into the NY Urban Megalopolis that much this trip - but we did go into the city to attend the Center for Traditional Music and Dance event at the YIVO Intitute for Jewish Research "Andy Statman and Zev Feldman: Klezmer Pioneers Reunited!" 

Statman and Feldman were among the first musicians to dig into the local roots of Yiddish music back in the 1970s, a period when performing Yiddish instrumental music was in deep decline. They did extensive research with clarinetist Dave Tarras while he was still in his prime, Statman essentially inheriting both the style and, eventually, the clarinets of the great musician. The experience led Zev to a career as a highly respected musicologist - his study of Ottoman classical music is the standard text for the field, while his recent "Klezmer: Music, History, and Memory" is really the most successful attempt to produce a history of the genre. I first knew Statman as a bluegrass mandolinist who would show up at the Eagle Tavern jam sessions on 14th street - he played with the legendary Wretched Refuse String Band. I had bumped into Zev via the Balkan Arts Center Friday dances at St. John the Divine Church near Columbia University. Zev and Andy had been studying Azeri Jewish music with Zebulon Avshalomov and performed at the Balkan Arts Center's 1975 festival.

In 1978 Zev and Andy recorded one of the first "klezmer" records released during the revival period, presenting a traditionalist arrangement of Andy's clarinet or mandolin backed by Zev on tsimbl (small cimbalom.) Only the Berkeley, CA based "The Klezmorim" had produced anything considered "Klezmer" music, and that was based on learning from old 78 rpm recordings. "Jewish Klezmer Music" by Zev and Andy sounded like two young virtuosos coached by living master musicians. The duo performed at a 1978 concert sponsored by the Balkan Arts Center, the predecessor of the modern CMTD at the Casa Galicia, an ethnic club for Spanish immigrants that subsequently became the rock club The Ritz. I was in the audience that day - sitting up on the balcony.

After their set, Tarras himself performed in a trio with accordion and drums. After the concert was over I approached Dave Tarras and told him how much I appreciated his music. He look at me, 19 years old... and said "Are you Jewish? OK.... See those drums? Take them out to the car." Yes, I did meet the legendary Dave Tarras, and yes, he treated me as a dumb kid. Par for the course. (Compare this to my backstage meeting in 1972 with Tom Robinson, a nonagenarian New Orleans trombone player who was the last surviving member of Buddy Bolden's Band. He gave me my first beer.)

I know that both Zev and Andy have busy careers and new musical directions, but it would be wonderful for these two to record a follow up album to Jewish Klezmer Music after nearly forty years. After a concert set on clarinet and tsimbl that some would describe as too fucking short, Prof Mark Slobin joined Statman and Feldman onstage for a discussion. One point they made is that before 1975, nobody used the term "klezmer" to refer to Yiddish instrumental music. Klezmer refers to the caste of professional musicians who play the music, not the musical genre itself, but since "Jewish Klezmer Music" was one of the very first LPs that anybody bought for Jewish music, the name stuck and for the next four decades the question of "what is klezmer music" inspired thousands of improvised and inaccurate answers until finally Zev published "Klezmer: Music, History, and Memory" (I think that now would be a proper time to address the fact that when Blogger spellchecks Klezmer it provides the alternative term "Kleenex" and so in the future all inquiries to me will be addressed regarding Kleenex Music.)

Upskirt view of some very hot pastrami.
Yiddish culture in New York lurks not only in the ears and heart, but also in the stomach. Before I leave New York I had to make the pilgrimage to Katz's Deli for a pastrami sandwich. Yes, I know it is crazy overpriced. You want a good sandwich at a decent price you go to Loesser's or Liebman's in the Bronx, or Hobby's in Newark. On the Anti side of the equation: the things are now $22 at Katz's. Twenty two fucking dollars for a sandwich. But on the pro side... it is a world class meal, worthy of the best restaurants, better than 97% of anything served at Peter Luger's Steak House... the finest cured meat you will find anywhere that is not located in "Montreal" and you will not walk out of the place hungry, which is more than you can say for most places where you are going to part with $25 for lunch.

Fumie just after shaking hands with Johnny Weir, figure skating champion. 
And now... my life. I don't drive. I used to drive, but I gave it up around the age of twenty, after sensing that The Lord would only allow me to continue living if I gave up automotive transportation. I was working hard to get through college while The Lord was frantically trying to reclaim me to his bosom by throwing other cars at mine, placing huge potholes in my car's way, slamming cars into me while I was parked, or even just crushing my fender often enough to empty my bank account, dooming me to starvation. So I stopped driving. I let my license lapse. I bought a bicycle. I am happy to report that I am still alive, the cars haven't killed me yet.

Why use a picture of a car? Really, we endorse Shake Shack burgers.
One result is that I tend to confine my life to cities. In Europe you can reach almost anywhere using affordable trains and buses, but New Jersey is defined by towns with no commercial center. There are vast,  rolling miles of suburbs that can only be navigated by car. So I decided to apply for a driver's license. I studied the New Jersey drivers manual, I took the online tests over and over again until I felt confident that I could identify driver blind spots or relate how to park a vehicle on an upward sloping street...

The only good reason to drive.
I failed. I failed miserably. And since I will be back in Hungary in a week I will probably not be able to take the test again until the summer, meaning I will have to go through the whole permit application process once again. And get my brother to drive me to the DMV center in Lodi at 7:30 in the AM to stand on line... all to be able to independently drive to get fresh bagels. I'll be spending the next few months with my drivers manual memorizing the reaction times for stopping on wet asphalt and the shape of Yield signs.... I will not fail again!

Wednesday, February 06, 2019

Chinese New Year in New York

Happy Year of the Pig!
Gong Hao Fat Choy! Yes, its is time for the annual Chinese New Year's blog post. This is notable because a) I'm not Chinese, and b) this is a blog post. The first factoid should become apparent very soon, but the second merits discussion. I started writing this blog back in 2006 while spending a summer in Istanbul, mainly to show my friends and family the things I was eating.

Henan lamb noodles at Spicy Village near Grand St. subway.
I first read about this newfangled thing called blogging in an article in New Yorker Magazine around 2000. At the time, I had not been active in weekly journalism for a year and I saw blogging as a way to keep my writing chops in shape, push-ups in written form. This blog (purposely misspelled to its dialect form and named after a fiddler I know in Romania whose name means, essentially, 'The Lord' - he tells you what to do and you did it) began in Istanbul in 2006, ostensibly to share photos of food, travel, and music with my friends all over the globe. For a while blogs were the new kid on the internet block, and I was posting a lot, often getting over a thousand hits a day on some story about strange Romanian fiddles, what Turks put in their lamburgers or pizza in The Bronx.
Ioan Pop on vioara cu goarne, and no, I can't get you one.
Blogging was to HTML what the Beatles were to Lawrence Welk. For a couple of years bloggers were celebrities, and some managed to eke out book deals or monetize their blogs into a small fortune. Those days are now long gone... attention spans have shrunk down to Twitter and Instagram and even more imbecilic platforms (Snapchat!) which make blogging look like what it is: a home for aging blowhards to discuss weird ethnic fiddle construction, klezmer history, and Chinese food.
Hungarian-friendly kolbászos sticky rice lo mai gai from Shanghai in Ft. Lee, NJ. 
Which is fine with me. I may be posting a bit less than I used to, but I am not giving up the ghost just yet. My migration pattern often sees me spending a couple of months a year in the New York area - specifically, in Jersey, but close enough that a three dollar Spanish bus gets me into Manhattan and on the A train within a half hour of the old homestead. And after a week of nasty polar vortex during which Fumie dragged my nonathletic ass to watch... Johnny Weir, Olympic figure skating champion at the Bryant Park ice rink. I was very, very, very cold. Oh, the things I do for love.... this sub-antarctic survival test was preceded by a trip to a Vietnamese restaurant in the Bronx with Professor Emeritus Bob Godfried, the Man Who Knows the Bronx Better than Anybody.

Rice Pancake at Com Tan inh Kieu. 
Located along Jerome Avenue south of Kingsbridge, the Com Tan Ninh Kieu has upgraded itself from a cheap grubby local lunch space into a cheap and sleek restaurant that draws wary outsiders up the #4 subway to the Bronx for excellent Vietnamese pho and regional style Viet food. I love Vietnamese cuisine - and it is not that widespread in the New York area. I had a Vietnamese room mate in college... which very quickly grew to having 12 Vietnamese room mates in our two bed dorm room, so I know of what I speak. Chinatown is really the only part of Manhattan left that is of any interest to me, since the rest of the island seems to have turned into a Trump branded mall selling fashion sneakers and avocado toast to NYU students. While the city's main Chinese neighborhoods have migrated eastward to Flushing and Sunset Park, Manhattan's old neighborhood has remained staunchly Cantonese, and the old fashioned elaborate Chinese writing used in signage down here is nearly unintelligible to many mainland Mandarin speakers. And I like Cantonese food... it is what I grew up with, and when I was a wee teenager I was already familiar with the offerings of the Chinese tea shops down here, when I could stuff myself for a dollar on pork buns and rice rolls. My love for Cantonese wonton noodle soups leads me to systematically try every noodle shop in the city.

One of the last old time dim sum tea shop bakeries is the Mei Li Wah on Bayard street. For starters its cheap. And small. And dingy. It makes no concession to trendiness or, for that matter, hygiene. If authenticity is what you are after, yeah, it is authentic in an old New York meets Hong Kong way. If you want retro hipster old style Chinatown with a menu set up for non-Chinese, go to nearby Nom Wah. If you want to eat in an old Jackie Chan movie set, try Mei Li Wah. For starters their pork buns are the best in New York - huge, stuffed full of roasted pork and sauce, almost a full meal for a buck fifty.

There are crowds at the door buying the pork buns as fast as they came out of the kitchen, but we managed to grab a booth and enjoy a sit down meal. Buns to start, of course, but their shiu mai are also great (at least if you like big meaty noodly shiu mai) I like to come here for some of the items I usually only see in dim sum parlors, like cheung fan rice rolls. Here you can get a plate of them rolled into little carpets supporting a stew of beef navel (stomach) meat and ginger... lots of chewy tendon and and connecting tissue on fluffy rolled rice noodle. This is what I miss living in Europe...

Beef Navel Rice Roll... 
The Mei Li Wah has a short little menu, but the real dishes are displayed in photos taped around the walls of the room - this is how Fumie discovered the Sticky Rice Egg Thing. We know that is what you call it because that is what neighboring Chinese diners at Mei Li Wah called it when pointing at Fumie's plate asking to order that "Sticky Rice Egg Thing." When Chinese customers point at your plate for the waiter, you are doing something right.

The Egg Thing, however, reveals itself to be an edible Chinese style Clown Volkswagen: compressed inside a wad of sticky rice is a vast molten sea of meat, cabbage and Chinese chives.

Monday, November 19, 2018

Moravian Wine and Klezmer in Mikulov, Czech Republic

Moravia! Just the sound of those melodious syllables conjures images of pristine beaches, swaying palm trees, and evening breezes filled with the scent of ... burcak. OK, I lied about the beaches and trees, but burcak in Moravia in the fall is very real and very, very good. Burcak is the Czech term for new wine that has just begun to ferment.

Burcak served fresh on the streets of Mikulov
For a few weeks in the fall - between being harvested and being bottled - burcak is available in the Moravian wine country of in the south part of the Czech Republic. The Moravian countryside becomes a magnet for city dwellers of Prague and Brno who flock to wine country towns like Mikulov to stroll around getting a mild buzz from burcak stands set along the streets selling this fizzy, slightly alcoholic elixir which serves as the national standard for Czech daytime drinking. With a flavor profile someplace between pineapple juice and champagne, you don't get sloppy drunk on burcak, but don't drive a car after a couple of glasses either.

Synagogue in Mikulov
While Czech beer is rightly famous, Moravia is wine country, and we were lucky to visit the town of Mikulov, one of the Czech wine producing centers, in the middle of the autumn burcak season. Mikulov was known in Yiddish as Nikolsburg back when Moravia was a safe haven for Jews in the Hapsburg Empire, with laws established that provided legal rights to the refugee Jews who would get expelled from Vienna every time the Kaiser farted.

The Nikolsburger Shul
Mikulov grew to be one of the largest Jewish communities in Moravia. The Holocaust left virtually no Jews in the town, and those that did survive coalesced into orthodox Hasidic communities in Monsey, NY, Brooklyn, and Israel. The Mikulov synagogue, however, has been restored and the old Jewish cemetery maintained as heritage sites which have made Mikulov a focal point for Jewish culture in the Czech Republic. I was invited to Mikulov for a Klezmer workshop weekend led by Vojtech Pestuka, who plays with the Prague Yiddish Kapelye. My co-teacher was the amazing Amit Weisberger. Amit - a fiddler, singer, dancer, actor, and clown school dropout - is a committed Yiddishist, rare for somebody who was born in Israel (but now based in France) 

Vojtech, Amit, and Optimus Prime. 
Amit is also a researcher of Klezmer history and Yiddish culture, who can be every bit as pedantic and hide bound as myself when it comes to historical accuracy in Yiddish music. He is also a magnetic performer, dancer, and teacher. Which is a good thing when one has to work with Czech students of klezmer. In my experience, teaching a Klezmer workshop in Europe means coaching a dozen or so kids from the high school violin class, a retired dixieland clarinetist or two, and the massed saxophone section of a local football marching band. In Mikulov, however, the students not only knew their music inside out, they often knew it better than me, including things they had learned from recordings of me. 

They play me better than me play me.. 
It was almost scary: when I mentioned an extremely obscure document about the deeply obscure Orkestra Rumunska Bel'fa - a klezmer band that recorded in 1911 in Lviv - the clarinet "student" (also named Votech... who knew there were so many Vojtechs in Klezmer?) reached into his case and produced a xerox copy of that very same obscure document... that he simply carries around with him. The mandolin player Jan didn't simply know who Andy Statman was - he had visited him in the USA. The flute players in the band were the finest I had ever heard in Klezmer music - and I hate flutes. The fiddlers had bow strokes coordinated in heaven. These folks had internalized the music down to the roots. Thank god for burcak.

Drowning my anxieties in half fermented wine.
Because burcak is not considered as dangerously intoxicating, and because it was being sold from every street corner, the teachers and participants of the music workshop were generally under the influence of the magical beverage. The burcak season traditionally ends in November 11 on Saint Martin's day. Saint Martin was a local - born in Pannonia in AD 316 before it was overrun with Hungarians - and his Catholic feast day is the occasion for opening the first bottles of finished wine and for eating goose. Apparently, St. Martin hid in a barn when the local Church wanted to appoint him as Bishop, but the geese honking gave him away, so we eat the geese in revenge. I didn't have any geese in the Czech Republic, but I did have duck.
Duck 'n' dumplings.
Czech food is not going to win awards for exotic spicing, but if you like good, honest, meaty food, you don't have to go far to find it. It is an old style of European cooking, much like the German style of cooking before the Germans discovered doner kebab and frozen yoghurt. When I travel in Germany or Austria I have to carry a bottle of El Yucateco Kubil-Ik Hot Sauce with me, just to make it through a Teutonic lunch. I put it on shnitzels, bratwurst, anything, and I plumb do not care if the waiter is standing over me horrified... but not in the Czech Republic. I like their food.

Roast Duck ... a safe choice among many safe choices.
Wikipedia tells us that the Czech Republic is the 6th safest and most peaceful place to live in the world, is one of the most non-religious places in the world, has tuition-free higher education, and ranks 14th in the Human Capital index. You don't want to fuck with that. If you start adding coriander leaves and hot peppers and mango lime sauce to those statistics then pretty soon there will be drug-funded paramilitaries and sadistic warlords and Bohemian micro-republics and crypto-currencies and dodgy real estate salesmen taking over the government. So let us accept the Czechs as they are - peace, prosperity, brown gravy, bread dumplings and all.

Kde domov můj?

Sunday, September 02, 2018

The Eternal Breakfasts of New Jersey.

We are back home in Budapest, completely jet lagged after a visit to New York. That's a lie, actually. On this trip we spent most of our time just across the river in New Jersey, where my folks live. I am one of the few in my circle unashamed of my connection to The Garden State, although there is a lot to be ashamed about. New Jersey is like the developmentally challenged little brother of New York, a slurry of declining old factory towns, vast bedroom suburbs, tasteless shopping malls, much of it tied together by the supremely unfortunate NJ Route Four.
Route 4 passing through the twerp of Teaneck.
Designed as the main highway to the George Washington Bridge in the 1930s - when car ownership was still rare - it remains today an anachronistic death trap, an ancient, overcrowded, potholed nightmare of a road, where locals who are skilled in the tricks of navigating its abrupt exits and poorly planned interchanges erupt with road rage at the out of towners who simply wanted to cruise into New York but find themselves suddenly dropped into a mortal death race straight out of Mad Max. The world learned of Route 4 when that other icon of gross New Jerseyness, Governor Chris Christie, blocked the access to the GW Bridge in an act of political vengeance against the mayor of Fort Lee, NJ.

Alas... I digress. Route Four is also the road that leads to many of New Jersey's revered diners, those pavilions of 1970s design run by descendants of Greeks who immigrated from the traditional diner producing regions of Thrace and Epirus. The Jersey Diner provides comfort foods, insipid coffee, and a brief refuge for thousands of hungry retail workers and anonymous office suits who scrape a living along the tributaries of the lost river of asphalt that is Route Four. My Dad for example. The man is now 92 and still goes to work each weekday. Nothing stops him. My Dad seems to be made out of pure Bessarabian oak.

Oeufs a l'Américaine, avec ketchup.
At his age my Dad has to follow a lot of dietary restrictions, but I am not sure that includes one that requires he eat a hearty diner breakfast every morning on the way to work. Still... if diner specials haven't done him in by 92, perhaps nothing will. And while we are visiting, there is nothing he likes more than to rally the kids and go out to a diner for that most classic of Jersey meals: the breakfast special. 

Recently closed, allas, but not forgotten.
The classic American breakfast is eggs (any style!) home fried potatoes, and either bacon or breakfast sausage, toast, coffee and orange juice. The addition of ketchup is left to the customer. The rest of the world tends towards a more balanced breakfast of coffee with bread or pastries (Europe,) spaghetti and frankfurters (Dominican republic) or macaroni soup with spam and peanut butter french toast (Hong Kong.) I've been to Greece, where breakfast consists of five cups of coffee and a pack of cigarettes, so I have never figured out how the duty of providing breakfast in America fell into the hands of immigrant Greeks, but they have done a good job of it. I will admit, I get bored of eggs for breakfast, and so, sitting at the New Heritage Diner on River Street in Hackensack, NJ, I decided to spread my wings a bit and ordered french toast, figuring I would get a modest bit of bread fried in egg, and instead of gobs of maple syrup I could just sprinkle a bit of salt on them and eat them as we do bundás kenyér in Hungary. Not a chance. 

Make America Great Again!
These babies sported a small mountain of strawberries and whipped cream, and yes, I did add a bit of maple syrup. And I would do it again! Finally, in an effort to find an alternative breakfast within the confines of New Jersey, my big sister and I took Dad to Istanbul Borek and Kebab, in Cliffside Park, just south of Fort Lee. Cliffside Park has become a destination for the upper classes of Istanbul to settle (while Paterson has more Turks, they are a bit folkier and more...errr... Anatolian hillbilly than the Sisli / Nisantasi crowd in Cliffside Park.) Turks take their breakfast very seriously - there is a saying in Turkish that "Lunch is for your friends, dinner is for your family, but breakfast is for you." The Istanbul Borek and Kebab is a bakery and restaurant combined, specializing in some of the best Turkish borek pastry I have found outside of Istanbul (and this includes many breakfast bureks in Berlin) but the place really comes alive on weekend mornings, when families pack in for full Turkish breakfast A.K.A kahvalti. This place is a transported a slice of Istanbul flown to New Jersey: the furniture is the real heavy wooden style you would find in a classy joint in Galata, and even the wait staff behave with the crisp, precise style that you find with professional service all over Turkey. Of course, the Turkish community paper available at the door is pointedly pro-Erdogan, but who cares when they have su borek and kazan dibi made fresh daily. 

Cohens in their natural habitat. 
Oh, and we did have to get Dad some eggs. the waiter brought our menemen, which is a loose scramble of eggs, tomatoes, and pepper eaten with bread which caused my Dad a slight shock, but pretty soon he had composed himself and was happy to slurp it all down. Without ketchup.

Sunday, August 12, 2018

An Immigrant Feast in Trumpland: Elmhurst and Jackson Heights, Queens

Woodside, Queens
New York City is a big place, so the best way to see it is to break it down into manageable pieces and chip away at it street by street. The Elmhurst section of Queens is, perhaps, New York's most diverse area, which is saying a lot in one of the most diverse cities in the world. With a population of ninety thousand Elmhurst has one of the newest Chinatowns in the city, a large community of Mexicans, various South Americans, Indians, Thai, Vietnamese, and even Istro-Romanians (there are possibly more speakers of this Croatian Vlach dialect in Queens than in Croatia.)

Chinese retirees waiting in line for the Casino bus.
What there aren't is a lot of white folks, checking in at less than 6%. This may be surprising since Queens has always been New York's Whitest borough - home to Archie Bunker (actor Carroll O'Conner grew up here) and - although not in Elmhurst - El Trumpito himself. Yes, the Orange Narcissist in the Oval Office is from Queens, and his psychological makeup shows it - an inferiority complex about not being suave enough for Manhattan, smart enough for Brooklyn, or tough enough for the Bronx, We New Yorkers have known and despised El Trumpito for a long time - we are familiar with his real estate con man's style picked up from mobsters working with his racist father. Trumpito has been part of our lives for decades, and we New Yorkers always express surprise that the average American can't spot the screaming clues that mark him (and his shyster lawyers) as a bunch of  con-men and grifters. Today, a visit to Queens is a visit to Trump's nightmare: happy, successful immigrant communities on the way to becoming a new majority within the American dream.

 How New Yorkers drive: Bob Godfried navigating traffic. 
Our guide to Elmhurst was our old buddy Bob Godfried, accordion repairman, ethnomusicologist, NYC public school teacher, crusading socialist, and the eminence gris behind much of New York's ethnic community culture. The Indonesian community in Queens holds monthly get together food festivals (Next one: August 25!) in a Church in Elmhurst, and Bob was going just to touch base with community organizers and look into the possibility of finding traditional music in the expatriate Indonesian community. We didn't find any music, but we did find a lot of families having a good time, eating, socializing, and just enjoying a rainy day in a Church rec room.

With over a thousand islands and hundreds of local cultures and languages, there is no single Indonesian cuisine, but a lot of the vendors here were serving food from Sunda and Sulawesi, not as spicy as some Indonesian cuisines but just hot enough to keep things interesting. There was a lot of beef rendang dishes - spiced meat stewed so long it had turned black and tender. Fried chicken was all over the place. Lots of satay meat and peanut sauces - be thankful there are no closeup photos of the peanut sauce. It doesn't photograph well.

Fish skin and fish logs, fried crisp and spicy.
Fumie ordered a selection of fish balls with noodle. Fish balls are one of those Asian foods that westerners never get excited about: basically fish meat baloney, a processed goo of grey fish meat formed into logs or balls, and in this case, deep fried until crispy. But add some lime-soy-pepper sauce and noodles and things perk up considerably. We barely missed out on the spicy squid, but Bob tried the next vendor and got what must have been New York's best value in seafood platters.

We then stopped off at a Chinese supermarket and picked up a few things for Budapest. Chinese mega-supermarkets are one of the great benefits of chain immigration (even better than Melania's parents getting citizenship!) A 99 Ranch market has just opened up in nearby Hackensack which means that we can take out from their food court at a moment's notice. It isn't amazing food, but it is authentic Chinese. For some reason New Jersey has never had any good Chinese restaurants. Jersey has lots of Chinese people, but they traditionally took Grandma to nearby New York for Chinatown shopping on weekends, What we do have are some of the worst Chinese take out places imaginable: orange duck sauce over starchy brown gloopy stuff finished with fortune cookies. But over in Queens... people are a bit more demanding. Just west of Elmhurst is Jackson Heights, which is home to one of the larger Indian communities in New York. And that means a lot of vegetarians. Indian cuisine is the only cuisine in which I do not require a gory chunk of bad-karma laden animal flesh to make me feel like I have eaten well. 

Some of the best Indian and Bangladeshi food in the city can be found in modest lunch counters located in the back of supermarkets here. There are dozens of places on each block. And not only Indian. The Himalayan community of New York is centered in Jackson Heights. Yes, Nepalis, Tibetans, Gurkhas, and various para-national tribal people who hold jobs on Wall Street. And everybody has got to eat. In the Himalayas, that means momos: stuffed dumplings served with spicy sauce. 

Thursday, July 26, 2018

Look Upon My Weird Trumpet Fiddle, Oh Ye Mighty, and Despair!

So last week I was tooling around Northern Romania with Mitia Kramtsov, Mitia is the fiddler and lead singer for the Russian klezmer band Dobranotch, based in Sankt Petersburg, and we met some years ago while we were both teaching fiddle at Klez Kanada, and we clicked. Ahh.. we are the scratchy fiddlers... the neo-geezers... the ones who failed the conservatory entrance exam and sit in the back smoking reefer with the tuba players... And this all happened during a historic event involving our two countries. Just as Vladimir and Donnie were trading secrets in Helsinki, Mitia and I traded fiddle tunes in a farmhouse in Ieud. And for ten days we did not talk single word about any politics at all. We were Jewish fiddlers on a mission: to find fiddlers in Maramures. Old style fiddlers. Geezers, really.

The ""Happy Cemetery in Sapanta
Maramures fiddling went through a change of style in the 1960s, which outshadowed the older fiddle and viola-kontra non commercial style. The old repertoire is richer and and the modern guitar-fiddle-drum ensembles of today rarely include any Carpathian Jewish tunes. For the last twenty years I have been "stealing" those tunes from older fiddlers in the Iza Valley - mainly from the various branches of the musician Gypsy Covaci family, especially Gheorghe Ioannei in Ieud, and his brother Nicolae in Dragomiresti. Basically, I wanted to see who was still alive. Guys who learned to play the fiddle when there were still Jews around rural Romania to learn from are getting thin on the ground.

Nicolae and Viiktor Covaci
On this trip, we arrived in Dragomiresti to find that Nicolae Covaci had passed away last December. Nicolae was a wonderful, gentle soul, a great fiddler, and  someone who dearly loved lying about everything - his age, his travels, his kinfolk, just about anything he could think of. Needless to say, he was not the world's best source of ethnographic data. Lying is a cherished personal quirk among Maramures fiddlers. At times Nicolae would give his age as 74, or 82, or 92, so lets just say he was old. One time we visited and Nicolae told us he had just returned from doing two years of contract farm work, picking apples in Israel. I was fuming... Who the hell would hire an 89 year old Romanian peasant to do farmwork in the Negev desert? Later Ioan Pop told me that Nicolae was lying. He had been at home in Dragomiresti the whole time. And he wasn't 89.

Nicolae is gone now but his half brother Viktor is alive and kicking and living down the street, so we spent the afternoon with him enjoying tunes at the village bar. Viktor knows a lot of the older style tunes, but without Nicolae as lead fiddler, those rare Yiddish melodies don't come to mind readily.  Viktor is about 72, but he plays like his older brothers did - the rock steady rhythm and simple lines of the older, less ornamented Romanian mountain style of Maramures. Think of it as American old time Appalachian fiddle versus bluegrass fiddle.

Don't miss the food court at the Dragomiresti Plaza!
Monday is also market day in Dragomiresti. Think of it as going to the shopping mall, except in a field and with lots of cows and pigs squealing in boxes ánd people wearing furry vests and only one Asian girl in the entire mall - Fumie. As usual, horse wagons pack the parking lot, and tents set up as temporary bars selling home brewed plum brandy. The really big market is on a Thursday once a month in Bogdan Voda, but the Dragomiresti market had all you could wish for: farm tools, skirts in Maramures style, sheep, and the traditional leather opinci, the medieval moccasin worn by Romanian peasants of old, and still used up in these mountains.

You won't find these babies on
Maramures was once of the last places where the local peasant and Gypsy fiddlers maintained a knowledge of Jewish instrumental music after the Second World War. Those fiddlers were my link to the music of the past. There are still a lot of fiddlers in Maramures, but the old style tunes and the old Jewish repertoire has just about hit the end of the road. Maramures folk tradition maintained the Jewish melodies long after the Jews themselves were gone - I mean it is 2018... Maramures used to be home to thousands of Jews - peasant Jews who actually worked the land - but 75 years have passed since the Holocaust up here, and cultures eventually do fade away. Moroseni people now play electric fiddles, compose tunes based on a newer style, everybody has a family member working in France or Italy.... we are nearing, and maybe already at, the end of the road for any continuity of the klezmer tradition in the Carpathians.

In Maramures all fiddle matters lead to Ioan Pop, the leader of the Iza group and one of the most sought after wedding performers in the region. Ioan is a leading traditionalist - he lives as a peasant farmer during the week and plays weddings on the weekend. (He has wedding gigs every single day of the week this August.) We caught him at home in Hoteni after a 23 hour gig, but he was still up for some tunes. I asked Ioan who was left playing the old style Maramures fiddle? "You and me" he said.

Ioan Pop at home with "vioara cu goarne"
When Ioan pulled out his own home made "vioara cu goarne" Mitia immediately fell in love with it. And when Mitia wants something, he WANTS something. The vioara cu goarne (violin with horn) is played in the area of Bihor - not exactly near to Maramures - and although I knew two of the best makers of the instrument, Dorel Kordoban from Lazuri and Mircea Rostos from Bratca, both have passed away. You cant just walk into a store and buy one of these monstrosities. You have to know someone. . But I found a connection to a maker near Oradea, and we left the next day to find him. All I knew was a name - Marius Mihut - and a village, Cihei. Luckily, Cihei is just outside of Oradea. We drove to Cihei and I simply asked anybody I met on the street where Domnul Mihut lived. Everybody knew him.

Marius is one of the last makers of vioara cu goarne - there are a few more, but it is getting increasingly hard to find the materials to make the fiddle. The resonators are home made - the frame being from auto parts and the resonator disc is made from various sheet metal. Dorel used mica for some of his and Coca Cola cans for most of the others, while Mircea Rostas used beer cans but then decided that metal discs cut from cans of energy drinks such as Red Bull was, naturally, more energetic. Marius used special alloy sheet metals and actually tunes his resonators. 

The resonator attaches to the foot of the bridge via a mechanism cannibalized from the tone arm of an old gramophone record player - you know, the wind up kind that plays 78 RPM records? Sourcing old 78 record players is the hardest part of maintaining the vioara making tradition. Marius makes his deluxe models using old Czech Supraphone gramophone record players that he orders on ebay.

The difference is mainly in the richer sound and louder volume of the Supraphone resonator fiddles. All of these fiddles are loud - but the Supraphone resonator really makes a difference. Marius' Supraphone fiddles are pricier than his simple fiddles, but local fiddlers, especially the ones who play professionally at weddings, prefer these. Like many metal resonator instruments, its a mystery only the player can relate to. I play old fashioned blues guitar on a Style O resonator guitar made by the Johnson company (marketed  today under the Recording King trademark) and if you compare it to a new American made National Guitar style O... you'll want the National.... if you have the significantly extra cash, which I do not. As it is, I get a resonator sound only slightly less loud than the national. 

I had not planned on traipsing around the back end of Oradea last week, but I am really glad I did. As European vacations go, it was unique - "Hey! We're off to fabulous Oradea for our summer holidays!" is not something you will hear at many office water coolers. We had a great time with Marius, who was a generous host and showed us around his workshop, even smelting a couple of resonators fresh for Mitia. Mitia bought a great fiddle. I don't personally sell these instruments - and I get a lot of mail from folks who want one. If you do ask me, I can send you a contact for Marius - his sister speaks English and handles his email and they have shipped these abroad. And now... Mitia Kramtsov himself: