Thursday, November 30, 2006

The Tiny Burgers of New Jersey: White Manna, Hackensack, NJ.

Back when my family first moved from the Bronx to New Jersey, my best friend in school was a guy named Lee Aldridge. His mother spoke Hungarian and immediately became close friends with my mom, but his father was a clan chief of the Oklahoma Cherokee who also ran the White Manna Diner in Hackensack New Jersey. That was the first of many Cherokee-Hungarian mixed marriages that I have come across over the years. I don't know what the attraction is between the more traditional Cherokees and the Hungarians. Apparently the sons of Kituwha and the daughters of Arpád go well together. The White Manna was originally a burger shack at the 1938 New York World's Fair, later relocated to River Road along the Hackensack River. White Manna used to be my lunch of choice while I worked on a Hackensack Municipal garbage truck back in the 70's. Since the garbage crew started out at 5 am, lunch was usually around 9 am - so we never had to wait for burgers. White Manna make tiny burgers - a folkloric specialty of New Jersey that is now becoming a gourmet fad among New York Bistros. Miniscule lumps of fresh ground beef are slapped onto the grill and covered with a layer of onions, then flipped and grilled on top of the onions. This was a depression era method of making a small amount of meat stuff a much larger buger bun, but it stuck because beef and onions go so well together. That orange block is sliced cheese, which gets slapped on the cheeseburgers at the last minute. Cheese like this cannot be found at fine cheese shops - you can only get it at Jersey burger stands, Army bases, and on some less affluent Indian reservations. While we were waiting a guy dressed in classic restaurant chef's uniform came in and ordered fifty cheeseburgers to go for his kitchen workers. "These are the best" he said, "I've been eating them since I was a kid." He then proceeded to speak in rapid-fire Dominican Spanish to all the grill cooks - it sounded like music to me. After years of living in Europe I still shudder when I have to wade through an earful of Iberian Spanish. Madrid Spanish sounds like people speaking Castillano after getting a mouth full of novocaine at the dentist office. Carribean Spanish, Mexican, Bolivian, Columbian - now that is Spanish that my ears can accept. You don't order "one burger" at White Mana. We went easy and ordered a modest two. With Fries. The fries are real fries - somebody in the back actually cutting potatoes, and soaking them in water to get the starch out so they fry crispy. No plastic pseudo-fries anywhere near the premises - you'll have to wait for your fries. And the burgers are heavenly - soft potato dough buns and loads of fried/steamed onions. Although burgers like these may be the ancestor of the modern fast food burger, they are anything but fast food. I have been having problems loading photos to the blog page over the last two days, so bear with me while I try and fix the problem. Brother Ron and I also visited the White Castle Hamburger joint in Fairview, New Jersey, but I can't get the pictures to load yet. Otherwise, much of my time is taken with meeting old friends in the New York Jewish music world, being overwhelmed when I walk into giant bookstores filled with books in English (I immediately go on the fritz trying to browse twenty years worth of reading into one hour) and trying to understand why things like knishes could have become light, healthy foods that contain broccoli. That is just...wrong. So wrong.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Dumneazu in New York!

"New York! Just like I pictured it! Skyscrapers and everything! "
Stevie Wonder, 1972
I am back in the place of my birth, the largest village in the world, Noo Yawk, Noo Yawk. A small island nation located off the east coast of the United States of America. Things are... different here. Yes, you can find certain reminders of the fact that an entity called the United States exists somewhere to the east and north of us. Even the south of us. Many of the inhabitants speak English as a native language, making it easy to ask for directions. Of course, it takes some time to get used to some of the food.

But where else does a portrait of Chou En-lai grace a bank machine (located in the Pearl River department store on lower Broadway in Chinatown. Pearl River is a Chinese state enterprise. Who says the Commies don't have a sense of humor? At least in New York....) And just like in Budapest, one can find Chinese underwear everywhere! I hadn't really planned to be in New York, but my siblings conspired to fly me over from Bpest. Am spus, dece nu? Daca sint Dumneazul... The Big News is that we get to meet our newest family member, Ron's wife Roong, who is from Bangkok and tracks cargo for a major international shipping company. The Cohen family is slowly - and happily - filling up with Buddhists, who at least are forcing us to take showers at far more regular intervals than we have ever experienced and teaching us proper manners that our other ancestors (like the Ribnitzer dynasty of Moldavian Hasidic rabbis) conveniently forgot about.My family is what we call "Old" New York - we immigrated here from Hungary and Moldavia, not from Minnesota or after Art School. My pop was a gold shield cop, everybody in the family speaks Yiddish and Spanish, and "normal food" means Chinese (Cantonese) food. I hadn't even realized, until I got on the plane (Lufthansa. Not happy. Motto: We used to serve food!) that I was going to be in the US for Thanksgiving. Apparently, the date for this holiday has been changed to accomodate better marketing for the shopping season. I never celebrated Thanksgiving - I used to work with an American Indian radio program in New England, and my colleagues were Abnakis and Wampanoags whose ancestors were not at all nostalgic about the circumstances of the Pilgrims arrival. For the descendants of the tribes that met the Pilgrims, Thanksgiving was a day of fasting. They used to go to Plymouth Bay every year and stand on a hillside overlooking the Pilgrim ceremonies with their backs facing the proceedings, singing war songs, while I manned the radio show for them back in Boston. No matter. In Amereekah, everyone celebrates Thanksgiving. We had a turkey. We had stuffing. We had cranberry sauce. We had history on a plate. My Mom preserves recipes learned during the 1960s, such as baked sweet mashed potato balls stuffed with a marshmallow and rolled in cornflakes. Just like the Pilgrims ate!One thing about Da City, you can eat well cheap. Although New York was recently rated one of the most expensivce restaurant cities in the world after Tokyo and London, at least here you can get good chow cheap. If you know where to look. But my brother, Chef Ron, who is in New York even more rarely than me, is determined to stuff damn near every New York local specialty into his gaping maw before two weeks is up. As I mentioned in an earlier post, priority Number One on arrival in New York is a trip to Katz's Deli down on East Houston Street. Most American citizens only need to have a stamp in their passport to get in the US. New Yorkers have to eat at Katz's. I will take some time later to do full justice to Kat'z's in another post. My brother and I ate there last night. For a native Old-School New Yorker, the pilgrimage to Katz's (now that Second Avenue Deli has closed) is the symbol that one has come home to Turtle Island, arrived in the Center of the World, balanced the Enemy Way, made the broken halves whole, repaired the kelipoth. And smeared mustard all over it too. Best. Frigging. Corned Beef. And. Pastrami. In. The. Universe.

Monday, November 20, 2006

The Dwarf Jewish Theater of Maramures: The Lilliput Troupe

Back around 2001 we were spending a lot of time with the late Gheorghe Ioannei Covaci, a older Gypsy fiddler from the village of Ieud in the southeast of Maramures. Ioannei had learned a large repetoire of Jewish tunes from a pre-WWII Jewish band in the neighboring village of Rozavlea. That band was called the Shugareni, all members of the Shloimovitz family of klezmorim. While asking around about Jewish musicians in Rozavlea itself, people kept mentioning that there was a Circ de Petici as well - a "Jewish Dwarf Circus." Israeli researchers had been in the village asking about them.

A Jewish dwarf circus? The idea was so deliciously absurd that we went to Sighet to try and find any records - playbills, posters, newspaper reviews - but couldn't. When the Hungarian Army left Maramures in 1945 all the official archives of the province were deliberately burned before the retreat. We were left only with questions - were they the same band as the Shugareni? But about a year later, after our second CD came out using music we had learned from Ioannei, we were contacted by the Israeli writers Yehuda Koren and Eilat Negev, who had published a In Our Hearts We Were Giants , the story of the Ovitz family, also known as the Lilliput Theater Troupe. Their story was anything but absurd - it was one of the most gripping narratives of family survival to come out of the Holocaust. There is an extensive wikipedia entry on the Ovitz Family. On arrival, the family members were selected by Dr. Jozef Mengele for genetic experiments. Thus it was that the Ovitz family, which in May 1944 arrived in Auschwitz together - seven dwarfs and the rest of their normal-sized family members - many of whom might have been murdered immediately had they arrived on their own, were not only spared the gas chambers, but were accorded special conditions which helped facilitate their survival. What's more, they were able to convince the Nazis that their trusted family assistant and coachman Shimon Slomowitz, his wife and six children, as well as two additional neighbors from Rozavlea with no special connections to the family, were also relatives, and as such were allowed to join the Ovitz group. Incredibaly, the Ovitz' were one of the only families to enter Auschwitz and survive intact, along with most of the other Maramures Jews whom they falsely claimed as relatives - thus attracting the protective umbrella of Mengele's expermientation.
After the war, the Ovitz family settled in Haifa in the newly established state of Israel, where they called themselves the Seven Dwarfs of Auschwitz and began touring. Their bittersweet cabaret was an enormous success. When they retired they had enough money to buy two cinemas, a café and a large flat where they lived together. the last surviving memeber of the family troupe, Perla Ovitz, died in 2001 in Haifa after revealing her amazing story to Israeli journalists Koren and Negev. "If I was a healthy Jewish girl, one meter seventy tall, I would have been gassed like the hundreds of thousands of other Jews in my country. So if I ever wondered why I was born a dwarf, my answer would have to be that my handicap, my deformity, was God's only way to keep me alive."
Last year I met with the authors, Yehuda and Eilat, in Budapest, and learned that the US based History Channel was making a documentary film about the Ovitz family, and wished to use the music of my band for the sound track. The end result was a truly strange and forgettable little film "Standing tall at Auschwitz" that hardly used any of the repetoire I had recorded especially for the film - based on recollections recorded by Perla Ovitz and playbills left in the family's possesion. But in October 2005, Australian musicologists and klezmer duo Tim Meyen and Pip Thompson accompanied me and Fumie (who took the accompanying photos) to Maramures to track down more info on the Ovitzes. We found their house on the main street of the village of Rozavlea. We asked the oldest person we could find for direction to the Ovitz house. I showed her the photos from the book and she remembered the Ovitz family immediately. In these villages, where literacy is not a prime objective, people keep oral traditions with amazing accuracy. Most old people had stories about the Ovitz family, who were about as close as Rozavlea ever got to local celebrities.The present occupant of the Ovitz home is the former Mayor of Rozavlea, who was the teen age boy who guarded their possessions - including the only automobile in the village - during the war. After returning from Auschwitz, the family was able to recover their jewelry and money from its hiding place - buried beneath their car. This is one of the characteristics of inter-ethnic culture in Maramures - Jews were generally on good terms with their neighbors, one of the few places in east Europe where Jews enjoyed a normal status amomg their neighbors, were allowed to own land and farm, and generally fit in well and prospered. Pogroms were unknown in Maramures. Typically, in Maramures, Jewish homes were often located towards the very center of town and were often the only homes built of stone. The family sponsored a small synagogue located next door to their home, which today is the barn yard of the neighboring house. More typical Maramures log houses are located offf the main street, such as those below on the road to the Rozavlea Jewish cemetery.
The Jewish cemetery is on an island located across a very scarey rope and wire suspension bridge crossing the Iza river. Surprisingly, it was well trimmed and kept. Even though there are no Jews in the village today, the cemetery is not neglected or derelict as many village Jewish cemeteries often are in Romania.

Friday, November 17, 2006

The Maramures Happy Meal.

Perhaps my favorite corner of Romania is the northern Transylvanian region of Maramures. Located next to the Ukraine, Maramures was not heavily industrialized during the communist era simply because Ceaucescu felt that if the Soviets ever invaded Romania, they would probably nick Maramures and he wasn't letting them have any of his beloved cement factories. As it is today, Maramures is still an overwhelmingly rural, peasant culture, and the local culture is surprisingly resiliant compared to peasant cultures in many other parts of Romania. [Photos by Fumie Suzuki] [did I mention that these photos were taken by Fumie Suzuki?]

Maramures used to be home to one of the most concentrated Jewish populations in east Europe, and - as a territory held directly by the Hapsburg Treasury - the Jews here held rights, such as the right to own farmland, that were unique in East Europe. The Jews here were mainly farming Jews, strictly Hasidic orthodox but living in a healthy coexistence with their Romanian, Hungarian, and Hutsul (Ukrainian Catholic Ruthene) neighbors. Today there are about 75 older Jews, mostly living in the main town, Sighet. I go to Maramures a couple of times a year to hear and collect music in the local fiddle style, especially from older fiddlers who still remember the repetoire of the Jewish instrumental music. There used to be a lot more such fiddlers but these days it isn't that easy to find somebody who played for Jewish weddings - there haven't been many since the 1960s. in fact, it was my band that played at the last Jewish wedding in Sighet in 2001. I don't usually call this "klezmer" music, because Maramures Jewish music lacks a lot of the rythyms and scales we associate with the Moldavian/New York Jewish music we generally call klezmer. The Jewish music up here was much more Hasidic in nature, and nobody ever touched a clarinet. It was fiddle music, and the style of playing was closer to the local rural Romanian/Transylvanian string band style than to the semi-classical and Turkish-influenced Jewish fiddle styles that became associated with Galician and Moldavian Klezmer. Above are Gheorghe lui Grigore Covaci "Ionnu" and Ion Pop playing fiddle at Pop's home in Hoteni. Ionnu is one of the few remaining Gypsy fiddlers who remembers any of the Jewish repetoire first hand. (They both worked with British ethnomusicologist Lucy Castle when she lived in Romania, with Ion eventually going on to form Popeluc with Lucy. Lucy has published a new book about Maramures Music called Not the Maramures Tunebook available on her web site) I'll go more in depth about Maramures Jewish music in a future post, but one cultural thread linked all the nationalities of Maramures - they love fiddle music, and they love to drink plum brandy. The local home brewed plum brandy, known as Tsuica in Romanian and Pálinka in Hungarian, but the good stuff, twice distilled and always well over 50% pure alcohol, and absolutely pure plum brandy is called horinca. Inspiring stuff. Named my blog after it.Plum brandy starts out with... err... plums. The plums are placed into barrels, usually made of blue plastic, and covered to sit for a few weeks to ferment. Quite honestly, you don't want to peek inside the barrels at this time. Not only does the fermentation produce alcohol, it produces fruit flies and their wormy little larvae. No matter, it all goes into the still. I think the worms are part of the saveur... a fine larval aftertaste that I think is something Scottish single malts and many Cognacs lack. The plum mash gets distilled through a still into huge vats of tsuica, which gets a second distillation to become horinca. This still was in the village of Rozavlea. A liter of horinca was about 5 Euro, sold in various plastic soda pop bottles. If it is in an old fanta bottle, it has to be good. Good horinca is like fine quality vodka - so pure that even after drinking vast Maramures-like quantities of it one can wake up in the morning without any hangover, ready to hitch the horse to a plow and do a few acres of ploughing or sheep castrating after, of course, the obligatory shot of horinca with breakfast.
The cuisne of Maramures is simple and seasonal - people eat meat when they kill animals, which is around Christmas time and again around Easter when they cull the lambs. At other times of the year the villagers are virtually vegetarians who eat large amounts of cheese. On weekends everybody cooks up huge batches of sarmale - stuffed cabbage filled with rice, onions and root vegtables. There are no butcher shops in the villages - if an animal is killed, somebody heads into the center of the village and yells that there is meat for sale. The shops do not stock anything except nasty salami and frozen chicken, which nobody buys since everybody has dozens of chickens in their yard already.

Maramures has a well developed agrotourism infrastucture. I usually call ahead direct to the home owner when I book a room, and your host will usually feed you. In the village of Ieud, however, we always stay with Nitsa Dancus. Nitsa is an amazing woman, the source of much Maramures folkore and music, and a great cook. Well, she is if if you like the traditional meal of a black iron kettle of mamaliga cu brinza (corn meal porridge with sheep cheese) and a bottle of horinca. Mamaliga is like polenta, but with balls. A coarser ground of corn meal than Italian polenta, more flavor, and the cheese is usally very rich with sheep fat, which cook out during the baking process. People eat this day in, day out for their whole lives in Maramures, and they are still stronger than almost any group of people I've ever seen. With a bottle of pure full strength horinca... the Maramures Happy Meal!
Next: The Jewish Dwarf Theater of Maramures.

Sunday, November 12, 2006

Where Food Comes From.

Our little bit of heaven is the fourteenth district, known as Zugló, which begins just outside the city park in the east of Pest. The end station (Mexikói ut) of the little yellow metro - the oldest Metro line in Europe - is just around the corner, meaning downtown is only seven minutes away, but the urban difference is huge. Zugló has trees, open spaces, single family houses. There are wild birds, ferrets, and hedghogs running around on my street. Until a few years ago there was still a guy with a donkey cart who delievered wood to homes that still used wood stoves. And Zugló has the huge Bosznák tér Market, where we usually go on Saturdays to do the week's shopping. On Saturday farmers come come to Bosznák tér to sell produce. The farm bred chickens are incredible - no comparison to the tasteless, watery birds available at supermarkets. And the slab bacon and sausages that are on sale here are homemade, ugly, and absolutely delicious. Screw supermarkets, this is where food comes from, unwrapped, unadulterated, and sometimes with the head and feet still attached. The Bosznák Market used to be the central magnet Market for all of Budapest before the Nagybáni Wholesale Market was opened around 1993. Although the name means "Bosnian Market" a large portion of the vendors here speak Slovak or Bulgarian. For the Slovaks, who live in the villages just east of Pest, it is the closest city market. The Bulgarians came to Hungary in the 1870s, and brought their own style of irrigated, raised-bed gardening with them, introducing previously unknown vegtables such as the eggplant and yellow pepper. Once, when Fumie and I were buying cabbage at the market one of these guys asked Fumie where she was from. "Japan? Really? Well, I'm Bulgarian!" He nearly shat himself when Fumie said "Da? Govorim, mnogo dobro..." and simply continued shopping for her vegetables in Bulgarian. The pickle man in the area behind the main market. We have pickled beets, cucmbers, peppers, watermelon, and squash, sourkraut, and whole pickled heads of cabbage are pickled for use in stuffed cabbage. I don't remember the last time I ate pickles that came out of a jar. It's become rather cold and stormy in Budapest, and after a summer of great fresh Turkish food I am back to eating nice hot Hungarian winter stodge. We were downtown earlier this week, and wound up at the old Bohémtanya for lunch, after running all around the seventh district trying to find a place that still serves plain old Hungarian food for less than the price of the down payment on a car. It is getting hard to find a decent bowl of gulyás in downtown pest. The Bohémtanya used to be one of the best chow houses in Pest back in the late 1980s - you knew it had to be good because all the police ate there - but then closed for a couple of years. Since reopeneing, nobody seems to pay it any mind. Portions are rather generous, and Ft 1000 (about US $ 5) gets an acre or so of veal paprikás (mislabled on the menu as veal pörkölt. Pörkölt would not have a cream sauce...) and galuska dumplings. Bean soup - bableves - for Ft 750 (about US $3.50) This baby has smoked pork knuckle, sausage, beans, carrots, and onion. Never has flatulence had a better excuse. I spent the rest of the afternoon imitating the sound of a a Serbian Gypsy brass band using only my tuches. And now the Big News: thanks to my brother Ron, I am headed back to New York in a few days for a month and a half. Ron hasn't been east in years and so both of us are going to chow down on the traditional New York foods of our mispent youths. Pastrami sandwiches, real pizza, chow foon noodles! Katz's Deli here I come! I've promised to take Ron to Louie and Ernie's Pizza in the east Bronx where we grew up - he was too young to remember the pizzas and needs a refresher course. White Castle hamburgers, not to mention the White Manna in Hackensack - which once owned by a clan chief of the Oklahoma Cherokee married to a Hungarian woman... Rugelach from the Puerto Rican bakers who speak Yiddish at the Hungarian Kosher pastry shop in Boro Park. Christmas eve at a Chinese restaurant! (actually... that's what I do here in Budapest every year anyway...) On the other hand, nobody in the US has actually seen a live, human butcher in years, the supermarkets are filled with fake, mass produced crap "gourmet" food, and you need a bank loan to buy a tomato that tastes like a tomato. But with the Republican Cylons on the run, my country needs me. There is much to do. And I must heed the call...

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

A Happy Warm Feeling!

Back in the Old Country, the Democrats have taken back the Congress. The Evil Empire is weakening! Since I can't treat millions of those who voted Democratic to a real party, let me at least provide virtual goodies, left over from our time in Istanbul in August. Hey, it's on me. Dig in. No ice cream for the Republicans though. They have to be fit and trim to face their corruption and war crime trials. Oh... and isn't it about time the US institutes socialized medicine? Go to it, Speaker Pelosi! Syrup soaked semolina slabs, not as sweet as you would imagine. Morer semolina slabs, topped with cream in some cases, from the Sarayi sweets shop on Istiklal Caddesi. Baked custard to the right, and profiterol below. Asure, the classic ramadan sweet pudding. As with many Turkish sweets, the ingredients are surprising - a pudding made with whole wheat and beans, sweetened, and topped with chopped nuts and dried fruits. If the Sultan ate Maypo, this is what it would taste like. More pistachio baklava. Believe me, this is much better than the stuff you get at your local felafel and gyro joint.

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Budapest Quiet - Except for Music

The past week in Budapest has been tense since the riots that broke out in the city on the anniversary of the Hungarian Revolution on October 15th. One of the more recent developements was a closed session of Parliament in which evidence was presented that alleges former PM Orban Viktor's party, FIDESZ, was involved in the planning and execution of the disturbances (well duhhh... what a surprise,) in conjunction with some of the rather more distatsteful organizations of Hungary's radical right wing. We are talking some major fascistoid hate groups here - surfing around some of the Hungarian language rightist web sites provides a bellyful of antisemitic skinhead (link to a somwhat outdated ADL report from the mid 90's) and neo-nazi sentiment. I'd add more links as examples, but the level of extreme verbal hatred and vindictive nastiness is so strident and petulant that this blog would probably be backtracked by the groups memtioned, and I'd rather not have to deal with them at all. It seems that the Hungarian National Security Agency read FIDESZ the riot act - literally - and suddenly they behaved themselves like a nice little "citizen's party" should. In spite of the warnings of blocades and riots, Saturday is the day I usually head to the Bosznyak tér market for shopping... and the day starts with a nice, hot véres hurka, a blood and rice sausage... Hungarians take their sausage very seriously, and yes, it is considered the perfect breakfast food to start a day of browsing among the cabbages and late season zucchinis in the market. A bit heavy, yes, but then you are simply not peckish for the next 72 hours... and there are only pork sausages available. No duck and herb, no veal, no beef, only pork and paprika... or pork with even more paprika. No garlic, pepper, herbs, or any other flavorings allowed. Truth is, they do get a bit boring after a while. One day I'll post photos of us making sausages at home - I am simply unable to live in a place with no Italian sausages. So I make them myself. What is interesting about Hungarian national holidays is that on these days most resident foreigners stay indoors and do not go out for the day. A sad comment on life in Hungary, but true. Finally I was going stir crazy, mad with cabin fever - so I went to the Álmassy tér Dance House on Thursday... Puma was playing kontra with the Matokabinde Band as usual. A great set of Mezöseg tunes from Palatka at the end of the evening. Sally from Australia was on second kontra fiddle - she may well be the world's best female kontra player, and she certainly is the only one that has ever played with the Palatka band itself.
Somos was in the big hall playing for Moldavian Csángo dancing. Somos' regular dance house at Márczibányi tér was closed this season for reconstruction, and Szabolcs tells me everybody is much happier at Álmassy tér - it's more central in downtown Pest, and there is no entrance fee. Last night was a big treat - the Tecsö Band was at the Fonó in Buda. They are Gypsy musicians from the Hutsul region of Karpato-Ukraine, from the village of Tjaciv (Tetch, in yiddish) just across the Tisza river from Maramures in Romania, and near the border of Hungary. The band consists of the Csernovics brothers - Joska on accordion, Yura on drum, and Mishka on small tsymbaly (cimbalom) with Ivan Popovics on fiddle. They are one of the last real traditional bands to maintain any active Jewish repetoire (alongtside the Ruthenian, Hungarian, and Romanian tunes that are their bread and butter) and they played with me as guests when I recorded our new CD last spring. Mishka, the cimbalom player wasn't with them on this trip due to illness, but I sat in for some tunes, and Adam Good - who was playing the Fonó that evening with the amazingly tasteful Nikitov - sat in on bass. That's Yura in the foreground with the drum - he is probably the most accomplished master of Carpathian drumming alive today. Yura actually went to Romania to buy the drum belonging to the Petreus Brothers' band when Ion Petreus died. That's a two day trip. He also plays plonka - a strip of film held in the mouth which produces a sound somewhat between a screaming miniture clarinet and somebody pinching the air out of a small balloon. CD with samples here.