Thursday, November 29, 2007

Lunch Again at Kadar's

I'm heading back to the Land of the Falling Dollar soon. When you are coming from Europe, the prices in the US seem downright cheap when you translate them into Euros, which is great if you are raking in lots of Euros and ind of terrifying if you are earning money in US dollars, which is what I have been doing recently. The Hungarian forint is artificially overvalued, at present, but notice the rates listed below. The US dollar sits a bit behind the Canadian dollar (the "loonie") for the first time in decades. While Hungary is still a bargain for travellers, it isn't quite cheap anymore if you are coming from the US. Remember: the US dollar was 310 Forints to the dollar just before Bush became Appointed Dictator... and then sat around 220 for a long time... before diving in the last two years. This is the first time I have ever spent a "week vacation" in Budapest, and I really have to wonder how all those tourists do it. I hardly got here and already i know how much I am going to miss the place ... although I'll be back in January. And yeah, I heart New York, and definately prefer Hebrew National Beef Frankfurters to all-pig virsli, but... does NY have strudel stands on the main drags? I think not. Where am I going to get my cherry and cheese strudel fix?Not to mention markets. I usually hit Hunyadi ter, near Oktagon, because it's closest. But unlike an American supermarket, here I actually know my butcher. The guys at the chicken stall are as close as it comes to a stand-up comedy team in Central Europe, the bacon stand owner is an old style noble gentlemen, and everybody knows that the vegetable seller is the middle of the market is an absolute, unbearable dick. Who can say that about the folks who work in your local Whole Foods?When I need stuff for my kitchen, I don't usually head for some yuppified cookwares franchise at the mall. I go to the market, and somebody is always set up at one of the stalls outside to take care of everything you need to make galushka noodles, plum dumplings, or blood sausage. If I am in the 7th district, I would normally stop in at the Klauzal ter market, but more likely, I would have lunch at Kadar's. The Kadar Etkezde is to Budapest what Katz's deli is to New York: anachronistic, comfortably Jewish, and full of oddball quirks such as a payment system every bit as arcance as Katz's. At Kadar's you pay the white jacketed concierge guy when you leave, by telling him what you ate, how many slices of bread, and how many glasses of seltzer you drank.Like a lot of strange Hungarian customs, it comes down to "it may be a strange idea, but it was the first one we came up with, and also the only one." This is the 7th district, the old Jewish ghetto, and Kadar's is the culinary heart and soul of the place with no pretensions. Fridays are the day for solet - the Hungarian version of the Jewish cholent, but at Kadar it is usually served with a bit of smoked pork. Unkosher and yet very Jewish, like most of the 7th district. Kadar's drink options are seltzer, or seltzer with raspberry syrup (malna.) If you are not very careful, or experienced with seltzer bottles (and few modern humans are) you can easily end up spraying half the dining room by trying to squirt a glass for yourself. The secret is to go easy on the lever...Chicken soup as it should be... served with lots of nodles in a big bowl of the type that used to be used at old communist era factory cafeterias that also used aluminium forks and spoons that would bend as you ate. This is what we mean by "comfort food" in Hungary.Stuffed peppers... possibly the world's best stuffed peppers, in a sweet tomato and paprika sauce. At about US $4.00 a serving, this takes the edge of the fact that my pocket is filled with nearly worthless dollars.A "small portion" of beef stew (marha pörkölt) with tarhonya pasta cooked in gravy. This is one of the Best Foods I Have Ever Eaten, and ever since I was a kid on vacation at lake Balaton I have loved tarhonya, which they used to serve from bowls at the beachside snack bars with absolutely no sauce or other accompaniment, and we still loved it. Usually you fry the tarhonya - which are pasta "grains" - in a bit of butter and then add water, or in this case, some beef stew diluted with stock. I'm bringing home a few bags to get me through the winter...

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Eating All of Cracow

Having returned from our visit to the Jewish quarter of Kazimierz in the Polish City of Cracow (excellent on-line walking tour website here!) I am already getting packed to ship back to New York on Saturday. Walking around Cracow in the winter is hungry business, and if you really want to appreciate Polish cuisine, then the best time to visit is in the dead of winter. Polish food is high on the international Stodge Index, with thick soups and starchy dumplings making it the perfect carbo-load fuel to get one through a cold Baltic winter.Żurek is one of our favorites - a nice hot bowl of zurek is often our idea of breakfast when we arrive at some train station or don't know what to oreder in some highway trucker's roadhouse cafe. Żurek is based on soured rye flour, much like the Romanian cibere soups, to which potato and kolbasz sausages are added. Another train station breakfast standard is Bigos, by gosh, which is a good old fashioned stick-to-the-ribs semi-soup of beef and sour cabbage.This is the stuff hat keeps Polish construction crews operating all around the world, building the future on bowls of bigos. For those of us who really appreciate the Polish Hungary Man meal options, there is golonka, a massive chunk of pig knuckle. This one came with mustard and horseradish, and made me realize that life is to short to be eating vegetables.For very obvious reasons, this is one item that never translated well into Polish jewish cooking, and dang, we missed out on this big time. Nothing beats a cold winter evening as well as a plate of pork knuckle as big as your head with some plum sauce and mashed potatoes.Pierogis are everywhere. Pierogis in Poland are just possibly better than they are in the Ukraine, if that is possible.Polish Pierogi restaurants can be upscale or down-home worker's lunch joints left over from the Communist era, but in general they are cheap and good and I never met a pierogi that I didn't like.Pierogis bring out the irrepressible cuteness that pervades Polish graphic art. Poles have a highly developed tradition of graphic arts - Polish poster art has a habit of winning international awards, and that sense of graphic tastefullness seeps out into the city's streets and advertising culture.Smoked cheese -oscypek - for sale in the streets. This is made in the Goral highland regions near Zakopane and is the same stuff we get throughout Slovakia as parenyica cheese.Cracow is a great cafe city - maybe one of Europe's top five cafe cities (Paris, Budapest, Istanbul, and Milan come to mind.) Walk two blocks, and there is yet another cafe offering a sit down and respite from the cold outside. And pastries. Most are exquisite. Especially the cream cakes, but Fumie had to have the Cracow napoleon cake - a garish pink cherry foam pastry. Poles drink some of the world's best vodka. So why not invite a few friends over tonight and share a... kalishnikov of vodka?

Sunday, November 25, 2007

The Cracow Dawn

After spending a full three hours at home in Budapest after flying across the atlantic from NY, we took the overnight sleeper train to Cracow, arriving at dawn at the Hotel Eden in the old Jewish Kazimierz district. The Eden Hotel is one of the kosher hotels catering to Jewish visitors to the former Jewish district of Kazimierz, and was hosting a bunch of guests sponsored by the Cracow Jewish Culture Festival to plan a future secret collaboration cooked up by Alan Bern of Brave Old World. Participants included Judeo-Mustafa Ben Mandelson and cimbalom vituoso Kalman Balogh. We spent the early hours of the moring wandering around Kazimierz. I've only been here during the summer Jewish Music festival, when the area is filled with visitors and tourists, and Szeroka Sqaure - which was perfectly empty now - will hold 12,000 screaming music fans at the final concerts. Our hosts were Janusz Makuch and the folks from the Cracow Jewish Culture festival, which is housed in the building located next to one of the old grand synagogues on Jozefa street.There are a lot of synagogues in Kazimierz. What there is not a lot of is Jews to use them. Kazimierz is famous as the location in which Schindler's List was filmed, and subsequently, it hosts one of Europe's most popular and influential Jewish music festivals each July in Szeroka Square, which has become a bastion of the "virtual Jewishness" written about by author Ruth Gruber, who was also in Cracow for this meeting.Virtual Jewishness is the creation of "Jewish spaces" to propogate Jewish culture in places with no Jews. Kazimierz provides a stunning example. Cracow has about 300 Jews living around the city, but Szeroka Square has become the center of a cafe culture based on the image of the cozy, wood paneled "Jewish Restaurant" which has become a branded cliche throughout Poland - every town now has a Szeroka-style "Jewish Cafe."Perhaps the "virtual Jewish" phenomena bothers other Jews more than me, but one thing that almost everybody who has visited Cracow finds shocking are the small carved figures of black-robed Hasidic Jews clutching bags of money that are sold in the souvenir stands and crafts markets.To be honest, these used to be far more widespread in the crafts markets in the central Rynek market, and while they haven't entirely disappeared, the stereotype seems to have shifted to the image of the Jew as Klezmer musician... although one can still find the Money Bag Jews standing among the fiddlers and tsimbl players. Locals will tell you that the carvings of Jews with bags of money are good luck charms intended to bring the owner the wealth that is associated with Jewish luck... and now that so much of Cracow's reputation as a tourist magnet comes from the Jewish Music festival, why not apply that to the image of the Klezmer musician?Janusz Makuch, the director of the Cracow Jewish Culture festival, has been working to convince local artists and businesses for years that these types of souvenirs are offensive to Jewish visitors, and he actually has had quite some success... it is now rare to find rows and rows of the money-bag Jew statues for sale these days. Klezmer Jews, however, are everywhere.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Quick hop back to Europe!

I'm getting on a flight to Budapest in about two hours. I'm due at a meeting in Crakow next week, so the EU is flying me over, putting me in a hotel for a couple of days, and feeding me pierogis to subsidize my insane ethnomusicoligical ravings - all made legitimate by my wearing a suit jacket while ranting like a madman about Jewish music.Then, after a week of being extremely cruel to my liver in Budapest, buying cheap gigs, and replenishing America's dwindling supply of cimbalom sticks, I'm back in New York into the New Years. More from Poland soon! Roast duck! Beets! Zurek!

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Katz's Deli: The Meaty Heart of New York

There are few absolutes in life, or at least, as one gets older there are fewer things about which one cares to hold absolute opinions. I am from New York City - born in "the boroughs" and therefore not naturally raised to hold my opinions about Things That Matter to New York. One thing that Matters to Da City is our native cuisine. And that means Katz's Delicatessen.Katz' Delicatessen is to a New Yorker what seafood at La Cupole is to a Parisian, or sushi at Tsukuji is to a dyed in the wool Tokyo resident. Katz's Deli is the soul food of New York. Katz's is the last holdout of hardcore deli sandwiches in Manhatten. Sure there are other delis, and some can actually hold a candle to Katz (the Second Avenue Deli, soon to reopen in midtown Manhatten, for example)... but Katz's is an identity symbol to New Yorkers as powerful as the Statue of Liberty or the hole in the ground where the World Trade Center once stood. Katz's Deli is part of the glue that makes us New Yorkers hold together.People standing in line at Katz's talk to each othger, give advice, counsel newcomers through the difficult choices ... hmmm... pastrami or a tongue and pastrami combo? Ordering at Katz's is like joining a commune. Katz's is unique. When you enter, you are given a ticket, which you will have marked by the countermen with your choices, and you present it to the cashier on the way out or face a hefty fine. New Yorkers know: one does not lose one's ticket.One gets in line behind a counterman - some of these guys have been here for years and each has his loyal fan followings among customers. Most of the speak the clipped Dominican Spanish that is the lingua franca of the inner boroughs. You place your order, (Whattayu want? Diga me... Lean or juicy?") and the counterman starts slicing meat, placing the first slices on the counter for you to taste and appraise like a fine wine. The experienced customer orders his meat "juicy" meaning dripping with the fats from which good pastrami and corned beef gets most of its flavor. An experienced customer also tips the counterman a dollar or two. These guys remember you and it pays to insure a better cut of meat on your next visit. You don't come to Katz's looking for low-cal options. If you have a cardiac condition, well, eating at Katz's may shorten your stay on earth, but it will also sweeten it.The classic order: pastrami sandwich, pickles, and Dr. Brown's Cel-Ray soda, which is a New York tradtion - celery flavored soda. One thing Katz's is not is cheap. Their sandwiches - which are huge and almost too much to eat in a single sitting for normal folks - have been inching upwards in price at about a dollar a year over the last five years. Pastrami is now $14.95, Corned Beef is now $13.95 and that's not becase any of the ingredients have to be imported from far away New Jersey. But who cares... its Katz's. Toss over the money and ... eat. There has been talk going around about Katz's closing down or moving, due to a real state developement plan for the rather run down block on which Katz's stands. That is not going to happen. New York without Katz's is simply.... unthinkable. Good delis are getting rarer every day... here used to be dozens in Manhatten alone but today it is pretty much down to Katz's.
To give an idea of what makes Katz's so special, I produce below a photo of another, less noble pastrami sandwich. It was OK, it had pastrami, it was on toasted rye... but please. Lunch in Hackensack at the Heritage diner. Not Katz's. Not bad, mind you, but not Katz's. At all. If this post seems a bit nostalgic, it is - I'm leaving New York on Monday and going back to Europe. But here's the clincher - I am only going for ten days. Three days in Crakow, Poland, a week in my home base of Budapest, and then right back to New York. So this is not farewell to Katz's. No. This is more like see ya next week....

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Alexandru Cercel and Ion Niţoi: Old style Lautar Fiddle and Cobza

I wrote a few months ago about the slow demise of the cobza (Hungarian: koboz) in Romanian traditional music. The cobza is a folk version of the lute, or more likely, a Romanian/Moldavian adaption of the Turkish oud, althoug the word is a much older Turkic root for many types of central Asian stringed instruments and appears often in medeival Hungarian as a family name for hereditary bards and ballad singers as kobzos. Finding musical sources for obscure instruments such as this can be frustrating... so it is time to share a little secret. It seems that last year a Romanian newspaper began releasing limited edition CDs of great recordings of Romanian music - including a lot of excellent lautar material - as a free give away with editions of its paper. One of these CDs was the 1957 recordings made of Alexandru Cercel by Romanian ethnomuscologist Constantine Brailou. Cercel (1883-1970) was one of the last great singers of the old lautar traditon in the Arges region, and on these sessions he was accompanied by his long time cobza player Ion Niţoi. Now the little secret: you can download this recording here. Follow the directions, type in the little secret codeword... and there you go. Since the release was a promotional give away, and the CD is now unavailable... I wouldn't worry too much about downloading it. Amazing, hardcore old style Romanian lautar music the way it was played in smaller villages before the advent of the big stage orchestras.What is also exciting is the addition of the small cimbalom - the ţambal mic - on the dance tunes, making this one of the only available recordings of a small band format before the introduction of instruments like the bass and accordion. This is what Romanian Lautar music sounded like a century ago. Another discovery I made by having way too much time on my hands... a short video on Youtube of Ion Albesteanu and Marin Cotoanta playing fiddle and cobza in pure old fashioned lautar style.

Friday, November 09, 2007

The Carolina Chocolate Drops: Black String Band Music from the Piedmont Region

Bob Godfried is The Man With Impecable Taste when it comes to finding decent traditional music in New York, always able to cut through the junk that passes for folk music in the city and find the good stuff. This week he hauled me into the city to hear the Carolina Chocolate Drops play at the Thalia theater on 79th St. The Drops are one of the few African American bands playing in the old time string band scene, and have been learning their music as apprentices to Joe Thompson of Mebane, North Carolina, the last of the old time Black Piedmont style fiddlers, who won an NEA Heritage award this year. Best. Show. This. Year. Joe was born in 1918, and recently suffered a mild stroke, so he passed on traveling to New York to do the concert. Joe played with his cousin Odell until 1989, when Odell passed away. While the black fiddle and banjo string band tradition has almost disappeared, it was widespread in the 19th century, and given that the banjo is an American instrument with its origins in Africa, one might expect that the tradition would be more widespread.Popular Black musicians like Gus Cannon used the banjo in the 20th century, but by the time the banjo became popular among whites, it lost popularity among black audiences. The banjo was the loudest string instrument around before electric amplification - but pianos and brass bands were louder, and the banjo's association with minstrel shows probably didn't help any. After the decline of Minstrel shows, the stereotyped "Hillbilly" band became its successor in the itinerant entertainment industry of medicine shows and early radio, as Black American audiences moved on to blues, jazz and early rock styles. Young Black musicians taking on a style and repertoire that once originated in 19th century Black tradition but was subsequently identified as "White Music" rings very familiar to my ears as a Klezmer musician playing in Europe. Back in the day when concert promoters in Europe would suggest that Di Nayes should wear "hasidic folk costume" on stage, I used to answer "Do you know what a coon show is? Well, we don't do coon shows. Or Cohen shows."The Chocolate Drops are engaged in a reclamation of a tradition, but doing it successfully by treating it as a living art, not a museum piece. For one thing, the Drops play with a great style, going against the canon laws of how Old Time music is "supposed" to be played. Old chestnuts of the repetoire, like "Going Down the Road Feeling Bad" are almost never played by contemporary string bands anymore, and Dom Flemons, on banjo, guitar, and jug, is able to channel old masters like Gus Cannon and Papa Charlie Jackson like few other "folkies" ever have. Dom is an absolutely frightening talent, and a elegant scholar of the music he performs as well.
Damn, I miss this music, living in Europe. American traditional music simply is not available in Europe. Live or recorded, you don't see it or hear it. Lots of reason why, none of them good, but when I come back to the US it always amazes me to hear the level of dedication and musicianship of the younger generation of traditionalists.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Remants of the Jewish Lower East Side

The Lower East Side of Manhattan is, today, primarily a Chinese and Hispanic ethnic neighborhood, but it once was the central New York neighborhood for immigrant Jews. By the mid 20th century most had moved to the NY boroughs like Brooklyn and the Bronx, or out to the suburbs, but there are still a few reminders around Seward Park and East Broadway.The Forward building was home to the Yiddish newspaper The Forward, which is still going strong (in both English and Yiddish editions) today but is now based up at the Arebiter Ring building at E. 33rd st. First published in 1897, the Yiddish-language Forward was born as Jewish immigration swelled the New York sweatshops and labor unions. It had close ties to the Socialist Party, taking the name of the successful Socialist paper in Berlin, and is still widely read in New York - not only by Jews - for its socialist take on events. This is as close as it comes to a piece of Yiddish monumental architecture in the world today.Just down the street is the Bialystocker Home for the Aged, one of the last remaining institutions run by the old regional Yiddish landsmanshaftn for the care of older immigrant Jews from Poland. Along east Broadway are a line of shtibls - small spaces serving as prayer houses and offices for Orthodox Jewish communities, the majority of whom have moved their operations to Brooklyn.This part of the city used to be home to literally hundreds of small prayer houses like these. There is still an Orthodox Yeshiva further west towards Chatham Square...The old Five Points neighborhood depicted in the film Gangs of New York, was located down in this area of Manhattan, but very little remains of the old, ramshackle buildings that were depicted in the movie - the old Five Points really was a wood-and-mud-wattle slum and was pretty well torn down over the years and is now submerged under more modern development and parks. The Sephardic Jewish cemetery of Congregation Shearith Israel - The Spanish and Portuguese Jewish Synagogue - is preserved at 55 St. James Place, opposite Chatham Square, on the southeast corner of Chinatown.This was the first Jewish cemetery in New York. The Sephardic Jews had arrived at the time when the Dutch ruled Manhattan, which means that after the Lenape, the Dutch, and the Africans taken as slaves, Jews are among the oldest settlers in the city of New York. Of course, being near Chinatown, we wouldn't expect you to eat anyplace else... try Nha Trang on Baxter Street for some low priced Vietnamese food!Of course, it is not kosher, but then neither am I.