Friday, September 27, 2013

Longhorns and Buffalo: Home on the Range!

It is good to be back in Budapest. As we say in Hungarian "Itt az élet, ott a pénz": Life is here, money is there. Its impossible to compare Hungary and the USA, or Budapest and New York. One has the world's best pizza, the other has the world's best poppy seed buns, if you like that kind of thing. New York has a world class opera. Budapest has an Opera as well, the best of its class to be found in the sixth district. Housed in a beautiful building, did I mention that? New York has a vibrant nightlife. So does Budapest, if you like going to the seventh district "partyzone" to watch crowds of Belgian and Australian twenty-somethings engaged in spontaneous mass barf-o-thons on the pavement of Király utca. I prefer our life just out of the city center. As long as the weather holds I'll drop by for a frőccs at Kertem, the ramshackle garden bar in the City park. And every few weeks some festival sets up on our doorstep. Last weekend it was the "National Gallop." Yes, that's what they call it. The honchos at Peter Geszti's ad agency decided that this was perfectly good English, since it works in Hungarian, right? "Yo, dude, wanna head off to the Gallop?" I have covered this Horse-Hun-Hussar Hayfest before so I'll give it a pass this year. This year, we visited the Grey Cattle Festival.
Grey cattle are a traditional Hungarian longhorn cattle variety that is usually associated with the wider open spaces out on the Great Plains, especially around Hortobágy. The problem with longhorn cattle is, well, long horns. Settle them down in nice protected barns and they require lots of space and are quite likely to stick eat other in the eye with their cutaneous protrusions. Hungarian cowboys lived out on the reedy puszta for months herding the fattened cattle before driving them across Hungary to market in Vienna. It must have been an impressive sight. Small wonder he blue shirted cowboys in their distinctive hats became a national symbolic image of Hungary long before LOL cats and " mai nápi cukiság." Incidentally.. most of these guys are not actually cowboys.
My guess is High School teachers and civil servants in small towns. I hate to use the term "Goulash LARPers" but essentially, it is what it is. Traditional cosplay is big business in Hungary. It can lead to interesting juxtapositions: the traditional colorful cape worn by Hungarian herdsmen is called a szür and very few craftsmen still produce them - making them rather expensive indeed. However, across the border there are still some szür makers operating in Romania, where - even in this digital age - shepherding is still a viable career option. So you can still get a szür there but... in classically striking Romanian folk design.
Notice the black and white embroidery, which is the style for Romanian ethnic decoration in the Bihar area, as opposed to the colorful, tulip shaped embroideries of the Hungarian style. Hmmm... perhaps nobody will notice. Oops. I just did. Another pressing question: the hats. The brim sweeps upwards. Which is really impressive and unique - when you see somebody wearing one of these you can be pretty sure they are Hungarian. But what do you do when it rains? It is like wearing a water collection trough on your head. Pour out the rain every five minutes? I know its not really an issue, but... it raise one's curiosity. Grey cattle are one of the local products known as "Hungaricum"... which means... something uniquely Hungarian. (I will not parse the spelling of the term any further. I promise.) Another is the mangalica wooley-haired pig, which gets its own festival in January. But horny cows does not a real MooFest make, so there were also a herd of my personal favorites, the water buffalo.
Yes, they look a bit out of place here, but in fact water buffalo have had a verse of Old Macdonald Had a Hungarian Farm for centuries. Today they are increasingly hard to find in Hungary itself: Hortobágy has a herd of them, as does some areas around the Balaton, but if you go to Transylvania you can see a lot more of them, often blocking traffic in villages as they slow dance their way home from a day soaking in the mud of the river. They produce the best cream and sour cream in the world. Was that hyperbole? No, just stating a simple fact - if you have dumped sour cream into your tripe soup in Transylvania you probably recognize the creamy richness of buffalo juice. I have never eaten a water buffalo, however, before this festival. And there it was on the free sample tray: water buffalo.
Why, yes, that was tasty! Why, yes, I'll take one of those... and one of those... All around the Vajdahunyád Castle square were small local purveyors of Grey Cattle products, which in Hungary means salami and cured dried kolbász in various forms: more paprika, less paprika, spicy paprika, more spicy paprika, and even more paprika. Beef, Buffalo, even pork, sheep, donkey and venison!
I still have a full stick of this spicy deer sausage in the fridge: a little goes a long way. The surprise was that even though we were in a tourist infested Goulash LARP encampment, the artisanal goodies on sale were priced pretty much the same as any kolbász on sale at my local market. Looking back, it is a pity I didn't buy more. You don't often find small producer products like these in Budapest. And now for an apology: Sorry for the sparse postings of late: I have some paying work on my plate at the moment, and as many know, writing for money is much more attractive than writing for no money. As soon as I have time I have much to catch up on from my summer travels to the states...

Monday, September 02, 2013

Hot Dogs: New Jersey, Home of the Brave

Hot dogs get no respect. That is sad. While many people think of hamburgers as the ultimate stereotype of American food, the truth is that this is far from true. For one thing, take out Chinese food far outsells any other fast food in the USA, including MacDonald's and all the other crap meatwads masquerading as hamburgers.
In days gone by, the humble hot dog was the ruler of the roost in the American fast food pantheon, and unlike hamburgers, hot dogs still come in an astonishing variety of local variations each with its own baggage of cultural identities. Hot dog stands and shops take on the role of local shrines, attracting pilgrims and foodies alike, along with local celebrities and their attendant Food Network video crews. No hot dog joint exemplifies this more than Washington DC's Ben's Chili Bowl.
Located just outside of the posh downtown of DC in the U street neighborhood that is quickly gentrifying and becoming swamped with excellent Ethiopian restaurants, Ben's specialty is the Washington Half Smoke. Offered by dozens of overpriced vendor trucks around Washington's federal district, Ben's is universally held to be the best. A half smoke is a fat smoked frank of mixed beef and pork, usually served topped by a mixture of chili sauce, mustard and chopped onions. Ben's has the reputation of being something of a tourist draw, although it always seemed to be full of locals, but Fumie insisted we try the chili dogs. Obama likes them. Bill Cosby likes them. And her friend Lisa liked them. So to Ben's we did go. Opened in 1958 by Ben Ali, a Trinidadian Muslim immigrant who proudly claimed to have never tasted his own creation (pork being forbidden to Muslims.) As fat franks go, it was excellent.
The chili used is classic diner sauce chili, not the stuff you eat in south Texas or in bowls ordered at diners and truck stops around the American Midwest. Yes, you can order a bowl of it, but it is just a ground meat and tomato sauce with some spices, not a real Texas chile. I believe the original hot dog chili sauces were invented by Greek diner owners in the distant past and they have rather thin relationship to anything ever made by Texas speakers of Spanish. Back in New Jersey the hot dog has a long tradition. Where New York has the beef "dirty water dog" sold from carts or the crispy skinned rotary grilled dog sold at delis and at Grey's Papaya stands, Jersey is home of the deep fried hot dog known as the ripper. Clifton New Jersey seems to be the epicenter of the deep fried hot dog, as it is home to Rutt's Hutt. We never got to Rutt's Hutt. We wound up at Hot Grill. We were driving around the back end of Paterson and Clifton with our buddy Bob Godfried, musician, accordion repairman, and tireless explorer of the less documented ethnic neighborhoods of the New York area. After cruising "Little Lima" - the Peruvian section of downtown Paterson... how completely awesome that they even have a Peruvian section of town! - we wound up visiting the water falls on the Passaic River, which oddly, I have never seen up close.
Actually, I hadn't seen a lot of Paterson up close, which is odd considering I used to live a ten minute drive away from here, and, in fact, used to work a mere five minutes away (in my defense, being a garbage collector for the city of Hackensack doesn't provide much access to the splendors of Paterson. Most of our away time was spent at the magnificent garbage dump further south in Lyndhurst.) The falls themselves were impressive to someone who, like myself, lives in a very flat land bereft of waterfalls. Also impressive was the fact that the park area surrounding the falls was home to a huge population of woodchucks.
They were everywhere. In broad daylight. Also impressive to someone who lives in a country where wildlife seems to be restricted to the occasional hedgehog crossing the road at night. In Jersey we were constantly surprising herds of deer in back yards, there was a flock of wild turkeys roosting in my parent's neighborhood, and one evening, all of four miles outside of Manhattan, we heard a coyote howling in the nearby swamp. Waylaid by our impromptu encounters with nature in downtown Paterson, we got hopelessly lost getting out of Paterson, and were hungry by the time we cruised across the town line into Clifton... and there it was.
Hot Grill... Home of the World's Tastiest Texas Wieners. Apparently, Paterson calls them Texas wieners... and this was some kind of aggressive incursion into the homeland of the Clifton rippers. The Hot Grill was all you could wish for in a Jersey hot dog joint: cheap, cheap, and surprisingly, cheap. And the counter staff  - all surly teens with greasy disco haircuts - seemed to be speaking Albanian, always a plus when ordering hot dogs slathered with that south Balkan "chili" sauce. Albanian speaking counter staff are just one of the charms that can be discovered driving around central jersey on a sunday afternoon.
Now, look carefully at that photo. Is that not, I ask you, the most unappetizing food presentation in the entire culinary universe? The chili dog is never going to win any beauty contests. Except for the color of the bun, it will look exactly the same regardless of its state in the digestion process. They are also very messy to eat. Did I mention they taste good? The place also has a string of local TV advertisements that are classics of the genre. These fairly scream "New Jersey!" Our final destination was in nearby Fort Lee, New Jersey, a town that is known for dozens of excellent Korean and Japanese eateries. Fort Lee was also once home to Palisades Amusement park, a classic roller coaster and freak show empire that was located atop the Palisades cliffs and attracted New Yorkers who would take the ferries across the river to be bused up the cliffs to a paradise of rides and attractions.
The park closed in 1971 to be replaced by a series of river view high rise luxury apartments. Two legendary hot dog stands used to flank the entrance to the park: Hiram's and Callahan's. Customers were hotly partisan: you were for one, and against the other. Due to the fact that both served beer on tap and were located across the street from each other, fights actually used to break out. Callahan's served dogs with sauerkraut... therefore Hiram's would not. Eventually attrition accomplished what shouts and lobbed hot dog buns could not when Callahan's finally closed in 2006, leaving Hiram's alone to wave the flag of the Jersey deep fried dog closest to Manhattan.
Hiram's remains to serve the deep fried hot dogs of Jersey's mysterious past. In High school, my crowd were fans of Callahan's to the extent that we never, ever ate at Hirams. In fact, we didn't really eat there... not in the sense of fine dining, anyway... we drove out in our used cars to drink draught beer. The hot dogs were merely an excuse, an afterthought. Now all we have left is Hiram's.
The dog is still there, the beers are all still on tap and local. One thing you immediately notice, though, are the American flags. They are everywhere. In fact, they are omnipresent at every hot dog stand in New Jersey. The New Jersey Cult of the Giant Waving American Flag grew in the months after the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and, unlike a lot of other areas in the USA, it never waned. It ended up representing the world of the assimilated New Jersey Dutch and German and Italian emigrants in the once run down Jersey towns that are now booming in a world newly populated by Koreans and Mexicans and people from places in south India with too many engineering degrees and a taste for fresh green chilis.
It is like some kind of reactionary announcement that these places are serving authentic, non-ethnic, absolutely 100% retro white trash American food. You will find no cumin here, no red pepper tapanades, no fancy soup noodles, no stir fries, no rolling 'r's, no rice pancakes, nosiree, buddy, we are red blooded Americans here and we eat hot dogs with mustard and relish and cheese and bland balkanized chili sauce and Bud light. If you want award winning sushi or authentic Oaxacan food you just keep driving down the road, Mister. We're all Americans here. You want that dog to go?