Thursday, May 22, 2014

The Year in Pork. Part 1.

Hungarian Products!
This year has been a very, very good year for pork. Mr. Pig, the provider of the other white meat has provided us with may excellent meals spanning many widely divergent cuisines this year, and as my budget allows, all of them have been in the affordable to dirt cheap category. I like pork. There, I said it. I like pork with the like that dare not speak its name, the affection that only comes from having avoided pig meat for something like fifteen years because, well, God told me not to eat pork. Yes. I was a deist pork avoider for many years. I am not a religious man. I am a basic simple Jew. For years I shuddered at the mere idea of eating pig meat. I don't observe orthodox practice. I rarely square off on questions involving "faith" although in my case the main modern theological questions consist of "should I order the ham sandwich?" and " you mean like, no bacon?" For many years I did not eat pork. I wasn't exactly kosher, but like a lot of my tribe, I drew the line at piggus scrofus, the lowly porker. The pig was off limits.

At the Szimpla Kert Sunday bio market.
That changed when I moved to Hungary, where pork is the main meat, eaten three times a day and in the afternoon there is even a snack called "bacon time" in which guys pull out long pocket knives and hack away a slab of smoked bacon to get in the mood for a bit of evening drinking. If you go to Heaven, you eat what the Angels eat, right? In Hungary, the Seraphim and Cherubim chow down on sausages and smoked back fat. To paraphrase Homer Simpson, if God did not want us to eat pork, then why did He make it taste so good? And why would he give us such a wide selection of pork products to choose from? What kind of perverse and vengeful deity would dangle jionts of smoked pork hock and juicy links of Debreceni sausage in front of your face and then tell you not to eat this? Forget all those vexing questions of "why art thou forsaking me"... just answer me this: why did you make Spam such an addictive snack?

Buapest's Bosznyak ter Market just before Easter
So there, I admit it. I am no longer eating kosher. Nope. Like those Sephardic Marrano Jewish poets of the fifteenth century, I extol the dripping lard that runs down my beard and gives me away as a sausage eating Jew. I admit it. Actually, a brief skim through the earlier entries of this blog would also confirm my rather public consumption of pork, but... heck, I have come to appreciate a juicy bit of khazzerei. And where else but Hungary will you find \pig meat in all its glorious porkographic splendor? Another good thing about pork: it is cheap. Maybe not in the chiochi places you eat, especially in the US where pork was relatively rare outside of the south and Puerto Rican neighborhoods until recently, but in east Europe pork is the lunch meat of those of us who want to go carnivorous for lunch on a budget.  Let's start with the normal stuff: this is what I ate for lunch for many years while working in downtown Pest. Pork stew on galushka dumplings at a stand up lunch window in the Rakoczi ter market.

The default option for lunch!
The Hungarian forint has inflated, but at dollar rates it remains the best three dollar lunch in Europe. Three bucks is also the going rate in next door Slovakia for a lunch plate of halushky. Notice the linguistic proximity to the Hungarian galuska. Yes, they are both pronounced almost the same way. Yes, they are both basic pastas made of flour and eggs. But the Slovak national lunch means dumplings covered in sheep cheese and bacon. Yes, fry the bacon bits and pour the hot grease and bacon all over the melting cheese. It's good for you!

Big Plate o' Slovak goodness!
This is lunch. In Slovakia. For three bucks. There are many reasons to love Slovakia. The fact that it is nearby and offers good trout fishing is the main draw for me. Buy when I am there I manage to both fill up my trout quota and my bacon quota for the year. Slovak food is closely related to Hungarian cuisine, with an emphasis on honest, peasant starch based dishes featuring potato and pig. If it consists of spuds and porker, you can be sure the Slovaks will make a hefty dinner out of it for under five bucks. But the best local option for a good plate of pork is to make it at home, and this is when I really appreciate living in a neighborhood with a good market. Pigs head is a regular offer at my local market, which has two butchers who specialize in offal and bits of animals that would normally be offered to cat food manufacturing concerns. This wonderful slab of snout and head went into a home made souse last winter. Total cost: about four dollars.

One of the first things I notice when I come to Hungary or anywhere in east Europe after traveling to the United States is that the pork here... tastes like pork. To which my American friends can argue about artisanal pigs, and free range pigs and all kinds of pigs but the pork uniformly tastes like cardboard in the USA - in the states I stick to beef. This summer I will be back in Romania, which offers some of the best pork in the world: similar to Hungarian pork, and often prepared by Transylvanian Hungarians themselves, but somehow porkier, piggier, somehow more swine-a-licious in flavor that the stuff we eat in Budapest. This is a plate from the incredible cabbage and pork specialty restaurant in downtown Cluj (in Hungarian: Kolozsvar) in central Transylvania known as the Varzaria, or "Cabbagerie" This is one of the best plates of food available in Europe - by a mile - and that includes Northern Italy, Paris, much of Portugal and Fife's place in Split, Croatia. This is what Jiro would eat if he wasn't dreaming about making sushi in a Tokyo subway passage. This is Pig heaven for under five bucks.

Wednesday, May 07, 2014

May Day: An International Celebration of Commies and Pork

Remember the Working class? Those hard toiling, repressed masses that were supposed to rise up and overthrow their top-hatted Mr. Monopoly slave masters in a Glorious Revolution of the Proletariat? Arise, ye trodden masses and all that? Somewhere along the road that is the history of progressive movements deriving from the mind of Hegel, the Workers of the World seem to have gone the way of the buffalo. Where once great herds of organized workers covered the industrial earth, today only consumers and interest groups graze the denuded plains. Today the majority of people you meet would never identify themselves as "workers."  Today we know them as Employees. Or "Consumers" and occasionally as "voters". But never Workers.

The last stand of the mimeograph machine. 
Well, you should have been out at the May Day celebrations in Budapest's City Park last weekend. May Day - which is celebrated as International Workers Day in memory of the Haymarket Riot (which occurred on May 4, 1886 in Chicago and, apparently, involved Workers. And Police shooting at them.) is celebrated in almost every country in the world, with a few exceptions including the United States, which celebrates Labor Day in September instead, just so we can avoid that awkward, nasty bit called "solidarity with the Workers of the World." Elsewhere it is a great day for strolling, as unions and political parties set up tents and festivals in an effort to show that they, and not some other, more honest or efficient organization, should truly represent the Working Man of Today.

Lenin advising the stockbrokers.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in the Budapest City Park. Traditionally, the post 1989 Hungarian left has chosen the park to host their celebrations, while the various center and right wing parties, of which only the right and far right exist today, go elsewhere. (Jobbik, the Neo-Nazi wannabe Party holds its celebrations out on the Boat Factory Island in the Danube. For three days, which kind of goes against the idea of a holiday called "May Day" but they are not really into that whole "rules" kind of thing.) Traditionally, Hungarian May Day was celebrated by party organizations offering free beer and hot dogs (virsli) for the workers, obviously based on the opinion that Workers could not appreciate a nice aged steak, a plate of chilled oysters, a  healthy tossed salad, and a vintage bottle of French red wine.

Today the beer is not really free unless you have a union card that gets you into one of the special tent areas, and the hot dogs have been replaced with all kinds of other pork products. It has become, essentially, a festival of the Capitalist Pig. The Cholesterol-a-thon of the spring season, if you will. Now, don;t get me wrong, I like eating the other white meat. Yes, it goes against everything that has defined the culinaria of my narrow ethnic confines for millenia, but if you have to swallow swine, this would be the place to put away your religious concerns - jump on in, the lard is fine!

Lard bread:  Hello Lipitor!
If you are on a budget, or simply not that hungry, there is the old standby of Hungarian bar food and student snack stands: lard bread. Pure pig fat spread with red onions and paprika. If you want a vegetarian option, there are langos, the fried potato dough treat that gets far more respect than it deserves. Other vegetarian options include french fries (pre-frozen for your convenience!) and the ever popular plate of pickles. That is it.
Pig knuckle ham: meaty chunks of greasy goodness!
If you need any pork, however, there are dozens of stands to accommodate you. Those ham chunks? They are pork knuckle. They are fatty, fully of chewy skin and cartiledge, and if God eats pork while sitting in front of television - and face it, why else would He forbid us, His chosen people, from eating it if He weren't keeping all the good stuff for Himself - this is what He eats. Sausages, ham steaks, and dozens of stands offering a new food fad, the soggy flat bread called lepeny served as a Hungarian version of a taco. No, it isn't traditional, or historical, or even creative. But they are cxheap, and if you know what the Workers want, they want cheap. I will devote an entire other post to these quasi-tacos as well as other fast festival foods blatantly masquerading as "traditional Hungarian specialties" sometime in the futre. Now, of course, the real reason we are here is to celebrate the workers. In the corner of the City Park near the castle is the area traditionally set aside for the old time, hard core, Communist Stalinoid left.
The Workers Party: Still searching for meaning.
This includes the Hungarian Workers Party, the party that refused to admit defeat in 1989 and has since been run by Gyula Thurmer, a hard line old believer in the principles of Lenin and Marx. They garner dozens of votes each election year and have been at this for years. But they do put on a good party, and their May Day areas are one of the few public places that Gypsies feel comfortable celebrating in public, which is a rather telling symbol about the state of ethnic relations in Hungary today. Just down the road was the "Janos Kadar Circle of Friends" which is a club of old time Commies (and I think they would prefer we use that particular term) who enjoy ticking people off by supporting one of the most unpopular slugs in the history of Hungarian politics.
Are we attractive yet?
Think of it: with these guys in charge our future would be so much brighter!  Living up to the ideals of Janos Kadar, the man who betrayed the Hungarian Revolution in 1956 and led the Hungarians into their grumpily mediocre "Goulash Communism" period. What lofty ideals could these evidently vertebrate minds be hiding? Just in case you were not sure who the Janos Kadar Circle support, they were offering match boxes emblazened with the likeness of two of their favorite contemporary world leader.

Yes, that's right. Hugo Chavez and... Bashir Assad. Somebody sat down and decided that the butcher of Syria would be a great poster boy for a Hungarian celebration. And you wonder why the progressive world looks at Hungary and weeps?