Thursday, December 25, 2014

The Butter Letter: German Christmas Cakes and Religious Schism.

Φλαυίου Ἰωσήπου ἱστορία Ἰουδαϊκοῦ πολέμου πρὸς Ῥωμαίους βιβλία
Merry Christmas and Happy Hanukkah to all our readers out there in virtual land! Its been a busy year with too much travel and a lot of music and this is the time of year when I get to spend a week at home doing absolutely nothing but reading web comics and it feels great! Christmas in Hungary is a holiday reserved for families: people go home on Dec. 24th and basically barricade themselves with their nuclear families for the next three days. There are the ritual feasts at the family table each day, fortified by gallons of wine and palinka and followed by howling hangovers to be cured by "the hair of the dog" so as to be ready to attend the next rigidly timed feast of leftovers from the previous feast. Also: you had better like to eat carp.

The term for this fish in the Romanian language is... "crap."
Yes, carp. Apart from the heavy rolled opiate pastries called beigli the most emblematic Magyar Christmas dish is fish soup made from carp and fried cap to follow. Carp - a fish regarded in North America as an invasive trash fish so full of pointy Y-shaped bones as to be inedible - is the centerpiece of the Christmas table. Yum. Mama in the kitchen boilin' up a carp! I will be honest here: I do not like carp. I do not like eating it. I do not like the idea of fishing for it. And I certainly do not like the idea that this boney, fatty, nearly inedible coarse fish should be the culinary embodiment of Uralic family cohesion on this most significant of days. Go ahead and say it: I am a Carpist. The other thing Hungarians like to snack on around Christmas is kürtos kalács, the sweet Transylvanian cake baked on a log that we can get at all the Christmas gift markets at this time of year. I can get along with yeasty sweet cake. With carp - no.

BBQ cake. Should be introduced to New Orleans.

As a rule, Hungarians do not communicate or interact outside of the family during the three days around Christmas - it is considered bad form to even call a friend or meet for a drink outside. If you are not connected by DNA or a wedding ring to a web of Hungarian family, you get a pass on this practice. Believe me, you should consider yourself lucky. You get to go to Tom bácsi and Amy néni's Christmas Eve dinner party, as we did this year, and relax with the cream of the foreign, unfamilied crowd. Tom - a stellar host - stands proudly, proclaiming "Give me your tired, your poor / the humble masses yearning to breathe free / The wretched refuse of their teeming shore..." Brits, Amcsik (that's US for you outsiders) Poles, Serbs, Celts, and the occasional Egyptian all find a welcome on this most exclusive of evenings. And best of all: no gifts!
Deak ter: a perfect storm of hot wine and consumer goods.
Gifts are de rigeur for the breeding members of our species at Christmastime, and finding them is effortless. Avoiding them, less so. Christmas markets are everywhere, and always packed. It isn't just about shopping - there is a lot of eating and drinking, particularly things so unhealthy that you would not even consider them at other times of year. Hot spiced wine is the preferred  tipple, although it is often sickeningly sweet and has little to commend its origins in wine at all. I was up in Berlin on biznitz last week and had just enough time to check out a couple of their Christmas markets. Same deal.

The pretzel is Germany's most successful engineering wonder. Then comes the VW Bug. 
Germans are serious about their hot spiced wine, and some stands were serving unsweetened wine, and often fortified with an extra shot of schnapps. And for some reason, huge saute woks of garlicky mushrooms count as holiday fare in Germany. Stands all over were offering hot, whole regular supermarket white mushrooms sauteed with sour cream and garlic to be eaten outside from a paper plate with a toothpick. While drinking spiked hot wine. I had to say no to that - my days of staggering drunkenly around Berlin are over. My days of wolfing down bockwurst are not.

Yes, the bad puns get wurst.
I love wurst. Wurst of any sort: bockwurst, bratwurst, pflazer, bauernwurst, weisswurst, blut wurst, frankfurter, krakower... if it is meat in a tube I will adapt my sunny personality to it and absorb it into my Borg network of Bob-molecules. Except for currywurst. Currywurst is the Berlin junkfood that takes something perfectly good and pure - in this case, a regular good German wurst, either bock or brat - and perverts it into a chimera of nastiness that makes other junk food turn and run away screaming and retching and abandoning their children as they flee. Slathered with ketchup and a shake of curry powder, curry wurst can be eaten safely only at stands like the legendary Konnopke's in P-berg, and possibly at markets like this. I passed on the curry - and worked my way through bock, brat, and krakower wursts dressed only by delicious German mustard. Brought home a few jars of Löwensenf Extra sharp to boot.

You can not have these things at other times of the year. Really.
And instead of beigli... there is stollen cake. I was to carry home a whole Christmas stollen cake in my hand luggage for Fumie. Stollen is a Christmas seasonal cake made with candied fruits, marzipan, and sprinkled with powdered sugar to sugest a snowy landscape... it is quite rich and doesn't go stale quickly, due to the fact that it contains something like a quarter of its mass from butter! Not only that, but this cake was a major issue at the Vatican Council of Trent in 1545, at which time the Counter-reformation was imposed, condemning the doctrines of Protestantism and establishing the Catholic church as the supreme interpreter of scripture. Stollen were first noted in 1329 in Nurnberg, its shape symbolizing the Baby Jesus in swaddling clothes. Butter was forbidden during the Advent season, and stollen cakes were considered "poor" and made with oil. In Dresden and the eastern German Saxony region, however, butter was cheaper than oil for baking. Prince Ernst of Saxony appealed to Pope Nicholas V in 1450 for an exception, which sat around Rome and was ignored or debated by four Popes and answered only in 1490 by Pope Innocent VIII - the guy who wore the Papal beanie just before the outrageous and profligate Borgia Pope Alexander VI.

Dude.... I know your're the pope, but maybe lay off the cake a bit, OK?
We chiefly remember the unwisely named Pope Innocent as responsible for naming Torquemada as Chief Inquisitor of Spain. Pope Innocent's communication became known as "The Butter Letter." (I am not making this up.) The Pope allowed the use of butter but only in exchange for a fee, which would be used to build churches. Once the Saxons found they could use butter in their Christmas cakes, it was only a matter of time before they and half of Europe all turned their backs on the Catholic Church and the raging Borgia maniacs in Rome. Martin Luther was a monk in Saxony when he nailed his 99 theses against the sale of indulgences by the Catholic Church to the door of the church in Wittenburg. This small act led, eventually to the profoundly unpronouncable Schmalkadic War and jump started the Counter Reformation and the Thirty Years War. Although a catalyst to centuries of devastating war, famine, and religious strife, stollen actually is a pretty tasty cake.

The cake that launched a religious war.
And so, with a dufflebag of newly purchased wurst of many varieties and a huge buttery anti-Catholic Christmas cake, I was on my Air Berlin flight and back in Budapest within 24 hours and ready for the holidays! Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night!

Sunday, December 07, 2014

More Ghetto than You!

So, we finally did it. We moved. A new flat... downtown. Our new home is smack dab in the middle of the historic Jewish Ghetto of Budapest, Klauzal tér Its almost overstepping the bounds of stereotype: Klezmer fiddler moves to Klauzal tér (tér means 'square' in Hungarian.) This area is one of the few historically identifiable Jewish neighborhoods left in eastern Europe. In 1944 the area was walled off to form the Budapest ghetto, and some 70,000 Jews were crammed into the buildings to await deportation to the German concentration camps, or, with luck, liberation by the Allied armies.

More ghetto than you!
Our house was once of the designated "Yellow Star houses" in which Jews were made to reside in 1944. But Jewish life is not all about what happened in the past. The Ghetto is still a center of local Jewish life with an Orthodox synagogue down the street, a kosher butcher shop offering the only beef hot dogs in Hungary two minutes away, and Hasids waddling the streets every Friday evening. I hear Yiddish spoken almost daily. We have Jewish bars (good!) and kosher restaurants (bad) and "Jewish style" unkosher restaurants, the best of which, Kadar Étkezde, is now just across the square, where the #2 tram used to run long, long ago.

No longer a convenient destination.
It is also the heart of the "bulinegyed" or Party zone of Budapest, based around the dozen or so "ruin bars" that sprang up squatting in abandoned houses but by now have grown into pricey drink-n-grope meccas for all our loud Australian tourist friends. I have always been connected by work to the Ghetto, but never lived in it. I am definitely going to miss Zuglo, and Fumie and I now consider ourselves proud members of the Zuglo diaspora. I will continue to go shopping at Bosnyak market when the weather permits a bike ride - the supermarkets downtown are all overpriced and pretty limited. I will miss the absurdly corrupt local politicians and the road signs in right-wing runic script. And I will miss watching the newly elected independent district Mayor Gergely Karacsony face off against implied threats of nastiness to come from the previous FIDESZ shitbird who held the post.

A life in boxes.
The actual act of moving our stuff was made easier by simply calling a company - in our case Tutiteher, which provided boxes and returned with three burly guys and a truck and got all our stuff transferred in about five hours for about the price of treating four people to a sushi dinner with beer. Suddenly, I was left in an empty flat, uncluttered with the material evidence of my existence, completely free of stuff. Stuffless. Its what the Buddha was all about!

Where once the happy sound of fiddles sang out... now silence abounds.
When you move, you toss out a lot of stuff. Yesterday's treasure, today's trash. I managed to toss about ten crates of crap. Old letters, old promo stuff from my band, English language magazines from the last century, books with no imaginable reader, cassettes of Albanian folk music bought in what was then still Yugoslavia, old floppy discs that can no longer be read by any machine, dead tape recorders, dead microphones, dead radios, leftover toys from when my son was a five year old, even unusable salt water fishing gear - Jeebus, what was I thinking... Hungary is landlocked!  We had a lot of stuff.

Be it ever so humble...
If any museum curators out there recognize my historical value and wish to accuse me of a crime against future scholars of Bob History, I gladly stand guilty as accused. And I was even more lucky than usual. Instead of worrying about where to put it all, I let Fumie decide. I made a promise to myself that I would not pipe up with any debate to any interior design decision made by her. If she wants to put the rug there, so be it. If she wants to get an Ikea shelf, well, how quickly can we get to Ikea. simple. No conflict. Effective! If you are a male, take my advice and never attempt to make a place look nice. It won't work. Men are, as is often observed nothing more than "bears with furniture."
our new space

We have one large room here which is basically unusable for anything except storage. Its got water stains on the ceiling, a huge antique couch, and art supplies from the landlady, and old furniture we won't be using stored in there. And I am going to attempt to excavate a private space out of that. Right now it is filled  some of our other unnecessary stuff, and most of my instruments. But soon I will make it into my own, my unlivable and unclean-able nook of bagpipe reed making, fly tying, bookbinding, and fiddle repair. It shall become my... Man-cave!

Its completely Boyash City across the way!
The view from the new flat isn't quite the forested vista we had in Zuglo, but at least we get a lot of south facing sun and there is no huge building blocking out the light. And for added delight, ours is the building that was the home of Vili in the 1989 Hungarian animated feature film "Vili a Veréb" - Willie the Sparrow, in which a little boy gets magically turned into a sparrow on Klauzal tér.