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!

1 comment:

George said...

Wurst: The next time you are in Chicago, you can stop by Hot Doug's and purchase a tee shirt that says "There are no two finer words in the English language, my friend, than 'encased meats'." I could probably come up with a few pairs I prefer, but I understand the sentiment.