Monday, January 05, 2015

Beans: How a New Years Dish Ruined Europe's Economy.

Eat Me! I will cause wealth to magically flow to you! I will!
It was a good year, 2014, and I'm kind of sad to see it go, but all things come to an end, even arbitrarily measured segments of intangible time. In Hungary, shops close on Xmas eve for three days straight, so if you haven't stocked your pantry you are in trouble. That's why a lot of our local seasonal foods depend on old style smoked meat - stuff you don't have to worry about keeping in the fridge. People forget that there was a time not very long ago - before 1950 - when one didn't keep fresh meat around the house. Milk was delivered daily, potatoes were stored in a cellar, eggs were gathered in the hen house next to the garage. Fridges changed all that. Luckily, nobody told our butcher on Klauzal ter. They still stock a full range of smoked meats, including goose leg.

This is why our food tastes better than yours.
Goose leg used to be the preserved meat of choice for Jewish Hungarians who rejected eating pork. Goose fat was the primary cooking fat for Jewish housewives, and although a rare sight today, huge flocks of white geese used to wander the streets of Hungarian villages waiting for their turn to become gribenes and schmaltz. All over Europe there is a tradition of eating a New Years meal which includes a bean or lentil dish, Italians eat lentils and zampone (a sausage-stuffed pigs leg) or cotechino sausages. The lentils look like little coins, and so if you eat it on the first day of the year you will cause you to make a lot of money. I have news for you Europeans: it won't. People in the Deep South in the USA have been eating black eyed peas with collard greens for hundreds of years on the same basis - it looks like money and so it should augur wealth - and they remain the poorest part of America. Millions of poverty stricken peasants in India eat nothing but lentils their entire lives. No, take it from me, eating lentils won't make you rich. Beans, however...  well, there is a possibility at least. The French, slightly more informed about personal economic growth factors, prefer to use nice big white beans for cassoulet

Economic disaster on a plate: Italian zampone and lentils.
This goes a long way towards explaining how the early European mind envisioned capitalism. Lentils! Of course! Have the Church declare banking a usurious sin and presto! - 1000 years of serfdom leading to Marxism and eventually along come people like Nigel Farrage and Silvio Berlusconi and Viktor Orban.  Well... it might not be sound economic policy but at least it tastes good. Around these parts the New Years dish is usually just plain old lentil soup (served alongside cheap pork hot dogs) but we went for smoked goose leg and beans. On rice, because that's how this house rolls. Fumie gets her Rising Sun nationalist rice fix, and I can close my eyes and imagine myself siting in a Dominican diner on 205th Street.

Beans: Be it ever so humble.
Smoked meat and beans is about as hearty a meal as you can eat. Beans love pork. Pork loves beans. And just about everybody short of my clarinet player and my rabbinical school teaching buddy loves beans with pork as well. I have previously blogged about my favorite eateries in Europe, the Varzaria in Cluj, Romania, which specializes in smoked pork with cabbage and beans, and about the truck stops in Ciucea and Poeini, Romania, on the road between Oradea and Cluj that specialize in huge plates of pork knuckles and beans to tide over the long haul truckers on their way to Bucharest. 

Never eat anything bigger than your head!
Of course, not everybody needs beans all the time. Serbian cuisine is deeply related to Hungarian cooking, but with more Balkan grilling elements and Turkish vegetable dishes. Serbs have even discovered unique ways of eating smoked pork without beans! Serb stuffed cabbage, however, sticks very close to the Hungarian variant, and we got lucky just before new Years when we went to a party at Ellato Kert catered by Nenad Angelic, the Serbian chef at the neighboring Serb bistro 400

Nenad taking steps to reform the world's economic trends.
Nenard - an old friend - is a fanatic when it comes to technique, and he was adamant that Hungarians had forgotten the technique for making proper stuffed cabbage: a huge clay đuveč pot propped up on a wood fire where the stuffed cabbage and smoked pork simmered for six hours. This was the stuffed cabbage at the end of the rainbow, the Stuffed Cabbage Mother of Them All, filled with huge chunks of tender smoked pork, rice, and cabbage. This is one of those foods where you think you could be happy eating one single thing for months on end. Considering that the crowd wasn't all that big, and a lot of them were pork-averse Muslims, the stew pot - about the size of small bath tub - was quickly emptied. 

Stuffed Cabbage Serb style. Forward! 
Of course, if pork avoidance is your issue, you can make all these same dishes with smoked goose and never notice a difference. We Hungarian Jews have been doing that for hundreds of years. That goose leg can be made into meat loaf and served with the Hungarian version of cholent, locally called sólet. Jewish tradition forbids the lighting of fires on sabbath, so a solet pot was buried in coals on friday afternoon and left until lunch on Saturday, providing a hot meal.

Sólet at Kadar's: the key to economic growth!
Why the difference in names? I read in some obscure Yiddish linguistics journal that the the Hungarian Jewish term sólet is possibly the older term. Sephardic Jews call their Sabbath stews hamim. Hungarian sólet are thicker and less soupy that classic Yiddish cholent, and instead of the big brown and purple soup beans used in cholent it uses both smaller white beans and barley cooked together to produce a thick legume-y mortar guaranteed to stave off hunger pangs at least until the next Sabbath arrives. Your best bet for a good one is, of course, to go for lunch early on Friday at the Kadar Etkezde on Klauzal ter. And I mean early: it often sells out by 12:30 pm, and Kadar's only stays open until 3 pm. (And it is "Jewish Style" - not kosher!) Across the park from me. Enjoy, And happy new year!


Anonymous said...

Sent your economic theory to Paul Krugman. We'll see what he has to say about it. Happy New Year from Portland Oregon, MM

George said...

The Pennsylvania Dutch favor pork and sauerkraut on New Years; having married into that stock, I have eaten pork and sauerkraut on many January 1s. I have seen the explanation given for the US southern tradition of pork on New Years, that a pig roots forward, so pork is for progress. A chicken scratches backwards, and so would give a regressive omen for the new year.

frosty said...

Just in case any young'uns don't get the Never Eat Anything Bigger Than Your Head reference, here's a link to it.

Anonymous said...

"The lentils look like little coins, and so if you eat it on the first day of the year you will cause you to make a lot of money. I have news for you Europeans: it won't."
I can't decide whether you are trying to be original or funny. Neither of your efforts worked for me. It's easy to make fun of other nations' traditions, only it makes little sense.