Sunday, January 10, 2016

Season's Greetings! Better Late than...

Stuffed cabbage: you know you want it!
Its been a busy autumn and a slow holiday season, so I have not kept up with posting as much as I would like. I snagged a contract writing job from my usual sources and threw myself into research and writing for two months, and when that happens the last thing I want to do is knock off for the evening and then do a little bit more writing. I also lost a bunch of weight, which explains the lack of foodie posting: hard to do when you don't eat food. And I am not much of a holiday spirit kind of guy: Hungarian Christmas doesn't really do it for me. Santa comes on December 6th, and the Savior Baby himself brings your gifts on Xmas eve... there is just too much cognitive dissonance to overcome.

Besides, we celebrate Hanukah, one of the least significant days of the Jewish ritual calendar, but when mixed with Buddhism it gets the special treatment (it has candles! Oily treats! Tofu! Songs! And - why not - roast lamb, because nothing says "The Maccabees rejected Hellenism by refusing to sacrifice pigs in the Temple" better than Greek style roast lamb! Oh, and flying unicorns! Can't forget the flying unicorns!)

No carbohydrates were harmed in the making of this photo.
We did stroll about the Christmas season markets a bit, which used to be a much funkier experiment in unregulated urban capitalism but sadly has become commodified into the One Big Mall that seems to be the ideal for the ruling government Borg. These markets used to be the place you bought the polyester fake fur baseball caps that seem to be issued to all Hungarian males still alive after the age of 60, but  with luck you can still get some nice handmade leather bags such as the leather belt pouches that I carry all my valuables in. These basically scream "Magyar macho!" and for the life of me I can't understand why they have not completely replaced wallets as the thing to carry money and passport in.

Can't be pickpocketed and never lose my wallet. I have worn one for 25 years.
You can also still find some uniquely Hungarian crafts to stuff Xmas stockings with. Some of the best is ceramic work - perhaps not the best thing to transport back home in the luggage hold of an airplane, but not the kind of stuff you would ever find at home unless you live around the corner from me. In Budapest.

When filled, these are used by Enablers to further alcohol dependence in Hungary. 
Hungary can be rightly proud of its history, but unfortunately the right wing takes that sentence a bit too literally. It would not be modern Hungary without the presence of absurdist Hungarian right wing mythology. One aspect is the growing popularity of "Scythian-Hun" identity among the right wing. Yes, the right wing eats this crap up. Always leery of being taught anything at all, the Hungarian right wing has pretty much declared that the ancient Hungarians are the descendants of a tribe of Scythians - and therefore descended from Sumerians and therefore they are the source of all western civilization and religion. Yes, it is all straight from the digestive system of a bull, I agree, but it resonates among the less logically minded of Eastern Europe's semi-literates.

All your Hun needs! Compound bows! Rams horns! Rabbit skin hats!
The Jobbik party has even made rejection of the linguistic affiliation of the Hungarian language to the Finno-Ugric language family a point of its party program. And nobody likes a bit of dress-up like a Hungarian right winger on a horse... and so you can buy all your Barbarian needs and make your European neighbors quake in fear that you, an underpaid toilet repairman from Cegled, are fully prepared to take up your compound bow and put on your rabbit fur hat and face down the invading tanks of NATO when push finally comes to shove along the Slovak border.

Your One Stop for all your Hun LARPing needs!
Behold the Wrath of God bitches!! We even have a huge summer festival, called the Kuriltaj,  in which the Hungarian Scythian-Hun LARP community goes out onto the puszta and builds yurts and shoots arrows and bangs shaman drums. It would be funny but it is actually supported by the government. The Atlantic just published a piece about the ancient Hungarian martial art of "baranta" which was invented last week and involves whips, bows and arrows, axes, and moves from folk dancing. Of course, the actual history that is behind these theories is laughably faulty - which is, in itself, almost a guarantee of wide acceptance in contemporary Hungary. You think Donald Trump is bad? You haven't argued with these guys. I have. Some of them are actually among my friends. I have some amusing friends. Also Trump doesn't have a rat's ass of a chance of ever being elected to public office. In Hungary they do, they did, and they run things.

I would love to have all my carbs BBQ style, please.
If I really had to buy a gift, it would be this: a miniature Kürtös Kalács maker. Kürtös Kalács  is a Transylvanian brioche dough that is rolled around a log and barbecued and then rolled in sugar and nuts, best eaten while warm and beloved  of anybody who has ever spent a summer at Lake Balaton. I want one of these little baker's hibachis because the thing that gets you about kürtös kalács is the aroma when you are grilling it: if you are selling these at a festival nobody can resist the smell of hot vanilla wafting across the breeze. It attracts customers like a pheromone bee trap. Because we have little to do in Hungary except argue about things like kürtös kalács there was a debate in the EU parliament this fall about whether this cake was worthy of name protection as a cultural heritage treasure of Hungary, making it a "hungarikum" - a term which means a product unique to Hungary but is actually awarded by a government committee and is akin to being awarded the Inferiority Complex of the Year.

One minor problem is that it is a Transylvanian specialty - Transylvania now being located in Romania. To be sure, there are a lot of Hungarians living there - it used to be a part of Hungary - but as far as the EU is concerned, the homeland of this tasty cake is not in Hungary, or solely the property of Hungarians. And also Slovakia was calling dibs on the cake, not to mention it is popular in the Czech Republic under an entirely different name, trdelnik. The Wikipedia page for  kürtös kalács may well be the most lengthy and thorough exploration of a cake in the history of online literature (with an equally lengthy recipe in the "Talk" section.)

Now imagine this rolled in powdered sugar and nuts!
These impassioned and ferocious nationalist cake arguments all occurred during Europe's greatest humanitarian crisis since World War Two, as thousands of Syrians fled their homes and faced an uncertain future in an unwelcoming Europe. Where we have cake... and we protect our cakes, dammit! Not only that... the Christmas market  kürtös kalács above is FT 1100 a small roll. Below, from the same company, it experiences a 50% price hike by merely being located one block closer to the center of the market. (Hint: out in our neighborhood the price is usually more likely FT 500.) Still... if you have never had a hot roll of crispy grilled brioche rolled in sugar and walnuts and you see this while strolling downtown? Just eat it. You'll be glad you did.
Really frigging overpriced!