Hungry in Hungary

17 Jul

In the final days of June, my mind was not racing with its usual buzz of pre-summer thoughts.  No–this summer would be much different.  Rather than visiting my grandmother at her house on the beach, I would be traveling to Hungary for a foreign exchange program. 

Because I would only be staying in Hungary for five weeks, I figured I had no real shot in mastering the difficult Magyar language, so I set my sights on a more realistic goal: to get to know the food.  All I knew of it before setting foot in the Eastern European land was that the cuisine implemented the use of copius amounts of paprika and that vegetables were not prominent in meals. 

Now that I have been here for almost three weeks, I can say that I am starting to understand the ways of the cuisine.  In short, breakfast is usually a slab of white bread with butter and sausage (maybe some nutella) or scrambled eggs with bacon fat and sausage.  Lunch is the main meal, a tasty and stick-to-the ribs affair, which does not really leave room for any more meal consumption thereafter.  However, dinner still exists, and it can be just as large as lunch or a simple dish of crepes and cottage cheese filling.  This is an abbreviated summary of possibilities, however, and a more in-depth description is quite necessary.

My aforementioned sum-up of breakfast may seem lacking in description, but that is very possibly because breakfast is, in fact, that simple.  Lunch, on the other hand, is not.  So far, I have had the pleasure of feasting on noodles with sour cream and paprika-braised chicken; spaetzle with cottage cheese and bacon fat; breaded and fried pork served with breaded and fried zuchinni; and such things as braised pork fat with noodles. 

Dinner is another story.  I spent the first two weeks of my stay here at a camp.  The camp cook, who was in my eyes, a traditional Hungarian mother, prepared a large dinner in addition to our massive lunches.  Every meal was served with bread, and it was much to her dismay if I was unable to clear my plate (which was next to impossible.)  Now that I am staying with a more modern family, we do not always eat large dinners.  Twice, we have gotten pizza for dinner, and it is suprisingly good for a country without ties to Italy and an ocean’s distance from New York City.  One of the most surprising things about it, however, is that corn is a common topping.  The most ironic thing about the teens here is that they love McDonalds’.  When I fisrt came here, one of the things that my camp leader told us about how Americans are perceived, is that we are fat and lazy, and that we love McDdonalds’.  However, when I was with my host sisters and their friends, driving through the streets of a city at midnight, they made a point to stop at the nearest MickyD’s and grab some food at the drive-thru window.  I only ordered McNuggets because I was hungry, and yes, it was a low point in my trip.  On the bright side, I have eaten much better things to compensate for such sin.

The two most memorable meals I have consumed thus far are both related to our good old, curly tailed friend: the pig.  My first epiphany while I was here ocurred one night when I was informed that we were to have a barbeque.  I was not hungry, as I had just devoured a panini, and I was not planning on taking part in a feast of American grilling.  I was very, very wrong.  To my utter delight, I approached the campfire to see a heaping platter of speared white hunks of fat.  Was there any meat in sight?  No.  It seemed so natural to grab a piece of bread and an impaled chunk of lard and run over to the bonfire.  Quickly, I caught on to the ways of the pork fat cook out.  The roastee takes the kebab of fat and holds it over he fire, only removing it to allow rendered fat to drip onto the bread.  I prefered toasting my bread in the fire as well, and when the fat was rendered down to a crisped mass, I ate it along with my glistening toast.  Accompanied by tomato, onion, and pepper, this meal was more delicious than words can describe.  Although it sounds strange and maybe even hick worthy, it could join the ranks with foie gras and bone marrow in my books.

As if one great meal didn’t already send me over the edge, I had the pleasure of befriending some imposter friars and rennaissance men at a Turkish Rennaisance fair in a small village.  Seeing us as a rarity, the middle aged men gave us some free food from their tent and also some palinka, a Hungarian fruit brandy.  The first treat to which they entitled us was deep-fried pieces of pig fat and skin, trimmed directly from the whole beast, which lay, rotating on a spit, just a few feet away.  Might I mention that it was only ten in the morning when they toasted our first shot of firey spirit? 

Later on, our camp leader was growing restles, and because he was intent on leaving, we begged for pieces of porky goodness.  Carving us some meat right off of the still impaled and rotating animal, the men were more than generous.  I got a piece of gelatinous snout, some succulent, mustard-basted shoulder meat, and the tail. What can I say?  Sometimes life just can’t get any better.

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