(MY MOST MEMORABLE MEAL is an occasional feature written by the co-hosts of the restaurant recommendation web site http://www.atLarrys.com)
The most memorable meal I have had was in Budapest, Hungary with my family – at least, I think they were my family – who gave me a valuable lesson about the practical impact of ideology on everyday life.
It was the late 1970s. While I was a student studying in Luxembourg, the Cleveland side of my Hungarian family approached the Chicago side back home. They in turn approached my mother to suggest that I visit our family in Budapest. A telegram was sent and before we could think twice my sister, who also was studying in Europe, and I were careening through the countryside on our way to Hungary.
As the train pulled into the station in Budapest, we saw an elderly couple and a younger man waving a placard neatly printed with the words “Sisters Payt.” That was us. We were greeted with cautious hugs. We didn’t speak Hungarian, but French was a common language shared by me and the young man, who turned out to be Theo. We piled into a small, East German-built Travant and zipped off.
I learned the older man had been a prominent architect but the government had nationalized his business. He was the patriarch of the family. Theo was to be in charge of us.
After driving a while we pulled up to a nice house. “This used to be ours,” Theo explained. “Now three families live here.”
Inquiring eyes focused on us as we entered the house. The government had assigned one room to the older man and his wife. It was a makeshift living room, bedroom, and now a dining room.
Several tables of incongruous heights had been pushed together. The room was crammed with jovial people, drinking, talking, and laughing. We were introduced in Hungarian and given bear hugs. The older man motioned for everyone to sit down. I sat in front of a dizzying display of concentric circles of what appeared to be salamis, crackers, and crusty homemade bread. Then the older man strongly proclaimed something in Hungarian. Theo translated: “My grandfather wants to know, who are you?”
We quickly explained we were related to Anyos, an older Hungarian woman living in the Chicago area. I thought it was her proper name, like Irene or Anne. But as we reached for the salami, everyone looked perplexed. Theo haltingly explained this term meant mother-in-law, so we were saying, “I am related to mother-in-law.”
Then the names started flying: Are you related to this person in Cleveland? That person in Michigan? On and on the names went. All I could think about, though, as I reached for another piece was the taste of this heavenly, savory salami. Now I understood why my mother sent away to New York for her salami. But even that paled in comparison to the taste of this meat. There were several varieties and each delicately differed from the others in seasoning, fat and texture. Coupled with the homemade bread the taste was unbelievable. I couldn’t stop eating it.
Out came the pictures of young men and women from the 1930s. Does this person look familiar? Does that? I shook my head no as I stuffed my mouth with yet another delectable slice of salami.
Finally the older man pushed the photos aside in frustration and we were told we would go to dinner with Theo. We piled again into the small car and Theo drove my sister and me to a lovely part of old Budapest. The restaurant had starched white lace curtains and linens. After a flourish of ordering by Theo the dinner arrived: cherry soup, cucumber salad, chicken paprikas, goulash, Retes strudel, dobos torte, and crepes (palacsinta). These were dishes I knew from home and had even prepared, but the tastes were drastically heightened.
Hungarians are notorious for cooking not only with paprika but with a base of bacon fat drippings that are kept on the cook top. My family in the U.S. soundly rejected the latter for health reasons. Of course the change in fats greatly affected and improved the taste. The spices and meats may have had the same names as they did at home, but these were distinctly foreign. Even the sour cream was thicker. The food was transporting and I had to stop talking at several points as I tried to make sense of the delicious new layers of foreign taste in these familiar dishes.
I was 19 years old; my sister was 20 and Theo was 20. As we advanced through our Hungarian meal, being young people, we talked about the future: our dreams and our hopes for our lives.
We Americans excitedly brainstormed about this option and that. Theo, on the other hand, was relatively quiet. His educational and professional options were extremely limited. As we talked we became aware of the huge opportunity gulf that separated us. It was sad and awkward. So we abruptly steered the conversation away from our plans for the future to answer Theo’s countless questions about life in the United States. He was shocked that we were allowed to travel so freely; he was not permitted to travel outside the Iron Curtain. He had, however, summered at the Black Sea and he hoped someday to travel to Switzerland. We ate and talked for hours. The more we talked the more politically cynical he became.
Several hours and dishes later, dinner ended. We arrived back at the house to find that calls had been placed and information obtained. Indeed we were related to the older man and his family through a woman in Chicago. They were ecstatic, showing us pictures of Anyos as a young woman before she came to the U.S. Theo showed us pictures of his Black Sea vacation.
As I think back on that dinner, I see it as one of the turning points of my life. I was someplace familiar but foreign, among hospitable, loving people, and finding a piece of myself there.
But my biggest realization was political. As an American student, I had the luxury of studying political ideology from afar as an abstract theory. But Communism was anything but abstract to this part of my family. The engulfing factor that separated us was not the differences in language or the authenticity of the food. It was Communism, ideology and in the end politics. As alike as we were, politics dictated hugely different personal implications for each of us. Their politics suppressed their dreams; it stripped them of their home and business. They lived in a state of resigned dignity. My politics gave me hope. After that memorable dinner, politics and its effects on people became as real and personal to me as the lives of the family members I saw it touch.