My mother's cooking was legendary. A Hungarian immigrant herself, she cooked as though our family were royalty of the Austro-Hungarian empire: chicken paprikas, thick soups, veal stews and, of course, goulash always accompanied by thick slices of rye bread.
My mouth waters as I think about my mom's tour de force dessert: paper-thin and perfect palacsinta, the famous Hungarian-style crêpes, filled with ground walnuts and sugar, or chocolate, or a ricotta-like cheese with lemon and sugar (my favorite). No other food would do for her family. Anything non-Hungarian was sadly inferior.
My mother's grandest performances took place when guests were invited. She timed her magnum opus perfectly, the kitchen spotless, just as guests arrived at the door. In other families there might be chatting, a drink perhaps, some munchies and the finish of a football game on television. My mother considered such activities out of the question. Our guests were invited for one thing: eating. Everyone was ushered directly to the table while my mother waited on high alert, ready to serve. It shouldn't get cold!
By this time, she would be impatient and vexed, making demands like a drill sergeant. My mother was offended if we protested the large portions she doled out. "Have more!" she'd cajole and would keep the spoonfuls coming unless we protested, "No! I DON'T WANT ANY MORE!" and would pull our plates out of her reach. Offended, she'd retort, "Janetkém, you eat like a bird. You are too thin!"
My mother always began with a thick Hungarian soup teeming with meat and vegetables and perfectly shaped little dumplings. She worried about the main course and couldn't risk the possibility that someone wouldn't like what she had to offer. Problem solved: There would be two main courses.
Oftentimes, she would serve rakott kaposzta, the quintessential Hungarian comfort food. Though labor-intensive, the results are rich and delicious (recipe at right). The first layer is sauerkraut that has been steeped in a paprikas sauce until it is deep red and flavorful (lots of caramelized onions, tomatoes and bell peppers). The second layer is cooked rice. A beef paprikas layer follows and, to add to the excess, all the layers are repeated. Another layer of sauerkraut tops the beef and, like icing on a cake, the whole dish is covered with a generous layer of sour cream, garnished with chives. The entree is then baked to perfection. (Kosher households omitted the sour cream.)
For my mom, rakott kaposzta was merely one main course, woefully inadequate; hence it would be paired with a scrumptious veal stew.
On top of this Hungarian abundance, every Jewish occasion also revolved around food: weddings, bar mitzvahs, the high holy days of the New Year, and Yom Kippur, our day of atonement. We had the delectable Hungarian food and we had all the Jewish traditional delights, as well.
These wonderful dishes were passed from generation to generation, and my popularity has been proportional to my reputation as the re-creator of this spectacular cuisine.
I remember the first open house I had as a young woman in Minneapolis when I had just gained entry as a cellist in the Minnesota Orchestra. Musicians love to eat. I invited the 100-plus group to my small apartment. I prepared not one but two huge oblong dishes of rakott kaposzta.
As the time neared for the guests to arrive, I quickly pulled one baked dish out of the oven to replace it with the other. Before I knew it, the dish had slipped from my hands and crashed onto the floor. Every surface was splattered. Oily red sauerkraut oozed down the walls. I was horrified. Somehow I cleaned up the mess and made myself presentable in time for the guests' arrival. Of course, there was still plenty to eat. My mother's tradition of making twice as much food as needed won the day.
Over the years I realized that my mother's identity and self-worth were wrapped up in her ability to feed us well. What are Jewish mothers for? But beneath her commanding, organized exterior lay a hidden motivation.
Though she craved compliments for her cooking (they were, in fact, obligatory), her real motivation came from the recollections of deprivation and starvation that she and my father had experienced long ago. When my mom was a young girl in Budapest, her family went hungry. In the 1930s, Jews were allowed into the streets only during certain hours of the day, and as Nazi controls tightened, their purchases were restricted to specific stores. During the war years, my mother cowered in basements and warehouses. She ventured out into the city only at night to scrounge in the rubble in search of food, risking arrest and certain deportation.
Nor was my father a stranger to deprivation. He was incarcerated in a slave labor camp at the copper mines of Bor, Yugoslavia. He subsisted on absurdly inadequate rations -- a daily piece of dry, black bread and watery cabbage soup. He and the other inmates would work 12-hour days with little clothing to protect them from the bitterly cold elements. When my dad was finally liberated from the camp by Serbian partisans, he trudged 200 miles barefoot through the winter forest back to Hungary, alone and covered in lice. God knows what he had to eat.
All those years later at the Horvath table, I would muse on these heartbreaking stories only to have my reveries suddenly interrupted. "Jaaaannnaat! Don't you like the goulash? It's your favorite, so I gave you more! Don't fill yourself up on bread."
Abruptly brought back to the task at hand, I would face a colossal bowl, overflowing with the spicy mélange with other culinary masterpieces forthcoming -- all without calories, it goes without saying. My petite frame rebels. So many courses, so little intestinal fortitude.
Janet Horvath, of St. Paul, is the associate principal cello of the Minnesota Orchestra.