Hungarians do not take anything lightly,
least of all food. The romantic, volatile, and soulful Hungarian uses food
the way most other people use psychology, politics, literature, material
acquisitions, and even medicine. Food is the prelude to a mood, the buffer
for difficult situations, and the solace – even the cure – for adversity.
Food elevates the spirit, food promotes confidence, food is a comforting
symbol of success and status. But most important of all, in the Hungarian
mind, food, love, and music are inextricably interwoven with one's very
The Hungarian coffeehouse symbolizes the uniquely Hungarian viewpoint.
Softly lit and comfortable, well supplied with sumptuously sinful pastries
and good coffee, it is here that the Hungarian finds inspiration and
sustenance, even on occasion, solace. No Hungarian could survive a day of
business without repeated fortifications of smoothly rich pastries and
sensuous whipped cream floated gently down on a wave of strong coffee. And
how could one sustain oneself in the suspenseful prelude to a love affair,
the inner strength required and then the agony at the breakup, without a
Hungarian restaurants are so much a part of daily life that not even the
vicissitudes of wars, the reversals of economics, or the upheavals of
politics could empty their tables or close their doors. When all else in
life falters, food, love, and music remain steadfast in the life of the
Hungarian. It would be unthinkable to make love on an empty stomach,
conclude a business deal, or even survive a normal day without fine food
and wine to the accompaniment of Gypsy violins. Who but the Gypsy
violinists could understand one's every mood and knowingly accompany it
with melodies that can be at once tender and passionate or haunting and
And when on those rare occasions all seems to be moving well in life, the
Hungarian can still find a reason for sadness that requires consolation.
It seems that no Hungarian ever had a happy childhood. Mournful
recollections of that "unhappy childhood" are always considered suitable
excuses for further gastronomic indulgence. Just why there seem to be so
many unhappy Hungarian childhoods is uncertain. Perhaps mother and father
were too preoccupied with love and food? Perhaps a rich little pastry
became the substitute for parental love? Perhaps too the unhappy childhood
is fabricated. No self-respecting Hungarian could indulge in food and love
(with musical accompaniment) without reasons.
Given such vital significance, can the finesse of the Hungarian cuisine
ever be underestimated?
History is witness to the many influences that resulted in the complex
subtleties so much a part of the Hungarian table.
A part of Hungary's earliest history concerns the Khazar Kingdom which
occupied a strategic position between Asia and Byzantium and spread to
much of the area that is Hungary today. In 740 C.E., these tribes
converted to Judaism. Although many reasons for this dramatic change are
given, the most logical seems to be that both Islam and Christianity had
political and military underpinnings while Judaism allowed the Khazars to
retain neutrality. For a long time they maintained the Jewish laws of
Kashruth and no pork was eaten.
Although the Khazars were believed to be of Magyar origin, they were
defeated in 896 C.E. by seven other Magyar tribes. Finally driven to a
small area near the Bosporus Sea, the Khazar Kingdom came to an end,
defeated by the Russians. Many Hungarian towns still bear names believed
to be of Khazar origin (Kozar and Kozardie), the language of the Khazar
Jews is still spoken in parts of Poland, Lithuania, and Hungary, and the
agriculture, handicrafts, commerce, and wine making that they introduced
are still very much a part of Hungary.
Hungary's appeal to conquerors was not only its strategic location in
central Europe but also the fertility of the vast Hungarian Plain. Here a
mellow climate and a rich land yield orchards and vineyards, grain fields
and pastureland – a plentiful reservoir of abundance that probably more
than anything else has made the Hungarian a lavish and appreciative cook.
It would be difficult to find a farm without pigs, an abundant supply of
fruits, vegetables, and grains, and cool pantries without fresh cream,
sour cream, and butter.
To this natural abundance, the 150-year Turkish occupation introduced to
Hungary not only many tropical fruits and nuts but also coffee and many
seasonings, the most important of which was paprika. Today Hungary's
production of quality paprika is highly regarded. The Hungarian uses
paprika with the deft understanding of a connoisseur. Although paprika, a
favored seasoning, is not used exclusively, it is used widely in Hungarian
While Hungarians are willing to admit that many things were the result of
Turkish influence, it would be more difficult to get them to admit that
the beloved Hungarian retes (identical to the Austrian strudel)
probably had its origin in the paper-thin crisp Turkish pastries made from
phyllo – the most famous of which is baklava. And these Turkish
pastries, in turn, originated from Greek influence.
Further influences on Hungarian cuisine, now so deeply embedded that they
are difficult to separate, are Slovakian, Serbian, Croatian, Romanian,
Russian, Polish, and German. This vast span of influence was mostly due to
the fact that Hungary was for almost 200 years more or less under Hapsburg
(German) rule and a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire until its
breakdown after the First World War. Extended uses of sour cream,
dumplings, noodles, sauerkraut, and the art of making soup, pastries, and
sweet delicacies may well be the only pleasant aspects of this period for
it was also one marked with almost continuous inner strife and feudalism.
If nothing else, both the very rich and the very poor in Hungary always
shared a love of food. Just as a laden table was essential to the
Hungarian aristocracy, so the filled larder was essential to the Hungarian
peasant. Finally to the many influences of colorful and hearty foods
that found their way into the Hungarian cuisine came the refining
influences of the sophisticated Italian cuisine from Queen Beatrice, and
the subtle French culinary arts from Queen Anne. King Matthias of Hungary
wed the Italian Queen Beatrice in 1475 and enriched Hungarian aristocratic
cuisine with all the delights of the Italian courts – including ice cream
and forks. The gentling effects of French and Italian cuisine still
evident in Hungarian cookery include wider use of sweet cream instead of
sour cream, a preference for butter, especially in bakery, and a general
lightening of seasonings, especially the use of garlic.
Where else but in Budapest could so many cukraszdas (coffee and
pastry shops) flourish? And where else but the Hungarian capital could the
world's first museum dedicated to catering and gastronomy be opened, or a
holiday be declared to celebrate a cake – the dobos torta?
But the history of the Magyars, speaking their Hungarian language of
Finno-Ugric origin, is not just one of gastronomy. It is also one of
defeats and partitions, of conversions and peasant uprisings. Hungary was
defeated by the Turks in 1526 and partitioned into three main areas: the
part that is half of today's Hungary and partly Czechoslovakian and partly
Russian, the area west of the Danube; the Great Hungarian Plain, which is
today also part of Romania and Yugoslavia; and Transylvania in the Eastern
Carpathian Mountains, which is today mostly Romania.
In the early 1700s, fighting between the Turks and the Hapsburgs (Germans)
resulted in a tug-of-war with Hungary, forced conversions to Roman
Catholicism and even compulsory Germanization. It had been King Stephen
who, in 1001 C.E. converted his people to Christianity, so the main
objection 700 years later was not to religion, but rather to the
enforcement of the German language and customs.
The first Hungarian to emigrate to Canada was Stephen Parmenius De Buda
who accompanied Sir Humphrey Gilbert to Newfoundland in 1583. But the
first real wave of immigration came after the 1849 Hungarian defeat
against the combined strength of the Austrian and Russian armies. October
6, 1849, is still remembered as a day of mourning in Hungary. These first
"freedom fighters" were to be followed by many subsequent emigrations of
fiercely independent peasant rebels seeking a free life. Most came to
Canada via the United States, working as miners, farmers, and industrial
It is interesting that up to 1930, 90 percent of Hungarian emigrants were
from the poorer classes of Hungary, especially the rural areas. From 1930
to 1945, the class of Hungarian emigrants changed to include
professionals, intellectuals, and members of the aristocracy – mostly Jews
or those whom Hitler classified as being Jewish – fleeing from Nazism.
Even after 1945, the flow of upper-class emigration continued, culminating
in 1956 when the October Revolution was crushed by the Russians, and
175,000 people left the country.
For about forty years, between 1949 and 1989, Hungarian politics,
economics, and cultural life were dominated by Communist tenets. The
industrialization that began then altered the nature of the Hungarian
economy, shifting it from agriculture to industry. Collectivization of
agriculture was enforced but most collective farms disbanded with the 1956
Hungarian Revolution. Museums and free public libraries, sports clubs,
radio and television, and a widespread system of education prevail, but
some-how, for many the zest for good living and attention to food and
cooking have been reduced to necessities and fast food. This change may
also be the result of more women joining the workforce, although men still
remain dominant in family life.
Although Hungarian organizations in North America have attempted to unite
all Hungarians, they have met with limited success. The reasons burrow
deeply into Hungarian culture, where until recently feudalism and class
distinctions were a way of life. These differences in manners, customs,
and even appearance survived the pressures of the North American way of
life. Moreover, the importance of kinship patterns, similar to those in
Poland, Germany, and Italy, have had a profound influence on family life.
These kinship patterns include primarily one's obligation towards helping
and maintaining the status of the family, which may include relatives,
in-laws, godparents plus all their families, rituals of marriage, birth
and death and assistance in education or business. To add to this
complexity, the once-privileged classes have reconciled themselves only
slowly, if at all, to the democratic way of life in North America. Many
still cherish dreams of returning to the life they once knew.
The final difficulty in attempting to unite Hungarians is the result of
the frequency of changes in the Hungarian borders which at various times
included Poles, Serbs, Germans, Romanians, Jews, and Austrians. Although
each of these peoples was officially classed as Hungarian when they
emigrated because of their having shared for so long in the social and
political culture of Hungary, once they reached a new land many reverted
to their former identity and united with cultural groups other than
But the Hungarian pattern of life in North America has closely followed
that shown by many other ethnic groups. The first generation of immigrants
clung together not only in their kinship patterns but also in their
manners, appearance, and language. The original intention of many was to
work hard and save money in order to return to their former homeland. In
many cases, as in the case of the Hungarians, the conditions that they
left behind changed, but not for the better. They were fortunate to escape
from the system of land estates and rigid class distinction where there
was no hope of owning more land, advancing their position in life, or
gaining an opportunity for education. Later emigrants sought to escape
religious persecution and the Communist regime which seemingly favored the
labor classes, but which in fact further suppressed social, religious, and
The changes that occurred in North America were gradual but profound. In
Hungary the kinship pattern promoted the success of the whole family as a
unit rather than individual success. In the new country, schools lauded
individual achievement, newspapers and store catalogues advertised
materialism, and the opinions of neighbors and peers gradually took on
more importance than those of distant members of the Hungarian's family.
Gradually, too, Hungarian calendars marked with special name days and
saint's days were lost, and with them went many holiday rituals.
As ties with the Old World and the old traditions weakened, Hungarian
immigrants regarded themselves more and more as Americans and Canadians.
But Hungarians, together with many other ethnic groups, have witnessed and
are happily participating in a partial reversal of this apparent
assimilation for there is currently a newfound pride in old crafts, songs,
customs, and traditions and increasingly these are being revived.
There may be evidence of Hungarians adapting and even integrating into the
community that is their home. There may even be intermarriage. But one
thing is certain: so long as there is even a trace of Hungarian soul there
will be an appreciation of fine food and wine, and somewhere a Gypsy
violin will play the haunting melodies that will bring tearful reminiscing
about unrequited love and unhappy childhoods - and the consolation of