Food Culture and Tradition

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Special Occasions in Hungary


It is estimated that two-thirds of the Hungarian population is Roman Catholic, the remainder Protestant. The large Jewish population that was for so long a part of Hungary was either exterminated under the Nazis or escaped to other lands; few remain. Religious practice was not encouraged under the Communist regime and most religious orders and monasteries are now state properties. However, the Hungarians are not a deeply religious people. Religious occasions are enjoyed more for their festive foods and gathering of friends and family than for prayer or ritual.

The Magyars have always been noted for their colorful costumes, spirited music, and lavish feasting. No matter what the rest of the year may be like, a festival is for merrymaking, eating and drinking, friends and music. This includes religious occasions, weddings, christenings, funerals, name days and saint’s days and many special celebrations associated with the crops and the seasons. Although the agricultural celebrations are usually local events, they represent old traditions and are much cherished.

Probably the most important religious holiday in Hungary is Easter. Husvet literally means “the taking of meat,” and begins on Shrove Tuesday. This date also coincides with the time of much spring planting: vegetables, poppy seeds and the preparation of maize for sowing. Dwellings are cleaned and often painted. In preparation for Lent when no meats or greasy foods may be eaten by the devout, even the dishes and pots used to cook meats and greasy foods are carefully set aside and replaced with others.

The traditional pancakes enjoyed on Shrove Tuesday actually begin the forty days of meatless and greaseless meals. But ingenious Hungarian cooks provide an imaginative supply of breads of all kinds and baked goods, filling noodle and dumpling dishes, meals based on fish or cottage cheese, and many soups and main dishes based on cabbage and/or potatoes. The fare is simple but satisfying. Ash Wednesday marks the start of Lent and the abrupt ending of all festivities. Even the customary bright tablecloths are exchanged for somber dark ones. Sour eggs and herring salad are the symbolic foods for Ash Wednesday.

The Easter week after Lent is the time to enjoy new spring vegetables, layered Easter cakes, and painted eggs all culminating in a Good Friday dinner of wine-flavored soup, stuffed eggs, and baked fish. The chiming of bells on Holy Saturday signals the end to Lenten restrictions and the eagerly anticipated Easter Eve feast. This is considered to be the biggest and most important meal of the year. A rich chicken soup is served with dumplings or noodles followed by roasted meat (ham, pork, or lamb) then several pickled vegetables, stuffed cabbage rolls and finally a selection of sweet cakes and black coffee. Easter Sunday is a continuation of the feast with roast lamb and “blessed” ham as the traditional main dish and more cakes and pastries served to all.

April 23 is an annual country festival celebrating the rounding up of the flocks and the hiring of shepherds, all accompanied with feasting and drinking.

A week of celebrations everywhere in Hungary centers around August 20, the birthday of the beloved King Stephen. November 1 is All Saints’ Day and it is also the final day for sowing winter wheat – and more feasting. Mid-October brings the vintage festivals, for wine is the national drink as the Hungarians remind themselves in an old folk song:

The Slovaks all drink brandy

The Germans all drink beer

The Hungarians drink wine only,

The very best, my dear.

Christmas is celebrated quietly with the day preceding it observed as a fast day, that is, no meat is eaten and the Christmas Eve meal is traditionally a simple one based on fish and potatoes and the serving of cakes and tortes made with nuts and poppy seeds.

It was King Matthias and his Italian wife, Queen Beatrice, who introduced turkeys, which have been popular ever since (when available) for the Christmas Day dinner. The turkey is accompanied with roasted potatoes, stuffed cabbage, and desserts of brandied fruits or fruit compotes with wine and more cakes of nuts and poppy seeds. In more modest homes, chicken or goose will be the main course, but everyone enjoys cakes.

Weddings are gala occasions involving not only many days of preparation but often three days of celebration.

Perhaps one of the best examples of local festivities is the Disznotor or pig-killing day celebrated in most rural areas but especially in Transylvania. The day begins with spiced wine or brandy and coffee cakes and then the work begins. By 11:30 a.m. a paprikas has been prepared from pigs’ brains, and pork is roasted with potatoes or layered cabbage. The meal itself will begin with a cabbage or potato soup. Throughout the day pigs are slaughtered and prepared into cuts to be separated as fresh meats and as those to be used for brining, smoking, curing, and sausage-making. Most trimmings go into the latter, but some, such as the snout and ears, are saved for a special soup for the evening meal. The pig soup, freshly prepared sausages, and roasted pork are eaten with bread and wine as well as pickled peppers, cabbage, and cucumbers.

In order that urban dwellers may not miss this type of pork feasting, many restaurants make a feature of Disznotor presenting a special menu of soup made from pigs’ trimmings and a main dish of varied fresh pork sausages and flekken (loin pork slices flour-dipped and crisply fried) served with rice, noodles, and assorted pickled vegetables.

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