Saturday, July 19, 2014

Going Hungary in America

One of the benefits of living in a nation of immigrants is the rest of the world is at your doorstep if you can't travel there directly. And there is no better way to experience this smorgasbord of cultures than through your stomach. Each of the two styles of societal integration has its gastronomic merits. The melting pot gives us culinary fusion, while ethnic enclaves bring distinctive regional favors in geographic proximity.

My heritage is largely Hungarian, a small, fiercely independent nationality with an enigmatic language, whose people outlasted a millennium of attempted assimilation. Hungary nonetheless exported its national condiment throughout the world, and today paprika is found in virtually every North American home. Hungarian salami (szalámi) is also popular, most people have at least heard of goulash (gulyás) or chicken paprikás, and the Magyar claim no small portion of the credit for sausage (kolbász). But there is one meal reserved for celebratory family gatherings that makes me forget I have any other ancestry, and for a few hours I am purely Hungarian. It is the "dirty bread" of the Hungarian barbecue.

Süt szalonna (pronounced shoot SUH-luh-nuh), is literally "fry bacon." And bacon is the key ingredient, but it is a relative term. My grandfather used to negotiate for a chunk of nearly pure pork fat, held together with a few streaky wisps of meat and scored in a cross-hatch pattern on either side. Likely he got it for free after wearing down the butcher. My cousin is now the grill master, and he prefers blocks of sliced bacon skewered on a two-tined barbecue fork, much like you'd roast a hot dog on. I'm personally drawn to the fattier option only for its novelty. How satisfying is it to base a dish on melted animal fat in this antiseptic age of body consciousness? Which is the best approach is a topic for spirited debate around the fire pit, but there is no doubt, süt szalonna waits in Hades for the vegan sinner.

The rest of the standard ingredients include a good sliced white bread (Italian bread works well) and sliced vegetables, including tomatoes, onions, cucumbers (cut lengthwise), radishes and red peppers, all spread evenly on separate platters. The protein base is a good cut of beef sirloin, cut into thin strips and threaded onto a metal spit. These spits themselves are near-holy talismans of the süt szalonna ritual. Wood-handled relics have been passed down in our family for generations. The only other tool is a good pair of kitchen scissors.

All the makings of a feast

Then there is the salt. Lots of salt. Everything else should be liberally sprinkled before, during and after the cooking process. Salt the fire if that helps. Then add a little more table salt, because you probably didn't use enough to start. Sodium is the second great Hungarian secret to weeding weak circulatory systems out of the gene pool; it's the perfect bookend to bacon. My grandfather lived until 93 on little more than salted pork fat, onions, and hard candy. But Andor Bocskor rarely stopped moving. More sedentary folks may want to limit their intake.

Preparation of the meal is simple. Start with lathes or narrow-chopped logs of a good hardwood brought to foundry-hot temperature in a fire pit or similar. This is no place for a gas grill, and charcoal briquettes are only in case of dire emergency. The stove top is a shooting offence.

Keep all the side ingredients at close hand, and start with the spits of sirloin. Slowly turn, directly over the open flames. You soon learn to keep your hands low, below the rim of the pit, pivoting the hands-end on a rock or the lip of the grill, but singeing the hair of your forearm is inevitable. It just adds a little seasoning. As the beef cooks on the outside, use a fork to provide some separation between the pieces, and allow the meat to cook evenly to taste. Reserve the cooked beef on a large platter, spread evenly in a single layer like the vegetables.

The fry has always been a communal affair, but when I was growing up cooking was strictly the domain of grey-haired men. Grill-master Craig Bocskor (left) has relaxed the standards.

Notice how I'm using a fork to provide separation between pieces of beef, which allows heat between the pieces and more even cooking.

Then take take the speared bacon (szalonna) and roast or "fry" it (süt) over the fire. Don't worry about getting the bacon right down amongst the embers; a little ash adds to the flavor. As the fat begins to sizzle, systematically mop all the other ingredients--bread, vegetables and beef--with the smoky drippings. When fat is depleted and individual strips or bits of bacon begin to curl or char, snip the fully cooked bits off with the kitchen shears and reserve with the other meat, then return the exposed fat to the flames and continue to baste the platters of sides, beef and especially bread with melted drippings. Finally, back-seat driving is a necessary aspect of the process. It wouldn't be the same without the grill master or a retired alumnus critiquing the technique of his peers. And, the pit is a natural place to discuss politics or religion. It can't be any hotter.

Crossing swords. After the beef is cooked, we start on the fatty bacon, alternately roasting it and basting all the other ingredients in the drippings.

By now, at least five people have joined in the preparation, and another ten have given their opinion.

"dirty bread"

Note how all the ingredients are coated in smoky bacon drippings, and how bits of well-cooked bacon are snipped off using a kitchen shears or  sharp knife. Then return the fresh face of bacon to the flames to draw out more melted fat.

When the bread and toppings are thoroughly coated in sooty-grey bacon drippings, serve sandwich-style, with vegetables, beef and bacon remnants heaped between slices of bread. Of course, the ingredients can be eaten individually too. There is nothing quite like a cool slice of cucumber laced with smoky bacon fat.

Like all the best ethnic recipes as it sometimes seems, süt szalonna was originally "peasant" fare, the rural equivalent of street food. The Hungarian upper crust didn't stoop to eating fat; their diet was the bland lean bits no one will remember fondly on his or her deathbed. For everyone else the pork fat provided welcome calories to fuel a life of hard physical work, and a lot more flavor.

Family rumor has it my Aunt Liz's husband Hank saw my grandfather preparing the stuff and dismissively asked, "How can you eat that dirty bread?" Hank was quickly converted, but the name stuck for our family, and similar preparations of "dirty bread" have become synonymous with celebration and extended family bonds for many Hungarian-American clans. Visitors from the old country will feel right at home. Süt szalonna, and wherever you are, Hungary is there.