Political change starts at the kitchen table, or at least that’s the maxim behind Budapest-born artist Júlia Standovár’s recent photo book Hungry Hungarians. Made in 2015 in New York, where she is based, the idea for the project arose from Standovár’s disappointment with the political changes that had occurred back home.
“Pickles are ugly and sour but delicious. People love them or hate them. I feel the same way about Hungary.”
Mixing together personal narrative, cultural insights, family recipes and Standovár’s photos and interviews of Hungarian emigres, the project takes the form of a cook book centred around 16 traditional Hungarian dishes. Not coincidentally, the cookbook begins with a recipe for pickled cucumber, a typical eastern European side-dish which recurs throughout the book as a visual double entendre, reflecting the difficult political situation in Hungary. “Hungarians eat pickles with many national main dishes, so they remind me of home even if I know that they are common in New York, as well. The shape of this vegetable is phallic so in the series they have three functions: cultural signifier, phallic symbol, and to connect the portraits to the recipe book that is central to the work, too. Pickles are ugly and sour but delicious.” Standovár explains. “Pickles are ugly and sour but delicious. People love them or hate them. I feel the same way about Hungary.”
What follows are four chapters from the book with accompanying recipes. From pork salami often paired with pickle to the artist’s grandmother’s Christmas cake, Standovár talks gender, diversity, and the role of arts in Hungary today. Tuck in!
If I had to pick a food considered the most “Hungarian” ever, I would probably choose kolbász pork sausages . It is best if you eat them with fresh bread, green peppers and pickles. These sides makes the flavour colourful and rich.
Our prime minister is not a big fan of diversity and colourfulness, and he is not at all friendly to foreign people. In the beginning of 2015 he stated that economic migrants are not welcome in Hungary. He wants to keep the country a homogenous, truly Hungarian nation.
Well, my family is quite international on my mum’s side. My aunt and uncle live in Virginia in the United States. Their older son lives in Chicago with his American family and their son lives in Paris with his French wife and two sons. When we meet for major family events we speak three different languages, plus body language which is not negligible. It doesn’t mean that we are not a Hungarian family, it is just spiced up a little bit. So probably we wouldn’t meet the ruling party’s idea of a model family. We are spoiled with western blood.
My mum is the absolute king of soups. She cooks fantastically delicious soups all the time but rarely bakes cakes. I grew up eating chicken soup. You just have to collect a bunch of vegetables such as carrots, parsley, turnips, potatoes, kohlrabi, celery, onions and cut them into small pieces, and brown them in some cooking oil. Then, you add chicken giblets — wings, neck, legs, thighs, liver, and heart — in the bowl, add some water, salt and pepper, and cook with a slow boil until it’s ready.
We use to eat it for Sunday lunch with my family, but not because we are religious — my parents are atheists, I guess. We never went to church or talked about the Bible. We talk about politics instead. Hungary is officially a Christian nation. The current ruling party, the right wing Fidesz is lead by Viktor Orban our prime minister, who basically has the the power to do anything he wants. Fidesz rules by a conservative and nationalist view. They openly want to create an “illiberal democracy” which is a nicer way to describe a dictatorship.
My mum is the king of soups and she is also a strong, independent woman, while my Dad is the queen of pasta and quite an emotional guy. My mother spends more time in her office than in the kitchen and she believes in democracy instead of God. She is liberal and that is how she raised us as well. She is absolutely the opposite of the women’s role defined by the government. Thank God!
The most important thing when it comes to achieving a colourful and rich flavour for your chicken soup is to find the right ration between different vegetables and meat. I wish I could say the same about Hungarian politics.
The debate over small size dumplings versus fatter ones is pretty important. I would say the bigger size is better with scrambled eggs — tojásosnokedli — but I do prefer the smaller size with chicken paprikash. Good taste comes in many different forms so it really depends on your family tradition how you make your dumplings. My dad loves telling me how to prepare tojásosnokedli and many other things because he has a lot of experience in the kitchen. Sometimes we end up arguing because I know he just wants me to learn and improve. And it is hard for him to accept that sometimes I change his recipes to match my taste. Cooking is an art, it is a constant search for a perfect size, shape, ratio and colours and you have endless options to alter recipes.
Although Hungary is a democracy, a member of the EU, the government still decided to take control of the art scene. They appointed their puppets to heads of major art institutions, like the National Theatre or the Kunsthalle (Mucsarnok). They also created the Hungarian Arts Academy (MMA) which is an institution in charge of controlling government funding for museums, theatres, events, artist, etc. The head of MMA, György Fekete, declared that they want to focus on Hungarian and traditional fine arts, while populist, international, and contemporary artists are not welcome. What is next? Will they close restaurants which serve anything other than traditional Hungarian food? No more gyros, pizza, and hot and sour soup. And next, will they tell us what is the national sized dumpling for our tojásosnokedli?
My mother bought a new oven this year which is great news. Especially because she can make zserbó, my favourite kind of Christmas cake. Although I didn’t have any problems with the old oven, she did for some reason.
Zserbó is a layered pastry: a base layer of cake followed by a layer of jam and walnut and another layer of cake and finally chocolate on top. It is quite filling.
I couldn’t wait to have some zserbó this year because I spent my previous Christmas in New York City. However, after the feast I was so full that I could not eat any dessert so I asked my grandmother to pack some to go for me and my friend, Lilli. When I got home I put it into the fridge and went to sleep. The next morning my zserbó was gone. I made a terrible mistake, I forgot to write my name on it so my sweet little but actually quite big brother ate it all.
If I write my name on it then it is mine. This is how the ruling party Fidesz, demonstrated their power to Budapest and the world. They changes the names of numerous major public places. This is not the first time this happened in Budapest: new ideology, new map. Poor city, tradition, and tax money. Luckily, I found some leftover zserbó on the kitchen counter later, that is where the magic happens. But my friend Lilli had to wait another year.