March 6, 2013
The Recipes of My Ancestors
In less than three weeks it will be Passover. That means in a less than three weeks it will be the second anniversary of the death of my father, alav hashalom. I’ve been thinking a lot about him these days. That’s likely why this past weekend I made lecho, a Hungarian dish he taught me to cook.
My father was born in Hungary in 1931; not a particularly safe time to be born Jewish in Europe. Fortunately, his parents brought him to America circa 1938, before Hitler entered Hungary and started murdering the Jews there.
An only child, one of the many things my father learned from his mother, may her memory be a blessing, was Hungarian cooking. In turn, he passed down to me the conviction that sweet Hungarian paprika is good on pretty much anything, as well as the family recipes for dishes like goulash, chicken paprikash, and lecho.
I’ll tell you the recipe for lecho the way my father told it to me, because the recipe contains a veiled story in itself.
“Saute an onion and a bell pepper, and sprinkle them liberally with paprika,” he told me, “Cook them until they are soft. Then add some tomatoes and more paprika. Simmer until the tomatoes are soft and the sauce thickens.” Then, he said, almost as an afterthought, “And if you have enough money for meat, you can add some sausage.”
Now, my parents were both professionals who made a good living. We weren’t rich, but we lived in a nice house, and we never worried about where our next meal might be coming from. My father didn’t make lecho often, but I don’t remember him ever making it without polska kielbasa in it. When he told me this recipe, it was the only time I ever heard the words, “If you have enough money for meat” come out of his mouth.
Clearly, this is a recipe that had been handed down for generations. Clearly, it carried the memory of those ancestors of ours who weren’t middle class Americans, and who often didn’t have enough money for meat.
Continuing to tell the recipe the way he did feels to me like a way to honor the generations who came before me, whose struggles and decisions allowed me to live in a world in which I don’t worry about whether I can afford to buy meat.
So this past weekend I bought an onion, an orange bell pepper (because the green ones didn’t look so good), some tomatoes, and – oh yes – a package of (non-dairy, non-pork) turkey polska kielbasa, and cooked up a fragrant batch of lecho. Which I ate with some new-world sourdough bread.
Thanks, Dad, and all who came before you, for the gifts that live on even after you are gone.