SWEET AND SOUR HUNGARIAN MEMORIES
by Harvy Simkovits
The Montreal Review, December 2010
Mom and Dad were survivors of the Great Depression and WWII in Eastern Europe. They were both born in Kosice, Czechoslovakia in 1920. That same year marked the birth of the independent state of Czechoslovakia, formed as an amalgam of Czech and Slovak lands. My parents' southern Slovakian town was in a region controlled by Hungary at different times in its history. Just before WWII, Southern Slovakia was returned to Hungary as part of the 1938 Munich Agreement, as negotiated by the then dominant powers of Europe. My parents luckily survived the ensuing war, with Dad (a Catholic) in the Hungarian air force, and Mom (a Jew) hiding-under fake identities-with her family as Christians in Budapest.
A democratic Czechoslovakia was reestablished in 1945 after the Russian army liberated Eastern Europe from the Nazis. However, in 1948, with the support of the Russian Soviets, communism swept through the region via concurrent political coups. Not wanting to live under another oppressive regime, my entrepreneurial father married my mother in 1949 (having known each other for less than a year). Together they fled Czechoslovakia, becoming refugees for a time in Austria. In seeking economic and religious freedom, my father was drawn to Canada. He believed Canada, still a young country, offered greater business opportunity than the longer established USA. Also, being a Roman Catholic, my father was attracted to Quebec because Catholics, mostly descendants of French and Irish settlers, were a majority there.
As the largest and most diverse city in the country, Montreal, Quebec was a mélange of French brasseries, Irish pubs, English taverns, Italian restaurants, Jewish delis, Eastern European clubs and cafes, Greek bistros, and Chinese eateries. My father was attracted to Montreal's cosmopolitan atmosphere, especially its Hungarian and Slavic communities. Waves of Eastern Europeans, lured by the prospects of a better life before and after both Great Wars, had come to Canada since the early 1900s. My father and mother's immigrant journey was no exception. In Montreal, my parents would make new friends through associations such as the Slovak League and Hungarian Club, thus easing their transition to the New World.
Growing up as a first-generation immigrant child, I enjoyed being a part of my parents' ethnic milieu. After those boring Sunday services in the city, our family frequented the Tokay Restaurant. It was a fancy Hungarian establishment named after a famous brand of sweet after-dinner wine called Tokaji (meaning "of Tokay" in Hungarian). Tokaji is produced in the Tokaj region of today's northern Hungary, with the region also crossing into southern Slovakia. This famed wine-making area is near to Kosice, the small city where my parents grew up. The Tokaj region's volcanic soil and humid grape-growing conditions fosters the propagation of a black grape fungus called botrytis.
In the mid-1600s, Tokaj winemakers pioneered the use of botrytis-infected grapes in dessert wine. The result was one of the finest sweet wines in the world. Within 100 years of its development, vintners across Western Europe were using botrytis to create their own celebrated dessert wines. As wine made with botrytis gained a fervent following among Europe's royals, this unique fungus secured the much loftier name of "noble rot." The 18th century Habsburgs even introduced Tokaji wine to the Russian imperial court. In an era crazed for sweet wines, Tokaji was known as the "wine of kings, king of wines."
Montreal's Tokay Restaurant was launched in 1960, and was managed by recent Hungarian immigrants. It was one of several genuine Hungarian cafes and clubs that opened in Montreal after a wave of Hungarian migration following the failed Hungarian revolution of 1956. Among these mushrooming establishments, the Tokay seemed to be a little more special, providing exceptionally sweet memories of the homeland my parents left behind.
In the Tokay, the sunlight never shined in and the lighting was always dim. Even though the restaurant was on the first floor of a plain downtown office building, entering the Tokay felt like walking into a secluded and elegant basement grotto. The Tokay's atmosphere was made somber by the dark crimson curtains at the doorways, the dark walnut wood of the vestibule (where patrons' full-length wool coats hung in the winter), the crimson red velvet paper hugging the walls, and the red-on-white tablecloths on each table. The musty aromas of traditional Hungarian cooking, suffused with paprika, garlic, cayenne, and black pepper, hung in the air. Walking into the Tokay instantly transported me back to my mother's kitchen and to my Slovak-Hungarian family's home cooking (we had visited Mom and Dad's family in Kosice several times during my childhood).
On the walls of the restaurant hung oil paintings and decorative artwork, including colorfully painted wooden plates and spoons-all authentically Hungarian-that were brought over from the owners' homeland. The woman manager's name, Mrs. Magyar (I don't know if this was her real name, but it was what Dad called her), ironically meant "Mrs. Hungary" in Hungarian. All the waiters, along with a small band of gypsy musicians, were also bona fide imports from their home country.
In addition to a violinist and an accordion player, the restaurant's musical ensemble had a cimbalom player. This unusual percussion instrument had string triplets that were struck quickly by two long sticks in the seated player's hands. Those sticks were usually wrapped in masking tape at the striking end so the cimbalom player could hit the reverberating strings with great vigour without damaging them.
The Tokay musical trio wore black pants, white dress shirts, and traditional red-on-black embroidered Hungarian folk vests. They played time-honored Eastern European melodies of both the lively and somber variety-typical for Hungarian music. The violinist, who was closely followed by the accordion player, slowly walked between the tables, serenading the guests. He eagerly responded to customer-requested favorites and was rewarded by monetary tips. Folded bills were usually discreetly passed to him below table level, especially by the Eastern European patrons who knew how to do such things. This shrewd musical entrepreneur usually gave more attention to the bigger tippers, like my father who knew and enjoyed many melodies from his Eastern European heritage. Yet the players made sure they got around to every customer, offering everyone a spirited time in exchange for uplifted eyes, lively applause, and the possibility of a few dollars.
Mom and Dad had smiles on their faces, and sang along as we all listened to the mesmerizing music. My favorites were the Hungarian Csárdás , the Hungarian Waltz, Hot Canary (where the violinist drew his bow rapidly across the strings to make his instrument sound like a real canary), and Hungarian Black Eyes (a popular, lively song that had everyone in the room singing, humming along, or tapping their feet). Translated, the refrain went:
That is nice, that is nice,
The one who has blue eyes,
The one who has black eyes.
Although Hungary had been conquered many times, and had been lorded over in miserable succession by oppressive Turk, Nazi, and Soviet regimes, Hungarians always found something good to sing about.
The Tokay's cheerful and somber music went especially well with soaking up the rich Hungarian soups and sauces, using the stacks of tasty deli-rye bread accompanying every meal. One could even buy loaves of this fresh bread, along with spicy, dried Hungarian kielbasa, in the adjacent coffee shop Mrs. Magyar also managed. My father often purchased both items before we drove back to our suburban home. As a late Sunday afternoon snack, all of us loved the kielbasa wrapped in the tasty rye bread and combined with a slice of tomato or green pepper.
As kids, my brother and I comprehended Hungarian, my parents' first language, which they often spoke to us at home. (Mom and Dad usually left their school-acquired Slovak in reserve for when they did not want us to understand what they were saying to each other.) At the Tokay, it felt cool for me to be able to understand the Hungarian waiters and musicians, and to be able to order my lunch in our family's native tongue.
For her Sunday lunch, Mom usually ordered the lecho appetizer (a spicy sausage, vegetable, and rice stew) and the Wiener schnitzel main course. Dad often went for the peppery goulash soup followed by the veal paprikash. My brother and I usually followed suit with one or the other main courses. We only took small samples of our parents' appetizers, along with a good dose of rye bread to cut their fiery taste. Sometimes we gave the stuffed cabbage, stuffed green pepper, or chicken paprikash a try, contrasting it to Mom's version of those dishes. Mom's cooking of course always won this contest, even though we never found fault with the Tokay's offerings. Occasionally Dad ordered up a "wooden plate" for all of us to share. It was a mélange of several kinds of grilled meats and sausages served on a large, three-level wooden platter that filled the center of the table. It was enough food to feed a small army, and we rarely finished it.
By far, my favorite dish was the crispy Wiener schnitzel. Pounded thin and wide from a piece of succulent veal that was breaded and skillet fried, the meat hung beyond the edge of the large oval plate on which it was served. With buttered mashed potatoes and sweet red cabbage on the side, and a good dose of juice squeezed on top from half a lemon, this meal was a growing kid's delight. I remember feeling like a stuffed cabbage after eating one of those creations, and it usually put me to sleep on the car ride home. It was gourmand heaven for this growing Slovak-Hungarian Canadian boy!
Simkovits Family, c. 1958
Once Dad's Canadian business became financially solid in the 60s, he often held his big birthday parties at the Tokay Restaurant. In his robust business years, Dad invited 80 to 100 people, taking over the whole restaurant for an evening of music, drinking and laughter in celebration of another personal milestone. Customers, suppliers, colleagues, trusted employees and friends from as far away as Toronto and Quebec City rarely passed up one of Dad's lively parties. Those same gypsy musicians energetically played throughout the evening until almost nobody was left to play for. Dad always initiated another song, and slipped the musicians extra cash to keep them lively and on their feet.
During these celebrations, Dad greeted every guest with a large smile, a big, deep and energetic "Hello!" as well as a warm handshake from his large, strong Slovak-Hungarian hands. He then had a drink with every man, and said something charming to every woman about how great they looked. My father was versed in how to comment on a woman's appearance, generating pleasurable giggles, sighs and blushes from the ladies. He had the charisma of Pierre Elliott Trudeau, the fla mboyant Canadian Prime Minister who often wore light-colored suits and a red rose in his lapel. Trudeau was also known for dating a lot of celebrities and using obscenities in the House of Commons (yet he claimed that all he said was "fuddle duddle" instead of "f. off"). Dad liked these things about him, and often adopted Trudeau's terminology as his own.
During dinner, my father quickly nibbled at his food. He then stood up and walked from table to table, kibitzing with everybody. At the end of the evening, no one left the premises without a manly hug for the gentlemen, two kisses-one on each cheek-for every lady, and three kisses on the cheeks for any Ukrainian or Russian guests regardless of sex-as long as they were of the capitalist variety, of course.
As he said good night at the end of the festivities, Dad gently took the right hand of his favorite women, and he bent slightly at the waist as if he were a member of a royal court. Then he raised their hand to his mouth to kiss the top of their hand, sometimes gently with his lips yet sometimes playfully with a big smack. Dad's maternal grandfather had been something like a duke in the old Austria-Hungarian Empire. From him, Dad acquired gentlemanly European manners that were a pleasure for the native Canadians to experience.
If a woman's husband pretended to be jealous by Dad's hand-kissing gesture, Dad grabbed the man's hand and, as he brought it to his face, mischievously turned his wrist over and kissed the top of his own hand instead of the spouse's. This "Slovak kiss" drew a big laugh from the husbands and wives alike. Somehow, Dad knew how to adapt and blend his old world ways into his new world surroundings.
Mom also circulated with the guests at Dad's big birthday and Christmas parties, be it at the Tokay, or at Montreal's Hungarian Club or Capri Restaurant. But she was usually more sought out than seeking. Many of the Canadian-born men enjoyed bantering with her and nudging up against her beautiful Rubenesque features-as if they had never seen or touched a zaftig Eastern European woman before. Mom took this attention in stride, with a broad smile on her face, a glow in her eyes, and energy in her step.
Mom and Dad were good dancers, and mixed it up with many of the other men and women in the room when space was made for dancing. And, if there was no dance floor available, it did not stop Dad from picking a few ladies, including Mom, with whom to dance between the tables, with other men following suit. It was nice to see both my parents enjoying themselves on these occasions, for as long as their marriage lasted.
Mom was not as big a drinker as Dad. He could polish off a half bottle of spirits in an evening, while one or two Dubonnet cocktails could nearly put her to sleep. Scotch was Dad's favorite straight drink while I was a kid. He later switched to vodka, explaining to his friends, "If the cops stop me on the way home, they can't smell the alcohol on my breath, especially when I also puff my big cigar in their face." Of Dad's vices, Mom sometimes told us, "Dad might have loved me more if I could smoke and drink like him."
Dad might smoke a pack of cigarettes in an evening out, on top of the several packs he consumed at work during the day. Something was always smoking around him, like incense burning in a church. Conversely, a couple of cigarettes was about all Mom could handle at a party, and she only smoked to be social with Dad's friends.
As Dad lit up and drank more of his favorites at parties, his voice became louder and his behavior more boisterous. He often used his deep baritone voice to sing an off-color Eastern European song. He employed his mastery of Eastern European languages to change the original song lyrics to some hidden body part, creating snorts and laughter from the other immigrant men in the room. He then quietly translated those lyrics for the English-speaking gents and ladies, leading to their utter amusement and perhaps blushing. With a small change of a vowel, even the Hungarian drinking salute "To your health!" could be radically altered to "To your ass!"
After explaining this particular salutation quirk to some unsuspecting guest, Dad followed by raising his glass. With a smile on his face, Dad spoke the toast in such a heavily accented voice that the person he was toasting could not really tell which vowel was being used in the last word. This led to another smile or laugh from those overhearing the salute. Dad's guests never seemed to take personal offense to his charming crudeness.
Fortunately, I rarely saw Dad do anything embarrassing in front of his guests while high on booze-except for rebuffing Mom's requests to slow down or calm down. He told her privately, yet also publicly if he had had one too many: "My drinking and manners are none of your business." He aggressively asserted he was in control over his alcohol. Yet some mornings he could not remember how he got home the night before, and he quietly checked the garage to confirm his car was there.
Dad usually seemed to manage his alcohol intake. After his regular Thursday nights out at the Tokay (or similar Eastern European venue in the city) with his business customers or colleagues, he was able to drive himself home without serious mishap or incident. Occasionally he was stopped for speeding; yet with the cops he acted politely. In an innocent voice he would say to them: "Good evening, Officer. Really, Officer? I did not realize, Officer. I'm sorry, Officer. Yes sir, Officer. Thank you so much, Officer." With his Slovak-Hungarian comportment and wit, Dad often charmed the cop into not giving him a ticket. And, after polishing off half a bottle of spirits through an evening, my father could still (miraculously!) walk a straight line when asked. At times, he did receive costly speeding tickets, especially when he was also spotted not wearing his seat belt. But this never seemed to deter Dad's drinking and driving habits. He just saw it as a part of his "high" life.
Dad's social behavior was a source of friction between him and Mom, especially when he showed closer and warmer attention toward some of his party's other lady guests. Mom wanted the same or more adoration from him, and often found it lacking. The tension between them could escalate into screaming matches after they arrived home from a gathering, or after Dad returned home alone from a long night of business entertaining. Some nights Dad came home so late from wining and dining customers, he just changed his shirt and tie, and headed straight back to his factory office for his usual 7 a.m. start as the company boss. This late-night behavior enraged my mother, especially after waking up in the middle of the night and not seeing Dad in bed next to her. She stayed awake, paced the hallways, and became frantic about Dad's whereabouts, wondering if she should call the cops.
Mom at times cornered Dad in the wee hours for his late nights and heavy drinking. She said she was worried about him, and afraid he would get hurt or killed in an accident. In response, Dad said, "If you don't get a call from the police or from the hospital, then you know I'm okay." If he was in a fighting mood, he added, "Stay out of how I do my business; I'm doing this for you and the family."
Mom felt Dad's lack of attention and consideration toward her. As a stay-at-home mother who gave up her seamstress career when she had her two children, she felt alone and lonely in raising my brother and me. She tried to point out Dad's responsibility, pleading, "The boys need you around more." Yet he harshly responded, "It's your job to be with them and raise them when they are still at home. I'll be there for them when they are older and ready to go out into the world." The irony of Dad's logic was it kept Mom with her apron on at home, a place where she also was more comfortable as a traditional spouse, and she was kept from adapting to the new world Dad had grown into.
Some nights, thinking I was asleep, my parents verbally attacked each other within earshot of my brother's and my bedroom. They mostly spoke in their school-acquired Slovak language, and I did not understand what they said except when they occasionally switched to their native Hungarian. Nevertheless, there were never warm or welcoming sounds coming from those exchanges just down the hallway and stairs. Yet, the gist of their conversation always seemed clear, and it sent nervous shakes and cold sweats through my body.
Dad had his addictions, yet Mom was also fond of smearing salt into any open vice. She sometimes jokingly said in front of all of us, "Daddy doesn't really love me anymore." She might even subtly accuse him of having eyes for other women, or angrily tell him, "You never rush home to us like you rush to your so-called 'friends' (she might even say 'lady friends') for a night out at your fancy clubs and restaurants." Her tongue could sting like cayenne pepper, and it grated on all of us. It took me a long time to realize this was the only way she knew how to express her oozing frustration in watching her husband slip away from her during their Canadian life together.
Dad usually said little while Mom made her uncomfortable comments. If she said something about his boisterousness or heavy drinking during a Tokay celebration, he just looked or walked away from her and happily engaged with his guests. Yet, if she kept at it-especially if she pulled him closer to her rather than letting him fraternize with the other men and women in the room-he might forcefully say to her, "Leave me be!" in one of their foreign languages, and avoid her for the rest of the evening. After everyone else departed, he would confront her in the parking lot or on our drive home. With anger oozing from his pores, and not paying attention to which language he was using for all he had drunk during the evening, he might say, "You think you know everything. You really know nothing!" or "You mind your own business, and stop involving yourself in things you know nothing about."
When my parents realized my brother and I were uncomfortably listening, these confrontations quickly ended in troubling stalemates. With pursed lips, they would both silently fume during the car ride home, while my brother and I stayed quiet in the backseat. We would all stare into the approaching car headlights, with each of us, in our own way, inextricably caught between Mom and Dad's old and new worlds.
"Sweet and Sour Hungarian Memories" first appeared in the August issue of Canadian Stories Magazine.
Harvy Simkovits is a Canadian living in the US. He is writing a memoir about his Eastern European family who immigrated to Canada after WWII.