7 Lessons From My Hungarian Great-Grandparents

simple kitchenWhen my mom comes over to visit, she often reminisces about her Hungarian grandparents, especially her grandmother, Elizabeth.

It never was a bother to me- I loved hearing their distant stories. But before long, polite listening turned into intense brain-picking. I began asking more questions about my great-grandparents than my mom could answer; I had become infatuated with their old way of life.

I have never met them nor seen a picture, but here I attempt to document the lessons they have taught me through my mom’s stories.

Both of my great-grandparents were born in Hungary. Elizabeth’s family was well to-do and owned quite a bit of land. My great-grandfather, William, was more of the gypsy-type who loved his drink.

They immigrated to America after the Russians invaded their land, and took their homes and livestock. They entered the port at New York by boat. Elizabeth brought one trunk which held her belongings.

Lesson no. 1 Bad stuff happens. When it does, pick up and keep going.

They settled in Ohio and raised four children. My mom tells me Elizabeth was an amazing cook. Before coming to America, she worked in a bakery in France. My mom all but drools when she tells me of the food my great-grandmother would prepare.

Lesson no. 2  Be an amazing cook and you’ll be remembered forever.

She’d make kolaches, stuffed cabbage, nut rolls, apple pies, and large sheet cakes topped with home-grown apples and finely diced walnuts.

My mom swears she will never eat chicken noodle soup like the way my great-grandmother used to make it. She’d prepare her own broth and noodles. She’d make the noodles by rolling out the dough and using only a knife to cut each one. She’d then let them dry a little before adding it to the broth.

Mom fondly recounts the vegetarian sandwiches my great-grandmother used to make for her. She would slice bell peppers and onions, pack them in olive oil and can it. She’d add this canned mixture to eggs and gently cook it on low heat. She’d serve the peppers and eggs on soft bread.

My great-grandparents had a plum tree in their backyard which was used to make lacvar, a thick plum jam. The lacvar was used in making kiflis, a traditional Hungarian pastry. My mom talks about these kiflis with a longing in her eyes, while I can only imagine how delicious they must have tasted.

Lesson no. 3 There’s an immeasurable difference between slow-cooked traditional foods and the processed fast foods of today.

They NEVER ate at restaurants or fast-food joints. Apparently, Elizabeth was very finicky about people handling her food. She would pack lunches for her and her husband whenever they traveled or went fishing.

Lesson no. 4  There’s a lot to be said for knowing who prepares your food.

Both Elizabeth and William were avid fishermen and regularly took their small boat out to Lake Pymatuning. My great-grandfather would cheat and throw corn in specific spots to make sure they always caught a fair amount of pike and catfish. Thanks to fishing and their Hungarian heritage, they always sported gorgeous tans.

Lesson no. 5  Sometimes, it’s okay to cheat.

While Elizabeth ruled the kitchen, William tended their garden. My mom recalled them having a large, bountiful garden. My great-grandfather grew plum trees, strawberries, bell peppers, carrots, apples and more.

When they returned from fishing trips, William would water his plants with the lake water he brought home in 5 gallon buckets. He would give the cleaned fish to Elizabeth and she would cook it their favorite way- fried. William buried the fish heads and tails deep in the ground (as not to attract cats) and use it for rich soil. Their luscious garden was attributed to the lake water and fish heads and tails.

Lesson no. 6  There’s a fine line between purposeless waste and miraculous nourishment.

I asked mom what Elizabeth’s kitchen was like and she laughs as she explains how bare and simple it was. “It was nothing fancy at all,” mom says. There was a fridge, small pantry, a single sink, and a simple 4-burner gas stove. But the jewel of the kitchen was a square wooden table where she prepared all of her pastas and pastries. It was at that wooden table- and with the help of a rolling pin- where the magic happened. One time, one of my mother’s cousins jumped up on the table and sat on it. Elizabeth went ballistic. My mom says that day was a very bad day at the Toth residence.

Lesson no. 7  Less is more and don’t mess with an immigrant woman’s prized possession. Even if it is just a wooden table.

This post was featured at the Homestead Barn Hop!

Photo Credit: Corey Leopold