Nonfiction

Palacsinta Torta: A Memoir


In front of me, a tower of meat built of filet mignon, debreceni sausage, pork chops, and slabs of fat-streaked bacon. At the base of this steaming pyramid of flesh, an artful ring of fried potatoes like burnished round coins.

On the other side of the tower, my darling. Since he grew the beard, everybody says he looks like Abraham Lincoln. I love that his beard is auburn, though his hair is brown. I love the particular pale blue pigment of his eyes, the thickness of his sandy lashes.

We exchange a grin of complicity over the sizzling heap of food on its wooden platter. We’ve ordered the most expensive dish on the menu, the fatányéros. “Wooden plate” is the literal Hungarian translation. Mixed grill.

At home in Montreal, we scrape by on my teacher’s salary while he finishes his degree. But here in Budapest—city of my birth and of my childhood—we are impossibly rich, thanks to the hundred-dollar voucher we each were obliged to convert to forints upon entry into the country. The fatányéros sets us back the equivalent of a couple of $1.24-businessman’s lunches in Montreal, but we are dining at the most expensive restaurant in the city, the Citadella on top of Gellért Hill.

In my memory, we are seated on a shaded terrace, shielded from the intense heat of the blistering summer of 1969. I am wearing my white mini-dress spangled with the letters L-O-V-E in psychedelic shades of green, yellow, purple, and pink.

A middle-aged couple seated at a nearby table decked out like ours in checkered red and white is taking our measure. The woman, her dyed blonde hair arranged in a bouffant helmet, seems fascinated by me. On the zaftig side, she picks at a slice of strudel.

In 1969, I’m twenty-one and have a happy metabolism: able to gorge with impunity, yet remain svelte. When my husband and I mop our greasy faces after polishing off every morsel of the fatányéros, the blonde across from us declares in tones of mixed envy and admiration, “I can’t believe the little woman put away all that food.” She doesn’t bother to lower her voice because she has no idea I speak Hungarian. I giggle and translate for my Canadian.

He winks. “Shall we impress her with our choice of dessert?”

And so we order the palacsinta torta.

~ ~ ~

I grew up eating blood pudding and head cheese, kolbász and ham. My mother and father came out of the Holocaust having lost everyone and everything. In the void left by the deaths of the beloved parents to whom kashruth had been sacrosanct, they saw no point in depriving themselves of the great taboo: pork. Until then they lusted after the succulent forbidden pleasure, even while feasting on all the sanctioned delights of kosher foie gras, sólet with smoked goose, duck cracklings, and the many Hungarian dishes that creative Jewish cooks had modified over the generations. The grandmothers whom I knew only from hearsay cooked outstanding chicken paprikás without sour cream, and mouthwatering cabbage leaves stuffed with ground veal or beef instead of pork.

And of course, there were all the standard Hungarian dairy delicacies that were perfectly kosher as long as they were not served along with meat. And high on the list of these was the Hungarian crêpe, or palacsinta. Crammed with cheese or with nuts and apricot jam, rolled into cylinders or folded into triangles. A dish like this made a fine luncheon after a mushroom soup with nokedli. But if you really wanted to wow the assembled family or for a very special celebration that would otherwise merit a cake, you might serve palacsinta torta.

This carried over into my parents’ postwar life, when palacsinta torta made such rare appearances as to necessitate my mother cracking open her cookbooks. The pinnacle of sources was the Inyesmester Nagy Szakácskönyve (The Gourmet’s Big Cookbook). First published in 1932, it is a classic reference for Hungarian cuisine written by Elek Magyar, Hungary’s stand-in for Escoffier. (Never a chef, Magyar was a journalist with a fine appreciation of the art of the table.) The copy of his book that I hold in my hands probably originated in the mid-1950s. A well-worn tome, its title page and hardback cover disintegrated years before my mother gave up cooking. Dated November 21, 1955, the ripped, yellowing flyleaf bears an inscription in her hand addressed to her sister in Canada.

Indeed, my aunt must have had custody of the book for some years for there are notes at the back of the book in her handwriting. An excellent baker, my aunt starred the recipes for Linzer, Indianer, and a “long lasting” Buda tea cake. As a cook however, she was not of the same ranks as my mother. After my family immigrated to Montreal in 1959, the book reverted to her.

In the Bible of Hungarian cookbooks, Magyar itemizes three different versions of layered sweet palacsinta  (“slipped,” “Bavarian,” and “French”). None of them remotely resembles my mother’s. But I have no doubt that she consulted him before heading into the kitchen and taking out her crêpe pan. First she beat milk and eggs with a rotary beater, then slowly added flour, then a soupçon of sugar and salt, a judicious amount of vanilla and, at the very end, just enough soda water to produce a delicate batter.

While the batter rested, she readied her fillings, running a rolling pin over shelled walnuts she had first enveloped in wax paper, chopping up the lumps in the apricot jam, mixing cocoa powder with sugar. Soon the first crêpe was sizzling in foaming butter and a tantalizing smell wafted through the house.

~ ~ ~

I don’t think I ever attempted a palacsinta torta in my first marriage. I ask myself now why I never tried to serve such a showy, yet relatively easy dessert for nearly thirty years? Lack of confidence? Reluctance to invest time and energy, yet risk tossing out a mess of crêpes that stuck to the pan? Fear of being scoffed at for incompetence? It could be a metaphor for the marriage.

When it ruptured two weeks after my fiftieth birthday—an event celebrated with panache at a large party in a fine French restaurant in the heart of Montreal—it came as both a total shock and a tidal wave of relief. A messy divorce ensued, replete with drama and acrimony. And of course with massive regret. No one likes to throw in the towel after three decades of trying to make a go of things. Only with considerable hindsight could I accept that there had been good times interspersed between the bad and that my great net gain were two wonderful daughters.

Five years later I remarried. This time we were mature (aging!) adults, not children. I wish I could say that in the new relationship I lost my fear of making mistakes, but after the failure of my first marriage, I was even more skittish than before. Luckily Archie’s appreciation of my least efforts in the kitchen have had the happy consequence of making me a more confident, even ebullient cook. On a steady diet of praise, I have stretched myself, and not just culinarily.

I can’t say that I make palacsinta torta at the drop of a hat today, but it’s not that sort of dessert anyway. It’s for occasions when we pull out all the stops and let our guests know how much they mean to us.

 

KalmanNaves-Image

KalmanNavesElaine Elaine Kalman Naves has had a long career as a writer, journalist, broadcaster, and teacher of creative writing. She is the author of seven books, among them the award-winning memoirs Journey to Vaja and Shoshanna’s Story. Her newest title is Portrait of a Scandal: The Abortion Trial of Robert Notman (Véhicule Press).