Food for Thought
Seldom acknowledged, food is a universal language through which people communicate. It’s history, construction and transmission between people and cultures requires such artistry and storytelling that our staff members Sarah and Juliet believe it should be its own branch of literature.
Please, enjoy our reflections on the dishes closest to us.
First, here’s Sarah on the brilliance of chicken paprikash:
Famously featured in the opening lines of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, chicken paprikash, or paprika hendl as Stoker refers to it, is a staple of Hungarian cuisine. Traditionally, the dish consists of a chicken, quartered (bone left in), in a paprika sauce.
As a member of the Hungarian diaspora, I readily admit that as a child, I knew neither the dish’s official name—I grew up on Hungarian chicken and dumplings, not chicken paprikash and nokedli—nor how it was traditionally served. I can also admit that the privileges invested in me by my local supermarket mean I didn’t need to know these things, because there are easier ways of making paprikash available to the modern chef, especially broke college students like me, thank you very much.
So, here are a few quick tips:
First, consider picking up boneless chicken. Giant chunks of chicken that look like something off of a D&D tavern menu are nice when you actually have the time to devote to a proper roast, so save that kind of intensive labor for special occasions. Instead, buy yourself some boneless chicken, either pre-cut into or that you can chop into bite-sized chunks. They’ll cook faster and are lower maintenance, sparing you all the time you would’ve spent babying that meat.
Second, the nokedli. I know your mama and nagymama, if they were anything like mine, stuck to the two-spoon technique—that is, using two spoons to roll the dough into approximately identical round(ish) balls—or perhaps they simply hand-rolled them. This is a lot of extra work for little to no reward. Instead, roll the dough out on parchment paper or another suitable surface and slice the dough into even rectangles. Not only is this method faster, it also makes for dumplings that are all roughly the same shape and size, meaning that there are no sad, wimpy dumplings the size of a dime. Plus, your dumplings look more professional.
(It also means there will be less bickering over who gets the larger dumplings, too.)
Third, and finally, invest in real Hungarian sweet paprika if you can find it. Supermarkets do carry the stuff, and it will give your cooking a better flavor than any old paprika will. Sure, you can make paprikash with other paprikas, but it won’t come out tasting quite right.
Now, here’s Juliet on the majesty of corned beef:
Before sitting down to write this piece and ruminate over the food of my childhood, I called my father and asked if he had any inspiring nuances about corned beef to share. The following was his drawn out reply:
“Very salty. Good for sandwiches.”
My Irish heritage stems from my father and his extended family in Derry, Northern Ireland (yes, think Netflix’s comedy sitcom Derry Girls). He emigrated to the United States with his mother and sister in 1972 as “The Troubles” over Northern Irish territory grew violent, but with him he brought an (obviously passionate) appreciation for food that was later passed on to me.
Growing up we persistently cheated and bought pre-brined packs of brisket from the grocery store every March when it was in stock for our annual St. Patrick’s Day parties. With it he would enlist the use of his panini press to construct dozens of mini reubens with swiss or provolone, sauerkraut, thousand island, and mustard on rye toast for all our guests to devour. They were always a massive hit.
(Amateur tip: the more butter on your rye, the better!)
According to a 2016 article from Food and Wine Magazine, the “corned” in corned beef comes not from corn kernels (as my eight year old self would have told you), but rather from the “kernels” of rock salt used to preserve the brisket. The history of the dish itself is incredibly Irish (it only grew in popularity because of taxes imposed on the Irish by the English in the mid-1600s), but it must always be remembered that the popularity of it in the United States is distinctly Jewish as well. It is said that because the largest immigrant populations to New York at the start of the 20th century were the Irish and Eastern European Jewish people, kosher butchers were inclined to carry preserved briskets for themselves and their Irish neighbors.
Food can be characterized as a unifying language of love, a potential weapon of mass destruction, or most fascinatingly: a vessel for time travel. Like a piece of literature connects you to the time in which it was written, a recipe connects you to those who created it long before you.