Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Hungarian Magic Roots, and Webs of Relation

This winter I've felt a new stirring, like the little motherwort seeds sprouting bravely in my garden, to tap into my ancestral roots a bit more, to bring the old magic of the women of my lineage into this sweet home, built by Italian hands in 1880, on Ohlone fecund creekbed land. Home and hearth, after all, are like our core-- at least for me-- our center, the place our roots do their rooting. I was given a beautiful birchwood broom for the Yuletide, and with it I've been twirling, sweeping out the old, listening to Faun Fables' "Sweeping Spell" , imagining that broom as also a wand of sorts, stirring up and eliminating dust and darkness, sweeping in an ease and gentleness of thought, a bright sweetness to the day. I've read of old broom-witches sweeping their brooms at the sky to bring rain... perhaps I should try this too, since we are experiencing the worst drought in recorded Californian history now.

According to my Women's Encyclopedia of Myths and Secrets, "Broomsticks were long associated with witches because they figured in pagan rituals of marriage and birth, the Mysteries of Women. In Rome the broom was a symbol of Hecate's priestess-midwife, who swept the threshold of a house after each birth to remove evil spirits that might harm the child" (120).

And, from the Taschen book of symbols, " Full of uncanny energies, broom, unnoticed at the back of the broom closet, bristles with a life of its own; sweeps, dances, flies" (596).

An old cow bell hung on a rosary-string of manzanita berries guards the door, and jangles happily with each entrance and exit over that threshold.

But to get to my point, here, with this business of Hungarian Magic Roots... For Christmas, Simon's brother and wife gave us an old cookbook found used, knowing our particular fondness for sauerkraut, borscht and goulash, to name a few. We opened it at first with a bit of laughter, having no idea what to expect from those bold letters: TRANSYLVANIAN.

Well, let me tell you, this book is a treasure, a deep well of cultural and folk knowledge. All of the recipes are gathered from sources, such as grandmothers recipe books, that are pre WWI, and as such there are, for example, no cooking times, no oven temperatures (as most dishes were cooked over a fire or coals), and the occasional startling ingredient, such as a bear's foot, freshly hunted.

Paul Kovi set out to do for the recipes of his Transylvanian homeland what others have done when collecting folk music, folk tales. Each dish is a story, and the book is full of essays about traditional Hungarian-Romanian food culture, and its myriad Saxon, Jewish, Turkish, threads.

After making, with some trepidation (no cooking times!), the Saxon Sauerkraut and Chicken Pot soup below, which requires a quart of sauerkraut juice, I felt that little seedling unfurling further in me. Perhaps taste can bring up old memories in the blood, the tastebuds stunned and alive and remembering?

For I remembered that my father's grandmother Anne had Eastern European blood, though in the tangle of family histories inevitable when one's ancestors span the width and breadth of Europe, I had always thought her German. So I asked my father, and he told me, no, Grandma Anne was born in a little town called Teremia Mare, part of Hungary at the time, and now part of Romania, in the southern region of the Carpathians, not far from the historic Transylvania. That made a chill run up and down my spine, and I felt her near, though I never knew her.

Perhaps food can sing up an old knowing in the body and blood, as these recipes have for me, a sudden deep longing to see those ragged rugged Carpathian peaks still full of bears, those sylvan dark forests and meadows. And of course while there is much romanticizing in all of this, dreams are food, too.

As a fourth-generation Californian (on my father's side), as a mutt woven of so many different European bloodlines none of them seem to matter much sometimes, it can feel dissociating, lonesome, strange, to have no particular culture, no set of stories and recipes handed down through a landscape for hundreds of years, stories and recipes rooted in a place, fluidly incorporating new strands as new people-- Saxons, for example-- moved in. Of course there are many xenophobic and racist tendencies that emerge when people remain too insular, prizing their culture above all others (a story played out through all of human history), but there is also great health and groundedness in tradition, in culture passed on like a chest of hand-embroidered linens.

So while I know that roasting a hare with juniper berries in the Transylvanian tradition does not make me Hungarian, does not make me part of a culture that I do not know, I still feel like it is a dance and a song for my great-grandmother and all of her people who live somewhere in my blood. Such a feeling reminds me that I am a ribbon among a great many currents in the river of my ancestors, and what a sweet feeling that is!

At once, I've been thinking a lot recently about this concept of "All Relations," which I heard a wonderful Cherokee medicine man named J.T. Garrett speak about on Herbal Highway (local radio), a pan-indigenous concept, it seems to me: that when we forget that our relations include all the plants, animals, stones, waters, winds, and stars, a part of us becomes sick. Our families and our ancestors also include the bewick's wrens and ruby-crowned kinglets in the garden, the bears in the mountains, the soil, the stars we watch emerge at night, the trees with their bark and their stillness. If my human ancestors reside in my blood, somewhere, in my heart, then all my other relations, all our other relations, exist in a great web around us, hitched to our hearts. When we build relationships with them —when we return to the garden daily and watch the bewick's wren dart for insects, watch the moon rise differently every eve—we create those web-strands, those ropes, between our own hearts and the rest of the world, until we are thoroughly held, and holding.


  1. A Saxon soup for hangovers sounds a great treat. I hope you try it out. Love cowbell and your photos are beautiful.

  2. I so often feel the stirring of my ancestor's in my bones... loved this post - the book looks wonderful! My great grandparents were from Bohemia, and the one family recipe that seems to have survived the move is clove and onion rice. I love the combination of flavors, and this post has me wondering if I could dig up some other recipes from Bohemia, would I love them, too?

    1. woops. not sure why "ancestors" is possesive, maybe I left out a word, I could fill that space with many: songs, seasonings, whispers, stories...

  3. A good way to get to know a stranger of your past is certainly to cook it dinner. Read it a story, dance a dance for it (broom or no broom). I think it is a wise pursuit to get to know our pasts. And natural, if not inevitable, to identify more strongly with some parts than others, just as we favor certain taste palettes and colors and trees.

  4. i think we all respond at a deep level to our ancestral cuisines, even ones that are remote, dilute, unknown at a conscious level. something in our very DNA dances to the tastes our ancestors cherished...just as we bond (hopefully) to the land where we grow up, the smells, sounds, and the tastes of home, and pass these things on to our children, so can we reach back into the strands of time and place that shaped us, recognizing and claiming our complex heritage. so often i have wondered why i am drawn to this rather than that, why a place or an artifact or a flavor seems so very right; only to find out later that indeed, some early or late ancestors dwelt there for a long time, was familiar with those things, savored that food. a knowing in the blood...

  5. I love handmade brooms and folkway-cookbooks, too! And also feel bereft of that connection with my Slovakian, Italian, Irish and Swedish roots. I know it's a literal approach, but I plan to submit a sample to one of those places that analyze genetic markers, to see what my actual ancestry is--I have a friend who did this and she discovered that the nationalities her family claimed weren't even in the top ten of her actual ancestry. It is fascinating to me.