I’ve always envied the food traditions of other cultures, like the Italian Feast of the Seven Fishes for Christmas Eve. For years I adopted the culinary traditions of others, until I realized one very simple thing. I have my own.
Tradition is anything you’ve done more than once, and cherish. It’s the chocolate layer cake my mom bakes for each and every family birthday, or the Swedish pancakes we ate every Sunday after church among the Johnsons, Swansons and Larsons of Rockford, Illinois. One of my favorite new traditions is the welcome meal Anya, András’ mother, has waiting for us as soon as we arrive in Hungary. No matter the season or the hour of the day, it is always the same: A light broth made rich with the flavors of carrots, parsnips, potatoes and onions pulled straight from the ground; thinly sliced cucumbers marinated in their own liquid with garlic and salt; two hearty slices of her wheat-rye bread with cool slabs of butter; and bodzavirág (elderflower) syrup sodas made a'la minute with her homemade bodzavirág szirup and sparkling water from Balaton.
The meal is followed by the deepest, most relaxing sleep side-by-side in András boyhood bedroom, until Woody (as in Woody Allen), their feisty adopted stray dog, barks and wakes us. When I emerge, groggy but relaxed, Apa, (András’ dad) and I tour the backyard as I recount the location of every fruit tree, gauge their stages of ripening and how well we’d timed this visit around the season of choice.
We speak in our broken garden Magyar, our common language, and reconnect over the simple words we speak of each other’s mother tongues.
Those are easy for me.
Bigger challenges for my sleepy tongue, but I’ll get there.
If veggies are abundant in our community plot back in New York, this is the land of endless fruit. He shows me the tiny black raspberries that will ripen in fall, the fig tree that rebounded from our visit last May, grape vines that have doubled in size, and the new hazelnut tree that’s already producing fruit. Immediately, I start thinking about which season I’ll plan our next trip around.
For the moment, I’m quite pleased with myself. My plan worked out perfectly—we would arrive for cherry season, so that bowls of sweet and sour cherries would line our wedding table next Saturday. The cherries are everywhere—dark, firm cherries the size of walnuts, tiny black cherries with just a hint of sour, and Hungary’s famous meggyes, soft sour globes that make you pucker and smile. But Saturday is a whole week away. I’m sure the tree can spare just a few for me now.