St. Stephen’s Day

August 20th is a state holiday in Hungary that celebrates the birth of the nation.  It is publicly celebrated in much the same way as the Fourth of July in the United States: fireworks, parades, raising of the national flag, air shows and military demonstrations. But one tradition that is purely Hungarian is the parading of the Holy Right. That is the mummified right hand of St. Stephen that is generally kept on display in St. Stephen’s Basilica in Budapest, but on August 20th it is taken out and paraded around town with great pageantry. If only we had George Washington’s teeth preserved to march about in this country!

Stephen was the first Christian King of Hungary and was canonized by Pope Gregory VII on August 20th, 1083 for uniting Hungary under Christianity as well as his prolific building of Roman Catholic churches around the country. That public works program is probably how he got to be the patron saint of masons, stonecutters and bricklayers in addition to being the patron saint of Hungary, kings and children who are dying. That last one is a little confusing, and depressing, but evidence of what a well rounded guy he was, I guess. So much so, that the Eastern Orthodox Church was finally able to overlook the snub of Stephen choosing Rome over Constantinople for his capital of Christianity and made Stephen a saint on their side of the Catholic fence as well in the year 2000. This is an honor that has never been bestowed on any Roman Catholic saint since the two sects split in 1054, demonstrating what a crack PR time Stephen had even a thousand years after his death.


Stephen is closely tied with the Holy Crown of Hungary, which is often called, The Crown of St. Stephen. According to Tradition, Pope Silvester II and Holy Roman Emporer Otto III sent a jeweled crown to Stephen for his coronation on Christmas Day 1000 or January 1, 1001, recognizing Hungary as independent nation for the first time. The interesting thing about the crown of Hungary is that it has legal personhood. The crown itself rules the country, the king is just a vessel for the divine power of the crown… takes a little of the pride of kingship out of  a job that is otherwise pretty fraught with stress, but I guess it also relieves the king of a some responsibility too…  “The crown made me do it” would come in handy as a scapegoat for any world leader.


The August 20th celebration is also the farewell to summer bash in Hungary. A popular Hungarian summertime party tradition is the Szalonnasütés or Bacon Cookout. This is akin to an American backyard BBQ, but instead of hotdogs and hamburgers, bacon is roasted on spits over open flame, and the bacon fat is let to drip onto rye bread with cabbage, onions and radishes to make a porktacular, fatty delicious sandwich. Serve this with Hungarian Potato Salad and Cucumber Salad.
If you have a guest of honor, it might be fun to buy or make a Crown of St. Stephen for that person to wear.

If no one on your guest list is deserving of particular distinction, you can wear the crown yourself and rule the party as the voice of the divine headpiece. If you have children at your party, or hipster adults who enjoy crafting, you could set up a craft table where everyone can make their own mighty crown. With a few sheets of craft foam, an assortment of patterns, scissors, some foam stick-ons and maybe a little glitter-glue, all your guests can become possessed with the power of their own crown.

The piece-de-resistance for a successful St. Stephen’s celebration, is the parading of the Holy Right. Just because the true relic resides under lock and key in Budapest doesn’t mean you can’t celebrate with the same pageantry as the Hungarians. Construct a replica of the hand out of food and parade it through your gathering, and your guests will be feel compelled to follow you with reverence.

*A special thanks to Machaela Cavanaugh for the beautiful photos of the food, Michael Cavanaugh for use of his fantastic camera, Maureen Cavanaugh for the amazing sculptural work and Evelyn Barrett for the beautiful location.

Also a big thank you to all of my sous-chefs.

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Szalonna (Bacon Sandwich)

Bacon seems like a good name for the Hungarian szalonna. However, szalonna is much more than the Hungarian version of Bacon, it is a national treasure, and some say that in actuality, Bacon is the English version Szalonna. Bacon most likely got its name from a type of Hungarian szalonna produced in the Bakony region, which became a distinguished commodity throughout the world.

Szalonna or Hungarian Bacon can be purchased at most Hungarian or Polish Delis or Butcher shops, and can probably be special ordered from any fine butcher. But no worries if you can find it, any thickly cut slap bacon will do.

Build an open flame and load up a skewer with slices of bacon.

Cook the bacon over the flame, periodically pulling it off and dripping the fat over slices of rye bread.
Then pile on sliced radishes, onions and cabbage

In the old days in Hungary, this would be a decadent peasant meal, the sandwich of cabbage, radishes and onions with bacon fat for flavor. The serfs would take the drippings from the land owners bacon to flavor their meals. In these more glutinous times, go ahead and add an actual slice of bacon or two.

Rye Bread

August 20th is also known as the “Festival of the New Bread” since it falls toward the end of the harvest, and bread is made on this day with the newly harvested grains. After WWII, the Communists jumped on the “New Bread” angle as a way to keep the masses happy by letting them continue to celebrate August 20th while forbidding religious holidays. In 1949 they ratified the Stalinist Constitution and changed the holiday to “Constitution Day”, but the new bread was still the centerpiece of the celebration. This recipe is from allrecipes.com

Of course to save yourself from a pre-party meltdown, you can also buy a good rye bread from your local bakery, and if you are lucky enough to have a Hungarian Bakery or Deli nearby, even better.
Ingredients:
2 (.25 ounce) packages active dry yeast
1/2 cup warm water (110 degrees F/45 degrees C)
1 1/2 cups lukewarm milk
2 tablespoons white sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup molasses
2 tablespoons butter
3 1/4 cups rye flour
2 1/2 cups bread flour

Steps:
Dissolve yeast in warm water.
In a large bowl combine milk, sugar, and salt. Use a mixer to beat in molasses, butter, yeast mixture, and 1 cup of rye flour.
Use a wooden spoon to mix in the remaining rye flour. Add white flour by stirring until the dough is stiff enough to knead.
Knead 5 to 10 minutes, adding flour as needed. If the dough sticks to your hands or the board add more flour.
Cover dough and let rise 1 to 1 1/2 hours or until double.
Punch down dough and divide to form two round loaves. Let loaves rise on a greased baking sheet until double, about 1 1/2 hours.
Preheat oven to 375 degrees F (190 degrees C). Bake for 30 to 35 minutes.

Cucumber Salad with Sour Cream (Tejfeles uborkasalata)

This is another June Meyer specialty. I think when you are serving a bacon/bacon fat sandwich, it is good to have something light and crunchy to go with it. Cucumbers are always a great summer staple. I got a huge box of them for $2 at the farm stand, so we quadrupled this recipe and ate it for days.

Ingredients:

4 cucumbers
1 small clove of garlic
1 teaspoon suger
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup of good vinegar (not red)
3/4 cup of real sour cream

Steps:
Peel cucumbers.

Put in mixing bowl.

Peel and chop clove of garlic.

Add Salt and sugar slices.

Mix in sour cream.

Add vinegar and toss well, (June Meyer suggests using your hands and I agree, because I broke a plastic serving spoon trying to toss this), till cucumbers slices and sour cream are all frothy and foamy.

Place in serving dish and sprinkle a little paprika on top for decoration, and serve well chilled.
This will stay good in refrigerator for a few days.

Serves 4.

Hungarian Sour Cream Potato Salad (Tejfeles Krumplisalata)

No backyard BBQ is complete without a good and hearty potato salad, and luckily no Hungarian Feast is either. This recipe comes from June Meyers Authentic Hungarian Recipes, who appears to be the American authority on Hungarian cooking.

Ingredients:

8 good sized red potatoes
1 small onion minced
2 ribs of celery, sliced thin
4 eggs hard boiled and peeled
1/4 cup of Pimento, diced
1 pint of sour cream
1/4 cup of good white vinegar
1 heaping Tbs. of sugar (do not omit)
1/2 tsp. salt
pepper

Steps:

Wash potatoes and cook in boiling water until tender. Do not over cook or salad will get mushy.

Drain potatoes, cool and peel.

Slice into small pieces and place in mixing bowl with minced onion, sliced celery, chopped eggs, and diced pimento.

Into bowl with these ingredients place the sour cream, vinegar, sugar and salt.
Mix all with two large spoons, or as grandma did with your hands.

Taste, if more salt is needed, add and add a few dashes of pepper.

Let the Potato Salad rest in the refrigerator for a few hours to blend flavors.

Put into a serving dish.

Sprinkle a little Paprika on top and sprinkle some chopped flat parsley on for beauty.

Serve cold.

Mummified Right Hand Dessert

It is a good idea to have a professional artist on hand when you embark on this part. I was lucky enough to have my sister, Maureen Cavanaugh handy when I started mixing the rice krispies, butter and marshmallows, with only a photo of the mummified hand and a loose plan of how to sculpt the treats to match. I can’t offer you too much advice on how to actually sculpt it, since I mainly offered words of encouragement and support while she shaped the mass with a spatula, two pairing knives and buttered hands. Then we adorned the finished product with the priceless jewels we picked up at a local church sale. After dinner we paraded the finished product through the party with a great deal of reverence.

Ingredients:
1/4 cup butter
1 (10 oz., about 40) pkg. regular marshmallows or 3 cups miniature marshmallows
6 cups Kellogg’s Rice Krispies cereal
(I doubled this recipe because we had a big group, but the hand ended up being very large. You could probably make a single batch for the hand, and a second batch just made into squares for eating)

Steps:
In a large saucepan, melt butter over low heat. Add the marshmallows and continue to stir until the marshmallows have completely melted. Remove from heat.
Stir in the Kellogg’s Rice Krispies cereal coating them well with the melted marshmallow mixture.
Cover your hands with butter to prevent sticking and sculpt the mass of marshmellow and rice krispies into a hand shape. (Best to have someone with some actual sculpting ability do this)
Cover the whole thing with store bought frosting. We used a combination of milk chocolate and white frosting, and some food coloring to get the perfect mummified coloring.