I met Paul Was on a dating site in 2008. We never really dated, apart from one lunch at Cabela’s — the huge one in Dundee, Michigan with a 10-foot-tall sculpture of bears fighting in front of it. We went Dutch (my own stupid idea) and made fun of all the Confederate flag belt buckles on sale.
Paul and I both cook. I send him recipes. A recipe for chicken paprikas from an email, circa 2010:
The basics are that you take a large roaster full of chicken (1-2 cut up chickens' worth — make sure there are thighs, even if you're a weirdo about only white meat or something), 2 large rough chopped onions, 6 T paprika, 6 t black pepper, 6 t salt and about 1 inch of water in the bottom of the roaster. You dump the spice mix all over the chicken and roast it for about 1-2 hours at 355 (check for doneness every 15 mins after hour one). You will have lots of broth from this chicken, this is for sauce. You mix flour and 2 8-oz sour creams together (need the amt of flour [it’s 6 T or so]). You want the sour cream at room temp. You let the chicken stand for a bit and let the broth cool a bit. You need to carefully temper the sour cream mix. If you dump it into the hot broth, it'll separate and you will be fucked.
The noodles require a spaetzle maker (it's like a funnel that slides on a metal board with holes in it). If you don't have one, buy 2 boxes of Maggi Spaetzle from a grocery store. It is pricey. $4 a box. You follow the directions for that, but when it's done and you've drained the noodles, add about 4 T butter to the hot noodles and stir til incorporated for quasi-homemade taste.
In 1994, I lived in Australia. I cooked from a copy of Fannie Flagg’s Whistle Stop Cafe Cookbook, trying to create a homey feeling but relying on ideas of home alien to my own life as I'm not from the South nor am I ever likely to make barbecue out of my lady friend's abusive ex-husband (as happens in the novel by Flagg, Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe, which inspired her cookbook). I liked the cookbook. I used its recipes to make chicken pot pie. I served this to my housemates, and they enjoyed it, though I felt like I'd overcooked the chicken and that the pastry fell well short of perfection. It had a greasy overtone, and I avoided the leftovers ‘til push came to shove and I had to scrape them into the trash.
I had basic spices in Sydney: garlic powder, salt, pepper. I searched the tiny local groceries — storefronts with fruit or chicken — and even the large American-style supermarket that required an hour's bus ride, but I never saw the Hungarian paprika I wanted. My family uses Szeged exclusively. It comes in a red metal can with the Hungarian flag on it. In Boston, I sometimes saw cheap store brands with labels declaring "Made in New Jersey." I avoided these like the plague. I asked my mother to mail me paprika, but she said they hadn't had any in months. She'd read in the newspaper that someone poisoned a huge amount of Hungary’s paprika, trying to enhance its color with red lead powder. Dozens became ill, many to the point of hospitalization, and the Hungarian government halted the sale of paprika ‘til they could make sure all of it was safe.
Hungary makes 40 different kinds of paprika, each unique. Paprika, made from dried red peppers, means everything to Hungarian chefs and home cooks alike. When the government halted paprika sales, people feared that Hungary would see a rise in suicides — not an unfounded fear given that the country led Europe in that sad statistic. Home cooks (who I imagine as a cross between my round-faced mother in her pantyhose and sensible short heels, and the only true Hungarian star: Zsa Zsa Gabor) had taken to using imported paprika from Spain. I thought of these women, their hair a uniform bottle-job platinum, making secret trips to out-of-the-way shops, heads covered in dark scarves and faces obscured by large, Zsa Zsa-style sunglasses. They would lower the glasses to make meaningful eye contact with a clerk. They'd strike a secret deal, sneak home and pour cheap Spanish spice into their old Szeged tin.
"Magda, I tell you, I knew this could come. I kept a secret supply. That's how I am, always ready," one would tell an envious neighbor. Hungarians have a reputation for sneakiness. We speak a language, Magyar, that has nothing in common with any other in Europe. I remember reading that this came in handy during the Iran hostage crisis: The diplomats trapped in the Tehran embassy, one of whom had been posted in Hungary, used Magyar when their captors allowed them to speak to Washington because they knew the lack of cognates wouldn’t give anything away. There's also the old joke about the meeting of communist bloc diplomats: The Soviet official in charge decided to gauge national character by placing a tack on all the chairs in the room. The Polish envoy sat on his, but hid his pain. The Czech leapt up, crying out in agony. The Hungarian saw the pin, quietly swept it off his seat, then jumped up screaming in fake pain.
We also stick to our own kind. My grandmother, Lois Snyir, lived in East Toledo, in a Hungarian neighborhood called Birmingham for the better part of 30 years and never made it past "foreigner" status with the neighbors. When she and my grandfather bought their first car, a wood-paneled station wagon purchased specifically for a trip to the opening of Disneyland in 1955, the neighbors whispered about the "rich bitch" Snyirs and their devious foreign ways. My grandfather, a concert violinist by training and just a single generation removed from cosmopolitan Budapest, ignored these trifling peasants. He took solace in his violin and standing as first chair and concertmaster in the Toledo Symphony. He'd have his blonde wife, a registered nurse and working woman, no less, and any car he damn well wanted.
When they took that car through Salt Lake City and my grandmother told him that non-Mormons couldn't enter the grand Mormon Temple, he reacted with characteristic fury: "Horseshit, Lois. This is America. I'm going in. Wait here." Grandpa left her manning the getaway car as he ran up the stairs to the temple. A few minutes later, he came right back out, jumped in the car and told her to floor it. They drove all the way to Reno that night and made it to Anaheim for the grand opening. My grandmother made my mother, 10 years old, golden hair in braids, sit on Eddie Cantor's lap for a picture. My mother could barely do this without crying because the singer's pockmarked face terrified her.
I stood in an orange phone booth on a street corner in Glebe, a tiny Sydney suburb close to my university. My mother said she couldn't spare any Szeged. She'd managed to buy one last tin just before they export ban and needed it to make paprikas for Christmas dinner.
"You know you'll want that, Becky," she said. I wanted that more than anything. At 21, I'd never traveled so far from home and had never felt more alone in my life. I weighed 400 pounds and struggled to fit in with the studyabroad crowd of tiny sorority girls and football players. My Australian coworkers liked me. Unlike other Americans, I understood sarcasm and actually came to work as scheduled and never once hung over. But this didn't translate into invitations.
I considered having dinner parties. Cooking for people tended to bind them to me. I filled a mother role, despite my youth and utter lack of worldliness. Food meant something important to me, though I resented the hold it had. I thought of food as home, as solace, as celebration, as culture. I thought of it as something I controlled and mastered, despite the obvious damage it did to my body and social prospects. I thought of it as a means to perfection and a means to an end.
My mother and grandmother made chicken paprikas for family occasions. I tend to think it was the only time my uncles ever got a decent meal, given that one aunt spent most of her life on a diet and the other couldn’t cook to save her life. She made deviled eggs without any mayo. I hate deviled eggs, but my sister Andrea tried one a million Easters ago. I remember that she had just hit a growth spurt, and her legs seemed very long and pale in cutoff jean shorts. She had long legs but a short torso and topped out at five feet. At 15, she hadn’t cut her hair in nearly eight years, and it fell past her hips. I called this “princess hair.” She lived up to the princess part by ordering her boyfriend to carry her up flights of stairs and make her bowls of cereal. “I don’t know how to make it,” she’d say.
Andrea tried that deviled egg, made a face and went to deliver one to our mother. Mom clawed at her tongue with a paper napkin. “God! Horrible. No mayonnaise, all mustard and yoke. Why the hell didn’t you warn me?” Andrea thought about this. “I needed to be sure,” she said.
The deviled eggs sat untouched the rest of the afternoon, congealing in a dull green plastic plate with little divots meant specifically to hold them. They looked perfectly edible, but word spread quickly from my mother to her other brother (not the offending cook’s husband, who we assume knew because he didn’t touch them either) to my father to my other aunt.
We ate chicken paprikas for dinner. My mother made the noodles from scratch, and I helped by pushing the dough-filled shuttle along a perforated steel board over a pot of boiling water. My mother, just 40 or so, still sold real estate on weekends. She wore her straight hair in a frosted flip, and her bangs fell against the tops of her glasses.
We ate with the relatives (two aunts, two uncles, a cousin, my grandmother) in the sunroom, an addition off the small kitchen. The sunroom had ceramic tile floors and cedar beams. A wall of windows, whose vast size and irregular shape made them “an expensive bitch” to replace (per dad), gave us views of a neighbor’s ugly house, dead tree stumps and my mother’s lavishly tended garden, which had looked better before the neighbors cut down their pines. I sat at the end of one of two tables we’d pushed together, an old harvest table and the round oak table my parents had found at a flea market and refinished. I couldn’t really sit next to anyone because I took up far too much space. I had no idea what I weighed because I didn’t weigh myself. I knew the shirt I wore came from a big man catalogue and was a size 10X.
Chicken paprikas, as made by any member of my maternal grandfather’s bloodline, is a combination of rich, spicy sauce made from sour cream and a roast chicken stock infused with paprika (Hungarian only, must be Szeged) and black pepper. The chicken falls apart at the touch of a fork. The spaetzle have a perfect tenderness and a slightly eggy flavor. They break lightly against the teeth and have a soft, round texture. Their flavor barely registers, though; they exist primarily as a mechanism for absorbing sauce.
I ate a plateful of the stuff. And another. And I wanted more, but I knew better than to risk it. Though I was 23, my parents remained firmly in charge of what I ate in their presence.
I make chicken paprikas solo for the first time a few months later. It’s spring. I live in a garden (i.e. basement) apartment in Lansing. I call it the formicary because nothing I do — no amount of cleaning or hiding any trace of food or raising the cat’s bowl off the floor — will get rid of the ants. Julie tells me they’re faro ants, tiny, red, bitey things. I hate them.
Julie studies insect biology at Western Michigan. She’s bringing Michelle, a student at U of M, to dinner on her way back to Kalamazoo. Michelle has food issues that come from childhood poverty (despises leftovers), and Julie cooks a lot of strange, semi-vegetarian food because her husband has a lot of allergies. They’re both spending the night because I have a ton of sofa space, and I’ll take Michelle back to Ann Arbor in the morning. I know them from quizbowl. We play on different teams, but there are so few women that it creates a bond. A few minutes before their scheduled arrival, a shelf breaks and dumps all my hand-me-down Pfaltzgraff plates on the floor. Most of them break, and while I feel some relief at having a polite reason to replace them (they’d been my mother’s), I wonder what we’ll eat off. I find some paper plates in a drawer and make do.
The chicken and sauce turn out well. My mother’s recipe is easy to follow. Roasting chicken and mixing flour, sour cream and broth aren’t especially demanding culinary tasks. Obsessive perfectionist that I am about these things, I try to make the spaetzle from scratch, though I don’t own a spaetzle maker. I make the noodles by combining eggs and flour into a sticky dough. My mother told me I could apply thin layers of dough to a plate and scrape it into boiling water with a sharp knife. This yields tough spaetzle, but my friends rave about it. They don’t know any better. They’re not Hungarian or obsessed with cooking and eating and the perfection of noodles as the vehicle for homemade sauce.
I don’t make paprikas again for years. When I finally attempt it, I’ve lost something like 300 pounds. I’ve moved into an apartment in Toledo’s Old West End, a neighborhood best described as “ghetto adjacent.” It teems with smoky hipsters who write terrible poetry and date young, emaciated women while telling people about their feminist, anarchist ideals. They ride past my building in packs, their bicycles adorned with bumper stickers that make me want to pick them off with a high performance rifle. I see a “Jobs Suck” sticker as a herd of them eddies past the stoop. They ride to the Ottawa Tavern. They smoke outside the bar, huddled together against the cold like penguins in a nature documentary and ride their stupid bikes even though it’s -6 degrees and icy.
I make dinner for Becca, my poet friend, who cannot be a hipster because she’s over 40. She also has talent, and I think that’s an automatic disqualifier. Becca struggles to make sense of the world. She firmly believes that anyone with any sort of authority sought it so that they could abuse people. I try to work with this idea, and I know her experiences with people tend to reinforce it. It makes life hard for her, but there’s not much I can do to help. I do not try to offer Becca advice. She says that Codependent Anonymous meetings taught her that all advice was essentially controlling and abusive.
I fed Becca the first night we really hung out together. We’d read at the same coffee house meet up for a few months, and I saw her at a Bukowski memorial reading. “I thought I might meet men here,” I said, my lack of awareness of Bukowski’s skidrow cachet showing. “What about him?” I pointed to an attractive man close to my age across the bar. “Alcoholic,” Becca replied. She sadly informed me that my next potential candidate was “alcoholic and schizophrenic, but okay when medicated.”
I asked her to go to lesbian bar karaoke at Gilda’s, and we ended up at my house later. I lived in a huge house in the Old West End then, my first independent residence after eight years of living with my mother. I’d gotten a book advance for writing a memoir about losing weight and moved out. Becca knelt in the kitchen as soon as we opened the door, stooping to pet my cats. I had a pot of matzo ball soup in the fridge, and I put some on the stove for her. She ate three bowls and told me that she hadn’t had much food lately. She’d lost her food stamps and feared the interview she’d have to have to get them back. “Those bitches at the welfare department are just hopped up trailer trash, always looking to judge and condemn. I can’t stand talking to them,” she told me.
When I make her chicken paprikas, in my second Old West End apartment (my landlord at the first house sold it out from under me, forcing a move after just six months), I make a small amount of the dish, this time using the spaetzle tool I bought on eBay, and we eat in the manner of single women over 30: on the couch with the television on. There are, of course, cats abiding in the living room, keeping a watch for scraps. We leave none. Becca goes so far as to lick her plate, and I interpret this as sincere flattery.
This particular chicken paprikas attempt pleases me deeply. The noodles had exactly the right texture. The sauce has a perfect balance of richness and astringency, and the chicken practically dissolves on my tongue.
I want to make Becca’s life better. I want her to have health insurance and enough food every day, to get all her bad teeth fixed so she doesn’t die of infection. I want to control her outcome, but the best I can do is to roast a chicken and stir up a sauce. I know this isn’t enough, but I feel like it matters.
A few years later, I make a huge batch of paprikas in Wyoming, in an apartment I call “the country bunker” because it has hardwood ceilings. The floors have ugly, semi-neutral carpet. My neighbors are weird — so strange that I’ve taken to calling the tiny apartment court “McPoyle Village” after the characters from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia who drink warm milk, wear bathrobes and briefs, and express physical love primarily to members of their own family. I’d been calling the court that for a few months when I saw a neighbor milling around in a bathrobe, bare-chested despite the 40-degree weather. He watched his toddler ride a plastic tricycle in the parking lot in front of his family’s one-bedroom apartment and waved a casual hello as I climbed into my car to drive to work.
My friend Kelly comes for dinner. She makes noises I describe as “Adrian-like” while eating her plate of noodles, sauce and roasted dark meat. Whenever I cook for our friend Adrian, she falls into such a state of ecstasy that I wonder if I’m really that good or if other home cooks are really that bad. Kelly, generally more reserved, loses herself to the feast. I wonder if Hungary never conquered anything because we had it too good at home or just couldn’t fathom leaving the kitchen without anyone to watch the pot.
I love my Laramie friends, though I feel strange and old here. The next youngest person in my graduate program is 10 years younger than I. I’ve always liked to cook for people and always wanted to have them over to my various places. I feel like I sometimes rely on cooking and hospitality to create a social role for myself. I’m not that weird middle-aged woman, but the nice friend who makes dinner. I struggle to keep my apartment in order. I sometimes feel overwhelmed by work and alone in a strange, cold, (literally) rocky place. Cooking undoes some of the anxiety. I find myself making chicken pot pie for Adrian or Chinese dumplings for Kelly. I show movies and make popcorn. I bake apple pie from scratch.
After Kelly and I enjoy paprikas, I post a note about the meal on Facebook. I don’t photograph it. I’ve made my share of food porn, but sometimes I’d rather just eat what I’ve cooked and not bother with memorializing. No matter how brilliant a dish, its destiny is fixed. I don’t know why food has such a firm grip on me when it’s so utterly banal, mundane and sadly biological in its final iteration.
Someone on Facebook asks for the recipe. I forward them my old e-mail to Paul. I have to edit part of the note because I'd included some complaints and called my ex’s sister a filthy name. I delete all references to the sister and the ex, but I leave the part about tempering the sauce or being fucked because no one wants to eat paprikas with broken sauce.
Rebecca Golden lives in Laramie, Wyoming, where she teaches composition and is finishing an MFA in creative nonfiction. Her first book, Butterbabe, was published by Random House UK in 2009. She’s currently working on a memoir about Detroit, romance, pheasants, the Heidelberg Project and billboards for personal injury lawyers.
(Image credits: All photos by author)
This longform article about cooking is brought to you by Nine Rabbits, the bestselling novel by Virginia Zaharieva now available from Black Balloon Publishing.
About the Book:
A restless writer's fiery enthusiasm for her family's culinary traditions defines her from childhood to passionate adulthood as she strives for a life less ordinary. Lush gardens, nostalgic meals and sensual memories here are as charming as the narrator herself.
About the Author:
Virginia Zaharieva was born in Sofia, Bulgaria in 1959. She is a writer, psychotherapist, feminist and mother. Her novel Nine Rabbits is among the most celebrated Bulgarian books to appear over the past two decades and the first of Zaharieva's work available in English.