A Makeshift Magyar Festival

Since my family sailed over to New York, they have occupied the shrinking radius of the upper east side that is considered the Hungarian part of town. The only NY historian website that I could find that even talks about the Hungarian community of New York City’s existence, mentions it in passing.

“Museum Mile is Fifth Avenue running along the eastern edge of Central Park, posing the greatest concentration of world-class museums on the planet. Further east is German Yorkville, little Bohemia (Czechs) and remnants of the earlier Hungarian community.”

Remnants!? ouch.

When I was younger, there were a few genuine Hungarian restaurants and butcher shops within a few blocks of my grandmothers apartment. They were owned by full blooded old eastern European women who didn’t care to speak English. Much like trying to catch a cab in this city nowadays, if you didn’t speak their language you didn’t get a proper service. These small reminders of a European run city (and my childhood) are almost all gone. My familys favorite place to sit down and eat Paprikás and nokedli, have been replaced with sushi restaurants and collage bars with wacky names like Wasabi Lobby and The Booze Brothers.

In front of St. Stephen before sexual harassing priests were an open issue and my Burning Man sun dress was still fucking awesome.

Growing up in a Hungarian Roman Catholic family, the St. Stephen of Hungary Parish has been a constant in my life.

  • Its where I attended mass and gained the catholic guilt that plauges my every decision.
  • Its where my mother went to school and later got married.
  • Almost every memorable new years eve of my youth was spent in the basement of the church.

St. Stephens basement is occupied by a gymnasium and a huge open kitchen. On new years eve hundreds of bohemian blooded, foreign speaking, self made Americans dress up and spend the first night of the new year ripping up the dance floor to a man playing his accordion on stage while a group of old Hungarian women in the kitchen make enough stuffed cabbage to feed an army. They have raffles where you can win anything from Judy dolls to fine china.

New Years at St. Stephens meant  my grandma would put my hair in curlers and teach me simple Hungarian phrases that would impress the women in the kitchen. I got to waltz with her and hear about when she played accordion on a traveling train, during the war. I would run around the basement with kids my age who spoke very little english but could scream at an equally annoyingly tone as I could.

I got to wear my mothers old embroidered shirts that are a staple among Hungarian women.

I even wore one of these Hungarian shirts into several other fashion phases of my life.

As far as I know, they still have their new years party, but as the old drunken gypsies that dominated it begin to pass away, its much more formal than it was in my youth. A sad part of no longer spending my New Years there, is that I miss out on all of the delicious, authentic Hungarian foods that those women would make.

Since they’re so good at what they do, Hungarians will come from walk-ups short and tall, to get some of whatever they decide to cook up. So, when they cook, they don’t fuck around. They prepare for WEEKS ahead of time. Pre-making hundreds of balls of dough for the fánk. Chopping cabbage until there is no visable counter space left in their industrial sized kitchen, in order to make Töltött Káposzta (pronounced as ‘tear-o cop-ist-sta’), which is Hungarian stuffed cabbage.

Fresh batch of Hungarian fánk

Since Hungary is so close to more historically populated places like Poland, the foods, music, and art of my homeland seem to get overlooked pretty often. There is no Hungarian equivalent to saaay Oktoberfest. So the one day long, once a year street fair that takes up half of the block in front of St. Stephens church is a pretty important day for my grandmother, my great aunt, and I.

yeah, thats right, I’m talkin’ about you guys.

It usualy takes place on the last Saturday of September. Its a day of good food made by the same remaining ladies who used to cook those Hungarian meals from mine and even from my mothers childhood. Instead of selling gyros, handcrafted jewelry, and other standard things you find at a street fair, St. Stephens street fair uses this term to describe what is essentially a block party/ garage sale.

they take all of the donations that the collect through out the year, and try to sell them for next to nothing, in the church’s parking lot.

Donations typically include bizarre knickknacks

Old comics

Cheap jewlery

funny wands. Literally.

classical records

and a decent collection of toasters.

On the street part of the street fair is where the said food is sold through purchase of colored tickets.

Palacsinta (which is essentially a crepe but slightly thicker) and makowiec beigli (a yeast bread roll filled with sweetened poppy seeds)

one full and happy grandmother!

Magi has been cooking my favorite Hungarian dishes for as long as I’ve been alive. She never remembers me, anymore.

The street fair is also a perfect place for anyone who attends the church to sell their goods. This year, I tried haggling a 12 year old for a collection of Bleach Manga he was trying to sell for 50 bucks.

I ended up saving my money for tattoos.

My grandma making fun her sisters poor posture. Guess who doesn’t find this funny…
As usual, I had a great time being outside with my family. Listening to them converse in a mix of English and Hungarian with others from the neighborhood who tend to do the same. I went home and was able to stock my freezer with enough eastern European foods to last me through out the winter. I also went home with the AWESOME new shirt that my grandmother bought me! I am one proud Magyar.


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16 Responses to “A Makeshift Magyar Festival”

  1. dietplaid Says:

    Great post 🙂 It’s good to hang onto our cultures. I’m such a mutt, but it’s important for me to remember where my family came from, be it Spain, Poland, Belgium, or Scotland.

  2. TC Says:

    Oh, I wish I had known, I would have ridden South for this. East-European food is something I want to eat more often. I’ll have to make do with the Bosnian market here, and that’s not a bad thing.

  3. Casca Says:

    My nine year old daughter would love the sun dress — if I could only find one. Gotta head to the store for some kuchen, because suddenly I’m really hungry.

  4. ian Says:

    probably the most engaging entry of yours i’ve read.

    i miss the smell of pipe tobacco in my church’s basement, the old timers playing dart ball, the smell of sauerkraut and sausage that would fill the school all day long (which meant that an old pole died and there was a funeral that day)…i miss having to finish off the communion wine for the priest since he was a dried out old scot…

  5. Zofia Says:

    Best entry! Thanks.

  6. Frank Says:

    Chloe, this is great. They say, write what you know, and the truth of that little cliche really shines through with this post. You really should consider doing something like this for publication. I think a lot of people, beyond your blog audience, would be interested in reading about this festival and this fading part of New York. Really good stuff.

  7. monkeyKing Says:

    You made me all weepy eyed and nostalgic for the Polish community I grew up in. Miss those times. (And now have strong urge to find some good chrushchkis.) Thank you for a most excellent post.
    (Cool t-shirt!)

  8. Katie Says:

    My piano teacher of 10 years is a crazy (owns 17 cats crazy) old Hungarian woman who fled the country sometime during the revolution in the 50s. Try as I might to pry, she pretty much refuses to talk about Hungary with me.

  9. Ivy Says:

    This is the most wonderfully evocative post that I have read from you. I’m pretty much divided over the whole “blood is thicker than water” thing but I think heritage should be celebrated and embraced. It informs our choices as well as being an irrevocable part of what we are. My Maltese/Welsh/smidgeon of Jewish/whole lotta English heritage straightens my spine at the best and worst of times. Thanks for sharing yours.

  10. Scott Says:

    Great Post! I really enjoyed it!!

  11. Frank Says:

    Not to Bogart you’re post but I recently wrote something that dealt with similar memories of food, family and the past… if’in ya’ll are interested.


  12. Laura O! Says:

    I admit to hating this city at times, but it never ceases to amaze me how much cultural diversity there really is here. It’s sad to think all those distinct neighborhoods are losing ground to yuppies and stroller gangs.

    I think it’s awesome that you are so close to your grandma and genuinely enjoy spending time with her. She seems like a lovely lady. I wish I had that. And, as always, your pictures are amazing.

  13. thegingersguidetolife Says:

    Sometimes your posts are the highlight of my day. Your photos are always relevant and beautiful and your posts are always a pleasure to read! Thanks for sharing your history. I loved hearing your story!

  14. onlyeri Says:

    I need that coffee cup that you took a photo of. It’s amazing.

  15. Trentin C Bergeron Says:

    Very fun to read and informative post! It also made me hungry (pun intended). 😀

  16. Tom Says:

    All the old cultures seem like they’re dying out, and the homogenization that results from older generations leaving us is profoundly discomforting. Who will keep the old traditions alive? Your words and photos fill me with such ad(mi/o)ration. Thank you.

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