Tracing cultural identities through food and cooking allows me not only to travel without ever leaving my house, but to also add historical markers to my research. As humanity spread around the world and the powerful of the moment absorbed the less so into their fold, one element stayed constant: the need for nourishment. The empires of the Byzantine, Greek, Ottomans, Romans, Huns and Persians served as early globalizers. Their movements across the continents of Asia, Europe and Africa spread religious and cultural practices while absorbing local customs. Food was at the center of the movement as the masses both conquerers and conquered had to eat. “An Army marches on its stomach” Napoleon Bonaparte was quoted as saying.
Crops, fruits and vegetables, spices and animals thus traveled along the routes of conquest as did methods of preparation. Availability usually determined what was consumed and often scarcity led to inovation. In the span of a few hundred years, certain identities emerged which became associated with geographic location and suitable climate.
In more recent times, the constant competition for resources led to the emergence of new empires as the Spanish, Portuguese and British turned to the seas as a means of travel. Conquering new and far away lands led to an updated chapter in globalization which made goods more widely available. Previously unknown fruits and vegetables such as tomatoes, corn and potatoes found their way into the European diet while at the same time, settlers brought their favorites with them.
A much smaller power yet very influential in my life was the house of Hapsburg who created a Constitutional Monarchy encompassing Transylvania and ruled from 1867-1918 as the Austro-Hungarian Dual Monarchy. It was that rich culture that my great grandparents were born into and to whom I owe my love for the arts. Although the borders shifted many times before I was even born, traditions survived and everything worth preserving was passed down through the family.
Sadly, the horrors of WW II were too disruptive as the Nazis also plundered Transylvania leaving it unrecognizable, killing many of my ancestors. As survivors spread out across the world, they carried memories that were too horrific to verbalize. Many plowed their efforts into creating new lives and new identities, into building a new world hoping to escape persecution, dreaming of a better future for their children. My father, a Holocaust Survivor, brought his family to Texas and along with it the traditions he inherited. His favorite way of communicating was through food, always looking for delectable treats to prepare and share with us. It was his way of feeding the void left in his life. I am who I am because of the interest he instilled in us for the arts including the art of cooking.
Cabbage Noodles (Hungarian Peasant Food and my favorite as a child)
Chop one large head of cabbage as finely as you can and sauté in about 2 tbsp. of sunflower oil till lightly golden, stirring often. Add 4 tbsp. of tomato paste. Season with salt and pepper and a good tbsp. of caraway seeds.
Cook a pound of your favorite noodles in boiling salted water. Drain and toss with cabbage. Taste and adjust seasoning.
*For a protein boost, add a cup of cooked beans.