(by Julie Salamon)
My alarm clock while growing up was the smell of onions frying and the sound of my
parents’ voices, talking to one another in Hungarian over breakfast. For them, that meal
usually was a soft-boiled egg with rye bread topped with slices of green pepper and
tomato. For my sister and me, breakfast was Kellogg’s cereal and milk. As for the
onions, they were for later.
This isn’t a story about selfish parents depriving their kids of a healthy breakfast. My
parents were immigrants; my sister and I were home-grown Americans. We were all
eating the food that felt like the right way to start the day.
But supper was family time and sacrosanct. And the food we ate was delicious and
strange, nothing like what our friends had for dinner in the small Appalachian town
where I grew up. We ate meals whose roots were in the Carpathian mountains, in a
country (Czechoslovakia) that no longer exists; the part of the country where my parents
grew up is now Ukraine.
My dad was the town doctor, a general practitioner who landed in rural southern Ohio
because of a mutual need. My parents were Holocaust survivors looking for a place to
call home—and to earn a living. The town needed a doctor.
My mother Lilly —97 and still going strong—always said that she didn’t work after she
had children, but in fact she ran my dad’s office and our family farm, schlepped and
cooked for us and our numerous pets (a dog, a chicken, rabbits, guinea pigs). We ate in
our small kitchen except for holidays or company. The dining room, adjacent to my
father’s medical office, was always covered with papers; it was the place my mom
Regarding the onions: She fried them in the morning so they would be ready hours
later, when it was time to make dinner, squeezed in before my dad’s evening office
hours. It was a rural area, so farmers needed to go to the doctor in the evening, after
the workday was over. Our country surroundings may have looked placid, but my
mother was a whirlwind, a five-foot one-inch Type A personality, managing multiple
agendas. She wasn’t warm and cozy, but she was exciting and a lot of fun (except when
we tripped off her impressive Hungarian temper)—sometimes maddening, always
intimidating, occasionally embarrassing, like when she tried to bribe a policeman
from giving her a parking ticket by offering him the homegrown tomatoes she happened
to have in the trunk of her car.
Her years of deprivation have left a mark on her relationship to food. Even now, twice
widowed, living alone in St. Petersburg, Florida, where she has lived for many years, she
keeps her refrigerator near overflowing, with eclectic purchases unified by one factor:
They were all on sale at Publix. When her grandchildren recently refused to eat a
container of yogurt whose sell-by date expired more than a year earlier, she defiantly scraped off the green slime that had grown on top, then plunged in her spoon and ate the entire thing.
We grew up on Czech dishes, Hungarian peasant food, and Eastern European Jewish
specialties, reflecting the cultural hodgepodge my parents came from. They weren’t
always logical choices when served during hot southern Ohio summers, but always
delicious and almost always involving onions. There was chicken paprikash and stuffed
cabbage rolls; borscht and lecsó (similar to Middle Eastern shakshuka); and extraordinary baked goods, like my mom’s nut and poppy rolls (made with exquisite yeast dough); her palacinta (Hungarian crepes); and her special cheesecake (light and fluffy, not the dense American variety).
She concocted her own recipes and her own rules: Everything was always better the
next day, she explained when we had leftovers. The best part is the burnt stuff at the
bottom of the pan, she’d say, when she left things on the stove and got distracted with
Today she would be called a brave, experimental cook, but mainly she was expedient,
working with ingredients she had, drawing on memory and imagination to recreate
dishes she remembered from her childhood, making up what she forgot. She’d lost so
much at a young age—her parents, a brother, her home, her country. But she kept
some part of that lost world alive in the food she cooked.
Julie Salamon is a journalist and author, formerly of The Wall Street Journal and The
New York Times. Her latest book, An Innocent Bystander, was published last year by
Little, Brown and came out in paperback in April. She can be found at www.juliesalamon.com.
2 T. olive oil
1 medium onion, sliced thinly
1 lb. peppers (Hungarian wax, banana, Italian or bell peppers), cut into 1/4-in. strips
3 large very ripe tomatoes, peeled and chopped, or large can diced tomatoes, drained
1 1/2 t. sugar
1 1/2 t. salt
1 T. sweet Hungarian paprika
4 eggs, beaten
optional: 1 cooked sausage, sliced
Heat olive oil and sauté onions for 5 minutes, or until translucent.
Add peppers and sauté 10 - 15 minutes.
Add tomatoes and other ingredients.
Cook 20 - 25 minutes over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until thick and chunky.
Towards the end of cooking time, add eggs and mix in.
Add optional sausage.
Cook until eggs are softly scrambled.
Delicious with toast or potatoes or rice.
Lillly’s Hungarian Nut/Poppy Rolls
(Choose nut or poppy filling.)
For dough (enough for two rolls, about a foot long each):
1 package dry yeast
1/2 c. warm milk
1/4 c. sugar
3/4 c. butter
1/2 t. salt
1 t. lemon zest
2 c. flour
1/2 lb. finely chopped walnuts
1/2 c. sugar
1/2 c. white raisins
zest of 1 lemon
1/4 c. jam (or more if you like it jammy)
1/2 lb. finely ground poppy seeds
1/2 c. honey
1/2 c. white raisins
1 t. lemon zest
1 T. melted butter
1/2 c. warmed milk
1 egg, beaten, for brushing on dough
Dissolve yeast in warm milk.
Stir in 1 t. sugar, and let stand 5 - 10 minutes until foamy.
Mix remaining ingredients in food processor.
Let the mixture rest a few minutes, then add yeast and process.
Scoop the dough into a big ball and wrap in plastic.
Refrigerate several hours or overnight.
For poppy filling:
Combine everything except milk, and then soak mixture in hot milk for several minutes.
Preheat oven to 350 F.
Divide dough in half, and roll each piece out to 12 x 16 inches on floured board or counter.
If using nut filling, spread layer of jam over dough, and then sprinkle on remaining ingredients.
If using poppy filling, spread over dough.
Roll up each piece of filled dough, beginning at the longer side, into a roll about 3 inches wide.
Brush top of rolls with beaten egg.
Bake on greased cookie sheet for 30 - 45 minutes, until top is nicely browned.