{294.} Meat Dishes

Meat dishes play an important role in the life of the Hungarian people, but not to the same extent in each social layer. The proportion of meat dishes was much greater in the diet of herdsmen than in that of share harvesters, seasonal workers, and day labourers. The prosperous peasants consumed much more meat through the year than the poor ones, who usually reserved meat for the times of great work or for holidays. In the Great Plain, they ate meat without any garnishing, the use of pickled vegetables being much less frequent here than, for example, in Transylvania.

Although the produce of hunting counted for relatively little among various kinds of meats, the way of preparing game preserved many ancient features. Thus, to bake a bird, it is covered, the feathers still on, with a thick layer of mud, and thrust into the embers. The feathers are peeled off along with the hardened mud, under which the meat has browned.

The ways of preparing fish are extremely varied. Fish is baked on a spit, roasted over an open fire, or fried in a frying pan. However, the most general method in the southern part of the linguistic territory is still the fish soup. Its popularity practically marks the road by which paprika spread. Fish is cooked with paprika in the southern regions, while it is seasoned with onion further north. Fish soup and other peasant methods of preparing fish permeated generally into the kitchens of the city and of restaurants.

Poultry provides the permanent and most easily available meat supply of peasant households. Amongst poultry, chicken takes the first place (hen, cock). In preparing chicken, boiling methods dominated: henmeat soup and boiled meat are both general and festive meals. Poultry, cooked in paprika and water, is a popular but not an old element of the peasant kitchen, while even more recent is baked and stuffed hen. Although duck and geese are common throughout the entire linguistic territory, their role in traditional festive eating is smaller than that of the chicken. The poor kept geese and duck mainly for their feathers, with which they stuffed pillows. Poor people ate duck and geese less frequently than the rich, and sold most of them at a market. Fattening geese and ducks with maize became general from the beginning of the last century, since which time fattened duck and goose have gained ground strongly in city and upper class diet.

During the times that followed the Conquest and through the entire Middle Ages, horse meat was eaten everywhere, but its significance decreased later on, so much so that in the last century its consumption was limited mostly to herdsmen. We know about some parts of the Great Plain (e.g. Jászság) where the poorer folk fattened donkeys for lard.

On certain parts of the linguistic territory, mutton played a very important role both in everyday and in festive eating. Mush with mutton used to occur in the menu of the Great Plain herdsmen and also among the food of villagers. Later it diminished as everyday food, while at the same time it became something of a ceremonial dish, especially at meals concluding major work projects (harvest, vintage). The meat of Hungarian sheep is much tastier than that of the merino sheep, so that as long as {295.} it was possible the former was used to make meat dishes, cooked with paprika and onions in its own juice.

Beef, no matter how numerous the cattle stock, never played a definitive role in the diet of the Hungarian peasant. Special ways of preparing it did not develop, and it occurred relatively rarely in festive dishes. Boiled meat cooked for soup was eaten as a separate entrée. In the central part of the linguistic region they made goulash meat and soup out of beef. In the former case they put the meat, cut into small pieces, on onion browned in lard and let it cook in its own juice, then seasoned it with paprika. In the case of gulyás soup (gulyásleves), they added water, more recently potatoes, to the meat, and sometimes cooked some dumplings with it. Both types of food became universal, not only in the Hungarian kitchen, but on the menus of restaurants all over the world under the name of gulyás. Nevertheless, pork stood very much in the centre of the peasant diet. It provided the most important basic material, lard, which is still a major element of Hungarian cooking. Bacon, which was eaten and still is eaten both raw, steamed, and smoked, used to be counted as the most important food of the people. Only recently has its use slowly begun to decline. Pork, preserved by smoking or by other methods, provided the backbone of the meals served during the major agricultural work projects. That is why even the poorer social layers of the peasantry tried to kill at least one pig and why the more prosperous ones processed several fattened pigs.

The disznótor (pig-killing feast) is one of the biggest events of peasant households and comes before Christmas or in January. The completion of the fattening is timed so as to preserve part of the meat for a longer period by freezing.

Most gazdas kill the pig and do its primary processing themselves, but there are several skilled men (hentes, butcher; böllér, slaughterer) in every village, whom they gladly invite and generally pay in kind. The pig is killed early in the morning. This is followed by the perzselés (scorching), that is, burning of the hair with straw. Recently, but mostly only in the west, the practice of scalding with hot water has begun to spread, although in most places they are convinced that the bacon is much tastier after scorching. The scorched pig is thickly covered with mud, which is shaved off with a knife in order to remove the remaining hair.

After this begins the carving of the animal, which is turned on its back. Carving begins with the four hams. Then the innards are removed, and the women join the work. They clean out and thoroughly wash the intestines and the stomach. After that the men carve out the spine with the meat attached to it (spareribs), which is made into the most popular kind of soup. The various pieces of meat are gathered, chopped up, seasoned with onion, pepper, and paprika, and stuffed into the small intestines thus making sausage, which can be kept right through the summer after it is smoked. Various, and regionally different blood and liver sausages are made from liver, blood, and lungs, with the addition of mush, more recently of rice, and with suitable seasoning. These keep in the cold for several weeks. They also mix bits of meat, skin, and tongue and fill the stomach with this mass. It is eaten smoked.

Pig-killing is also an occasion for a social gathering, because relatives {296.} and neighbours come over on the first day and generally get sparerib soup, cabbage with meat (toros káposzta), or less frequently fresh sausage and blood sausage, and spend the time drinking wine and talking. The next day the bacon is rendered for lard and the meat and bacon are salted in preparation for smoking. The housewife prepares samples to be given to relatives and neighbours, who reciprocate with similar food gifts.