Monday, December 3, 2012

A Tale of Something Lost and Something Gained

by Julia Buckley

Recently the only Hungarian restaurant near my house closed. This was a tragic blow for my whole family, since we love Hungarian food. In honor of The Epicurean, the late Magyar eatery, I am posting an essay I wrote about it back in 2009. (The deer pictured is not either of the deer mentioned in the story. The doe above was one we met while on vacation in 2011).

On the day of my birthday, December 31st, I drove out into a light snowfall to meet some of my family at The Epicurean, one of the few Hungarian restaurants in the Chicago suburbs.  My father, a full-blooded Hungarian, longs for the food of his homeland, and so makes the hour-long drive to this restaurant at least once a year.  Today, he was treating me to a birthday lunch.

We settled at the table: my mother and father and I in a 45-year reunion of my birth, and my sister Claudia, who is staying with my parents while she’s in town from Virginia.

The first thing we noticed was that this lovely restaurant, beautifully decorated with all sorts of Magyar touches, was very cold.  My father told this to our waiter, Luis, who greeted us with a tentative air that lasted throughout our visit.  Luis assured us he would turn up the heat.  Then he asked if we wanted any drinks to start with.  My father plunged right in.

            “I’ll have a scotch on the rocks.”

            Luis looked apologetic.  “I’m sorry, we don’t serve scotch.”

            My father’s face fell.  I don’t know if it’s a Hungarian tradition (his own father always drank highballs at family events) or just a personal preference, but my father loves his scotch on special occasions.  “Wine, then.”

            Luis looked uncomfortable.  “We don’t serve any alcohol.”

            From this, I don’t think my father ever quite recovered.  “No?  You did the last time we were here.”

            “We haven’t for a year or so.”

            So he took our soft drink orders and went on his way; we sat in the large room, cold as a barn, and tried to change the subject away from the lost J & B. 

            My parents showed me pictures of a deer they’d found in their yard that morning.  It had an injured leg, and it sat convalescing under my parents’ backyard birdfeeder.  “Did you call animal control?” I asked.

            “Yes.  They said they don’t do anything for deer.”

            You may recall my story of the dying cat in my parents’ back yard this past summer.  I couldn’t understand, first, how these animals seemed to seek out my parents, and secondly, how there seems to be no help in the world for sick wildlife.

            The doe, my mother told me, had eventually stood up and limped away, and they lost track of her.  They didn’t think she’d been hit by a car, because only one leg was affected and there was no visible blood.  I wondered, odd as it sounded, if she could have slipped on the ice and sprained a muscle.  Her thin leg was visibly swollen.

            Troubled by this, I took my plate to the buffet table.  There is no Hungarian food that is not delicious to me, from chicken paprikas to beef gulyas (goulash) to palascinta, which are little sugared crepes.  Chicken soup with delicate hand-made noodles, crisp pierogi filled with meat and potatoes, sliced cucumbers mixed with spices, szekely gulyas (a delicious blend of sauerkraut, tender pork, sour cream, and true Hungarian paprika), and dumplings, wonderful dumplings—made lunch a delight.

And for dessert there was a six-tiered Dobos Torte with chocolate rum filling and a jelly-covered cookie on top.

It never got warmer in the restaurant (we feared these were signs of imminent closure), but the lunch was as delicious as ever.  My mother, who in forty-five years has never missed acknowledging my birthday with wrapped gifts, gave me a lovely Guatamalan bag, in which I can carry the ubiquitous papers that need grading.

Altogether it was a lovely experience; but I kept thinking about that deer long after we parted.  How sad that a wild animal has no one to care for it when it is wounded.

That evening my sons and I picked up my husband from work and I begged him to let me drive around a bit and look at Christmas lights as a birthday treat—before everyone took them all down.  Despite his hunger for dinner, he agreed, and the four of us drove to what I think of as “the rich side of town” to see the truly lavish displays.  We drove down a suburban street with homes that seemed to have been transplanted from East Egg and marveled at their light displays. 

It was snowing again--a soft and lovely accentuation of the holiday visuals.  Suddenly a deer was there, bursting out of someone’s yard.  On the rare occasions that I see deer in the suburbs, they are always does, but this one was a buck—an eight or ten point buck who trotted right next to our car like a guide into the New Year.  I was speechless with delight. 

I braked finally, and he cut right in front of us, a beautiful silhouette in the soft snow, then stood to the left of the car, seemingly curious.  I rolled down my window and greeted him.  He didn’t seem at all frightened by us; perhaps deer only fear hunters because they can smell the scent of aggression.  We were simply in awe.  “Hello,” I said.  “Thanks for being a good omen.”

He stared back with his wide unblinking eyes.  We drove away, and only later did I realize that I had my camera in my purse, and that I could have captured a once-in-a-lifetime shot. 

Still, I have the memory of his beauty, and the good feeling that he brought to the end of the year. 


Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Julia, my Hungarian-born mother (Jewish, not Magyar) never served a meal for company without a dish of those sliced cucumbers in vinegar with paprika. I confess I never ate them.

Julia Buckley said...

They're an acquired taste; they're good as a side dish. ;)