Reimagining American Community

The late Chef Louis Szathmary of Chicago: what a Hungarian chef should look like.

I had a wonderful reunion lunch last weekend with my friend Fr. Jim, a rather well-travelled Jesuit whom I met many years ago on a camping tour of the U.S.S.R. (He was our Russian translator, in fact.)

As a PhD in political science (specialty: Eastern European politics), Fr. Jim has spent longish periods in not only Russia but Poland, Hungary, Ukraine, etc. Himself a South Side Chicago Irishman by birth, he is also a splendid storyteller.

In these times of uprootedness and loss of one’s beloved places, one of his anecdotes struck me as poignant, practically Chekhovian.

We were discussing “ethnic food”, leading Jim to lament that a number of his favorite Chicago spots had spoiled their menus in recent years by dropping the most interesting and authentic dishes in favor of more homogenized fare. This topic reminded him of a story.

Long ago, back in his grad student days in Princeton, he told me of a wonderful Hungarian place in Trenton called (perhaps inevitably) Transylvania House, now closed.

“We discovered it one Saturday about dinner time. Our party of four entered the place and found it empty. The mustachioed owner eventually appeared and in a thick accent asked, ‘Have you reservation?’ Trying not to smile while glancing around the still-vacant room, we explained we did not. ‘Wait one moment,’ he said and disappeared into the kitchen.

“He reappeared again shortly and motioned us to a table. After leaving us to peruse the menu for a bit, he returned. ‘What would you like?’

“I had been searching my memory for any Hungarian words for food and for some reason remembered the word fogas (pronounced “fogash”), a kind of pike perch. ‘Do you have fogas?’ I asked tentatively. The owner’s eyes suddenly widened. ‘Fogas‘? He suddenly turned and went back into the kitchen again.

“A moment later he reappeared with his wife, showing her to a chair next to us as he sat down again. Looking at her, he gestured toward me, repeating ‘Fogas, he asked for fogas‘, as though he could scarcely believe it. At this they both broke into tears in front of us.”


About the Author
A native Texan, Elias spent several good years studying classics and medieval Italian at UC Berkeley before wasting several more years in financial journalism around Chicago. He has written for Strong Towns, the American Scholar, the New Urbs blog, and the Gary Catholic Worker and is the co-author of a textbook on character education. He briefly published something called The Armchair Historian. None of his three teenage daughters display an interest in the Greek and Latin classics thus far. He and his family reside in leafy Valparaiso IN.