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Where did the Hungarians go? They were part of the Eastern European (or central European, as it was called before the Cold War) population of Chicago in the early 20th century, etymologically half of the catch-all phrase "Bohunk" for laborers from that part of the world, and at least one Hungarian ranks among the most consequential Chicagoans of all time, even if he was only here for a couple of years before moving west with the rest of the Manhattan Project. (And he may have been an extraterrestrial anyway.)
But for whatever reason, Hungarian Chicago is as rare as hen's teeth. There are no Hungarian restaurants left, and only one major shop and sausage maker out in Glen Ellyn. You'd have better luck looking for chicken paprikash and a dobosh torte in Wooster, Ohio—indeed, Ohio seems to have caught all the post-'56 Hungarians before they could get this far.
I knew there was a Taste of Hungary somewhere on the northwest side, but it normally falls on Labor Day weekend, when I am committed to another Taste in another suburb, the Italian-American one in Melrose Park. So I was excited by an LTHForum thread tipping me off to the existence of a Gulyas (goulash) Festival in the same location last weekend; here was my chance to sample Hungarian, though still not strictly within city limits.
The festival was on the grounds of Norridge United Church of Christ, in the first suburb to the west of N. Harlem Avenue. Ethnic festivals are a dicey business—as the Reader's Jake Malooley documented in Time Out Chicago some years back, there's a well-organized industry that ensures that the same foods and the same bands turn up regardless of a festival's putative ethnicity. But from the moment I walked up to the entrance table, hearing one of the organizers haranguing or flirting with the ticket gal in impenetrable Magyar, it was clear this was a homemade, rustically authentic affair.
Great iron witch kettles were suspended from a tree, and big pots of paprika-orange liquid began the process of stewing potatoes, vegetables. and meat. Twenty dollars would get you all could eat, and though I doubted anyone could really eat $20 of what was basically potatoes, I handed it over without hesitation, instantly charmed.
Saturday had held a gulyas cook-off, assuming it happened in the rain, but Sunday was more relaxed, with only a brief attempt at ethnic music and dance during the afternoon. That was because most of the crowd was set up under tents in front of big screen TVs watching the final game of the World Cup.
I ran into a couple of LTHers, both of whom had experience in Hungary's part of the world (I do too, but four days in Budapest hardly compared to theirs) and we compared notes on the other foods available. There were mititei, which are really Romanian (according to one of the LTHers, Dave), but it's a small world:
And langos, basically funnel cakes or Indian flatbread to Americans, topped not with whipped cream but with garlic water, sour cream, and grated white cheese. (Peter, another of the LTHers, felt these were spot on to what he'd had in Hungary.) Most cheering of all was a row of kurtoskalacs, chimney cakes, grilling over charcoal. They were insanely expensive—$13 for basically a large cinnamon roll—but as a fan of the late departed Chimney Cake Island on Devon, I knew what I had to come home with.
Oh, and the gulyas? It was fine. Homemade tasting. A chef could sharpen it up. But it was easy to like on a slightly crisp day, a stroke of luck for July.
The beverage selection favored MGD on draft, but there was one Romanian beer, Ciuc, available, a perfectly serviceable lager. Beyond food and drink, there were T-shirt vendors selling Hungarian pride T-shirts, a bouncy slide for the kids, and most interestingly, someone trying to sign up Magyar speakers for a study of bilingual brain patterns. (Magyar would be especially interesting for that, as it bears no relation to any other European language, bolstering the Martian hypothesis.)
It was a fairly modest affair all in all, definitely one that wasn't expecting a lot of outsiders—and all the more charming for that, and for not being a mob scene dominated by cell-phone providers and oldies bands, like the street fest happening at the same time a few blocks from me in Roscoe Village. The Taste of Hungary will happen on September 13 (not Labor Day) at the same location, and no doubt with many of the same attractions.