Both my grandparents were brought up in traditional Jewish homes in Hungary, and both survived the Holocaust. After the war, however, they stopped being religious; when my mother was born in 1946, they had her christened a Presbyterian. They didn’t know that all religion was soon to become forbidden in Hungary under the communists.
When I was a child, I was told that I was from a Jewish background, but like many members of my generation growing up in the 1980s, we never practiced any religion; it was still considered a hostile act against Hungary’s communist system. Despite all this, my grandparents spoke to me openly about their previous lives, including their Jewish upbringing. In particular, they talked about Jewish foods they used to eat, but they could only recall a few dishes. These were the same things I grew up eating, which my mother—who now has a strong Jewish rather than Presbyterian identity, albeit without any religious underpinnings—still makes today: roast goose liver, beef soup with matzo balls, green pea soup cooked with chicken necks, gizzards, and liver.
I remember feeling a little bit sorry for my grandparents for not remembering a greater variety of food. And to be honest, I found these dishes a little boring. Maybe the most boring were chopped eggs, which they—like most Hungarian Jews to this day—always called “Jewish eggs.” This was what my mother would put in a hearty sandwich for me, or prepare as a simple dinner when friends came over to our house. Sometimes I think cooking Jewish dishes is the strongest part of my mother’s Jewish identity, and calling these chopped eggs “Jewish,” with a particular emphasis, is the most solid part of it.
She has always made this dish the same way: chopped eggs, mixed with raw onions and lots of mustard. We would pile them on a slice of bread, topped with green peppers. I was never impressed. But I didn’t know what this version of the dish lacked until several years ago, when I reread the only Jewish cookbook published in Hungary in the 1970s. The author included a recipe for ei mit zwibel—Yiddish for egg with onions. But the recipe listed more ingredients than I had known, including goose fat and goose, duck, or chicken liver.
Suddenly it made sense why my grandparents had such fond memories of these eggs: Made properly, this is, indeed, a tasty dish, with unique, typically Jewish ingredients. But the most important ingredients had disappeared from the recipe during the years of communism, when nothing too rich or fancy was considered acceptable. The original Jewish recipe—a typical Sabbath appetizer, as it could be prepared in advance and eaten cold—was almost lost to the flavorless oblivion of socialist cooking.
Almost at the same time that I rediscovered Jewish eggs several years ago, a Jewish food revolution broke out in Budapest. Suddenly, in the past decade, Jewish eggs appeared everywhere. Food bloggers wrote long articles about how to make Jewish eggs. Budapest’s few traditional Jewish restaurants put it on their menus as a signature dish. Suddenly, everyone knew that Jewish eggs used to be called “Jewish caviar,” and are only truly authentic if they are mixed with some sort of sautéed liver, mixed with goose fat, and maybe sprinkled with cracklings known as gribenes—a highly prized delicacy in Hungary even today.
It is likely that Polish Jews introduced geese—along with carp, sour cream, and cabbage—to Hungarian Jews when they arrived in Hungary in the 19th century. (This is why this dish is also sometimes called “Polish eggs.”) Geese were popular because almost all of their parts can be eaten and their fat is a perfect cooking medium, even in desserts; goose fat is practical and cheap. When geese are force-fed so that their livers fatten to become foie gras, they become one of the most expensive Hungarian Jewish delicacies. Non-force-fed, simple goose liver costs a lot less, however, and is often used in Hungarian Jewish cooking as well. It can easily be replaced by duck or chicken liver.
In the socialist era, goose or duck liver equated to opulence. You had to be either someone important from the Party or had to bribe the butcher to get these organs; ordinary citizens couldn’t purchase such things. Even less expensive chicken livers were still never for sale at the gloomy, state-owned, half-empty supermarkets. No wonder Jewish eggs became plain and boring and by the 1980s were no longer widely called Jewish eggs, but were known instead as “egg spread.”
Since communism ended, some of the finer ingredients are again for sale in Hungary, and Jewish eggs are Jewish eggs again. They are mainly popular among Jewish people and are served as an appetizer in restaurants or at bar mitzvahs and weddings. Many people make Jewish eggs at home, too, because they are easy to prepare and can be turned into a fancy dish by stuffing fresh, hollowed-out tomatoes and green peppers with them. On simple occasions, people often leave out the liver and just add raw or sautéed onions, goose or duck fat, and some cracklings. On the High Holidays, Jewish eggs are part of family gatherings, served with liver—preferably goose liver. It is also a perfect Passover dish: Soft eggs spread on a slice of matzo make a perfect combination.
I’ve adapted a recipe for this dish—a more impressive version than the one my mother used to make, and one that would explain my grandparents’ lingering fond memories.
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