Hungarian Greasy Bread and the Nature of Memory

Since it is July 4, there are a few things you should probably consider doing to mark the day — and they don’t necessarily involve fireworks.

There are certain places and times that act as touchstones in my memories. We had cookouts in the backyard when I was a kid, family coming over to mark Memorial Day, the Fourth, and Labor Day. Aunt Yolanda and Uncle Joe’s grown children and their own kids made up most of the arrivals, with Aunt Bernie and Uncle Louie making appearances as well. Aunt Yolanda and Uncle Joe lived next door. We shared a driveway, and Uncle Joe set up the small wheeled grill in between the two houses while my dad prepped the built-in one we had back of our house.

Uncle Joe had two long metal grilling forks, and he loaded them with bacon slabs, which we held over a coal fire to make greasy bread. Google says it was called szalonna, but that’s not the name I recall hearing as a kid. I’m not even going to attempt to spell the words I remember (one sounds like the African country Kenya), and stick to calling it greasy bread. We applied the hot bacon grease to sliced peppers, onions, radishes, and tomatoes, as much as the bread, and those hot sticky slices of rye tasted so good I’m sure they were all sorts of bad. And that’s not even factoring in the crispy bits we sliced off the slabs or the skin left for the end once the slab cooked down to nothing. Burnt fingers? Who cared if you burned your fingers so long as you got to experience that salty, mouth-watering crunch-crumble that followed when you bit down on your scrap?

While Uncle Joe (and whoever got to help with the second slab/fork that year) worked his magic, my dad cooked hamburgers and cheeseburgers on his grill. For some reason those burgers were some of the best I’ve ever had. Probably the combination of sun, fresh air, and greasy tomatoes and onions, though a plain cheeseburger was just as good. Dad cooked so many burgers there were leftovers for a couple of days afterward. They weren’t quite as good as on the first day, but still filling.  My mother always made enough hash brown casserole we had that as a side that evening and next day.

She made cherry cobbler as well, which we called “cougan” for some reason, and I’m sure I didn’t spell that right.

We don’t have those cookouts any longer. At least, not that I know; I live in a different state, more than two hours away from where I grew up. The cookouts stopped soon after Uncle Joe passed, and when Aunt Yolanda followed him shortly afterward, there wasn’t as much drawing their side of our extended family together. Memories, loss, the difficulty of staging a sprawling cookout in one yard after their house was sold … some small reasons, some large ones, but enough when taken together to sour gatherings. My sister tried hosting some on the Fourth, because her son was born that day. Her husband’s side of the family attended, and they are nice people but those get-togethers always seemed forced. When he passed away at an early age from Hodgkin’s lymphoma, she turned the Fourth into a memorial/balloon launch.

Not the best way to celebrate, but that’s my opinion. I can’t imagine the grief my sister and brother-in-law and their daughter feel at his passing. I know I tear myself apart whenever my imagination gets away from me and I have dreams (nightmares) where I believe my wife and I had another child other than our two beautiful daughters. It’s not so much the loss, as the idea that I’ve forgotten, and the realization is a fresh, deep cut.

I think that real and imagined pain was why I tried associating something positive with the Fourth after his passing, and after my aunt and uncle died. I wrote a novel where I named the main character after my nephew. I didn’t Mary Sue the character, just named him for Kris. That book — Only The Dead — needs a rewrite before I submit it anywhere again, but it exists, and my nephew lives on within those pages. He finds love, he finds adventure; he finds immortality of a kind, because aren’t the worlds writers create real places somewhere in the multi-verse?

That thought comforts me. And just as it breathes life into my imagination, I recall how drives to Austintown to visit my wife’s family always brings to mind Frank Herbert’s Dune Messiah. I read the opening scene at particular intersection when we arrived in town one winter night, a five-way crossing where Norquest Boulevard met Mahoning Avenue and Raccoon Road. The meeting of those disparate conspirators in that transparent dome seems inextricably bound to that place.

On the Fourth my thoughts bring together the film 1776, which I saw in grade school and Doctor Who. I didn’t know who Howard Da Silva was then, other than the actor playing Benjamin Franklin, but years later his voice called out to me from a television, introducing the first Tom Baker episodes when they aired on the local PBS television station. Memories are so tricksome, it’s easy to see why people hold them so close, so dear — to see why people create traditions like cookouts with greasy bread and cheeseburgers, touchstone events to which they can return and find comfort. I’ll watch 1776 in the next few days, either on the DVD player or on the DVR after taping it tonight on Turner Classics. And I’ve got Doctor Who Revisited episode to watch as well, though I’ve put that off because Colin Baker was never my favorite incarnation of the Doctor.

But I’ve digressed too far from the point I wanted to make, which involves marking the day, and creating your own links between the past and present.

Consider sitting down with a book. I always find the best hooks for my memory within the pages of book; you’ll rarely find me without one in hand, because I like its weight in my hands, the way the pages riffle under my fingers, and especially the smell of a new one (when my sinuses are clear and I can appreciate that unique combination of paper, glue and ink).  Since it is the Fourth of July, I recommend The Patriot Witch by Charles Coleman Finlay. Or Thieftaker by D.B. Jackson (better known to friends and acquaintance as David B. Coe). Both books offer an imagined glimpse of colonial America. Heck, if you really feel like tackling something, try The Confusion by Neal Stephenson, the opening volume his Baroque Cycle. Though whenever I think of Stephenson, bikes with broken chains and Cap’n Crunch cereal comes to mind more than the 17th and 18th centuries.

Who knows, one of them might turn into your link to greasy bread and the associations that make up who you are.

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About stephenwnagy

writer, father, husband. not necessarily in that order.
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