What in the World Is a Cookbook Hero?

For the past 15 years or so, I’ve been a collector of cookbooks.  Whenever I’d hear about a classic cookbook that sounded good, I’d quickly check with my used book sources (Alibris and Amazon) to see if it was available at a reasonable price – if yes, I’d pick it up – if no, I’d put it on my search list on eBay.

Over the years, I’ve gotten lots of pleasure from leisurely reading cookbooks for the tips and techniques contained in them, but I’d also be looking for those sparks of inspiration which often push a cook up a notch to a new ability level.  I’m convinced a cook only gets better when they can build on their own acquired skills by adding ideas and techniques of other cooks to their own knowledge bank – and short of spending time in the kitchen of a master cook, I think those kinds of experiences are best found in cookbooks.

When one uses cookbooks in this way, it doesn’t take long before those cookbook authors begin to separate themselves into mental categories – a favorite for Thai, another for Italian, yet another when thinking of a holiday bread, or perhaps an Asian seafood.  And I soon discovered that my favorites were not often the current celebrity chef/authors of the moment (whose books were not reasonably priced anyway!).  Rather, they were often obscure authors who had labored in their craft without much fame or fortune – but to me they were valued for what they were able to pass on to readers about those foods they loved.  They were my ‘cookbook heroes’ – and they will now become the subjects of my new post category.

obit-lang-articleLargeA cursory google of George Lang may not suggest why he might qualify as a cookbook hero, as his most notable accomplishments seem to place him on the fringe of food creation – he was not a professional chef – rather simply just a student of good food (not unlike myself!), but it may well be true that his tome, The Cuisine of Hungary, is an effort well beyond the narrow purview of a working chef, and could only have been written by a scholar of the art, and one driven by a love of subject – his research surely took him many years of work.  I especially appreciated the following from his forward:  “The early gastronomic literature is rich with detailed descriptions of various cuisines, almost exclusively dealing with the foods and tables of the nobility.  Since the most characteristic and richest part of the Hungarian cuisine is the common people’s food, … reconstruction was a painstakingly slow process. … Sometimes, to be able to make a single paragraph statement, libraries had to be researched for years.”

And that my friends, can only be said by one who is deeply in love with his subject!

Although Lang could not be thought of as a food celebrity in today’s terms, he certainly enjoyed a status as a bon vivant of the New York City restaurant scene in his heyday.  He achieved notability as the architect of the concept of the restaurant as entertainment -as well as for food and drink – and he successfully developed in the early ’70s, one of the nation’s first restaurant consulting businesses, which was responsible over the following 25 years for many of NYC’s (and the world as well) finest restaurant operations – not the least of which was his own model restaurant, Cafe de Artistes,  whose walls were covered with delightful ‘celebratory’ art.

Pretty good track record for someone who, having successfully escaped from a German forced labor camp only months before war’s end in Hungary, emigrated to New York in 1946 with intentions of becoming a concert violinist – when those dreams began to fade, Lang turned to his love of food, and began his climb through the ranks of restaurant employment with a job as, what else, a dishwasher.  Here is a good remembrance of the man.

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Lang’s Own NYC Jewel, Cafe de Artistes

Somewhere in his career track, Lang seriously began work on what I think will be one day recognized as his legacy, the very scholarly history and recipe collection of the Hungarian food culture, The Cuisine of Hungary.  My guess is that he started this effort early-on and that it continued well into his prime years of restaurant consulting during the sixties – I find it especially interesting that for his legacy work, he chose a food which was not either in his prior restaurant experience nor among the ethnic foods of the many restaurants he had helped establish (he would later take on the project of resurrecting the grandeur of the once splendid Hungarian restaurant, Gundel, in Budapest in 1991, some 20 years after the publication of his book).

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A Few of the More ‘Entertaining’ Murals of the Cafe de Artistes

But why would I chose Hungarian food as worthy of star billing to kick my new blog effort into gear?  Only one who had not yet read Lang’s Cuisine of Hungary would ask this question, for in it, Lang makes his case for Hungarian food being the best in Europe – and while we may expect such a provincial opinion, he makes a better case than do others who may carry a similar provincial torch for their own chosen cuisine.  Hungary has for centuries acted as translator of the ideas, arts, and foods of the East and the West, with its unique position on the border between Europe and Asia – as such they have a long history of weaving the best of each together into a new cuisine – perhaps the first successful ‘fusion’ cuisine of the world!

Additionally, Lang’s epic is a masterful creation – and it succeeds on many levels.  Lang is not only a tireless researcher, whose efforts reward the reader at every turn, but he takes care to inject Hungarian contributions to the arts and literature throughout the book – and these inclusions create the heart of his work as a cultural history of his beloved homeland.  But to dwell on that aspect would be to miss the fact that Lang has created, with this masterwork, a model of what a good cookbook should be – his recipes contain a beautiful mix of narrative background, specific detail and instruction, and helpful notes.

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With his insistence that his book reflect the peasant roots of the Hungarian cuisine, Lang presents us with food that is surprisingly rich and caloric – but these were the foods of the farmlands, both because of their commonality, and because it was necessary to consume such foods in order to accomplish a full day of hard labor.  Copious amounts of lard and other animal fats were universally used in the preparation of most dishes – intentionally!  And although cabbage was easily the most common vegetable available, it was never simply boiled or consumed raw, but usually presented as a part of an elaborate dish, or even more often, in the form of sauerkraut – a winter survival food.  Noodles or dumplings were also a daily offering, both for sweet and savory use, reflective of the peasant dependance on, and availability of, wheat.  And although Lang bemoans the fact that a true gulyas (goulash) should contain no sour cream, he plays the word games of the food purist, for he then goes on to tell us that paprikas (paprikash), a very similar dish to goulash, should always be served with sour cream – thereby contributing to the very confusion of which he bemoans.

With mention of the four foods above, I am leading you, dear reader, into a narrow side-road of Hungarian dishes – for I wish to share with you what I consider one of the world’s finest comfort foods, a dish known to all Hungarians, (Haluska – Sauteed Cabbage and Noodles with Sour Cream) – but I must take you there via the backdoor, since Lang has chosen not to give us a recipe for Haluska in his cookbook, but instead gives us several fancier presentations of related dishes – we must believe him when he tells us he had rejected thousands of recipes to bring us the 300 herein.  But due to the length of this post – please forgive – we’ll look at these dishes in my next post.

I look forward to such opportunity.

(Photo credits, in order:  The New York Times; thelifevicarious.typepad.com; johnmariani.com; dito; amazon.com)

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About drfugawe

I'm a guy with enough time to do as I please, and that my resources allow. The problem(s) are: I have 100s of interests; I have a short attention span; I have instant expectations; I'm lazy; and I'm broke. But I'm OK with all that, 'cause otherwise I'd be so busy, I'd be dead in a year.
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10 Responses to What in the World Is a Cookbook Hero?

  1. Sandee says:

    I love it when you put recipes in your posts–that means we get to try out them several times before they are “good enough to post”! Yum.

  2. Glenda says:

    Hiya Doc.
    I read this post last night and again today. There is so much information in it. Thank you for that. George Lang is a name I did not know. From what you say, he does sound a bit like a ‘Celebrity’ just not a contemporary celebrity. I think the best cookbooks on a particular cuisine are written by people who were raised on that cuisine and have it in their blood. They really understand it and love it. Looking forward to learning heaps from your Hero posts!

    • drfugawe says:

      I think Lang was a bit unique in that he certainly became a member of the elite in NYC, but he never lost his sensitivity, through his own life experiences, to the contributions to the culture of a land made by those on the bottom rung – at least his cookbook suggests that may have been true.

  3. Joanna says:

    It makes me think about the quality of research these days and the quality of writng. When we rely on Google for all our facts and figures, some things speed up so much and one finds the same bits of info quoted and requoted ad nauseam. George Lang sounds like a big influence on the scene and a meticulous writer. I am curious now and looking forward to reading the recipe post, once you and Sandee have finished your tests !

  4. Joanna says:

    That comment of mine reads really badly, what I meant, was reading about how George Lang worked made me think etc etc…. I thnk I need a refresher course in comment writing myself 🙂

  5. Rochelle Eissenstat says:

    George Lang was also a Jew. See wikipedia for more details. Like many Jewish survivors from Eastern Europe, he arrived in the US with no material possessions. He used his talents, resourcefulness, creativity not only to survive, but also to contribute to the good of society. His encomium to Hungarian cuisine is a bit ironic since history makes clear just how much collaboration with the Nazis the Hungarian government & individuals did.

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