My mom, Maryanne Mortenson, is a spitfire. At five-foot-two, she’s small in stature, but her energy is nothing short of mighty. Everything she does, from making dinner, to playing with her granddaughter, to working in her garden, has an undercurrent of excited energy. She is in her sixties and still plays broomball, a hockey-like winter sport popular in Minnesota, and recently took up tap dancing, “just because.” As a kindergarten teacher, she was known and loved for dancing on the classroom tables when she was proud of her students. But she’s never more on fire than when my brother, sister, and I are all home for a visit, gathered in the kitchen. Though my mom wouldn’t say she loves cooking, or is especially good at it—I respectfully disagree with her on that—our family kitchen is her happy place, and now it’s mine. It’s a room that’s always warm and well-lit, filled with happiness and hilarity and good smells and nourishment in all forms. It’s the place where we connect most directly to our heritage.
My mom’s parents, John Donchetz and Marie Nemeth, were both born in Chicago, to Hungarian immigrants. Like many first-generation kids in the early-to-mid twentieth century, my mom’s parents embraced this country wholeheartedly, turning their attention to the fashion, music, and modernity of American culture rather than sticking to old-country traditions or learning their parents’ language. So what was passed down to my mom and her five siblings was the food. Palacintas, Hungarian crepes, are not only a breakfast staple but the ultimate comfort food; one look at my face after a tough semester at college and my mom would pull the ingredients out of the cupboard. Aunt Deborah’s Hungarian Nut Torte is the centerpiece of our Christmas dessert table. A walnut kolache made each year by Uncle Jay gets passed out to each family on Christmas Eve. Pogácsas, simple sour-cream cookies, are always on hand at my aunt Denise’s house.
Then, there’s Székely Goulash. Made primarily of sour cream, sauerkraut, and pork, there’s nothing fancy about it. It’s old-country peasant food, passed down from our farmer ancestors. But in our house, it’s elevated cuisine. That’s because every New Year’s Day, my mom sets the dining room table with china, candles, cloth napkins in antique napkin holders, and the good silver, passed down from her mom. There’s a Hungarian wives’ tale that says eating pork on the New Year brings good luck, and so, unwilling to take any chances, my mom whips up the Székely Goulash, using the recipe from the old Hungarian cookbook that was passed down from my grandma. It cooks on the stove all afternoon as we all sit around in the family room, chatting, reading, or playing games. Finally, we gather around the table for New Year’s Day dinner. It’s my mom’s way of bringing us together after a busy holiday season, and then sending us off into the new year armed with each other—and good luck, of course.
The annual dinner also elicits one of our favorite Mom moments. Every year, when she announces we’re having Székely Goulash, she does a little ball change, a few small kicks, plants her feet, spreads her hands out and yells, “Sssssakalaaaa Goulash!”
RECIPE: Székely Goulash
Where and when were you born, and where did you grow up?
1951, in Chicago. But I grew up in South Bend, Indiana. It was definitely Leave it to Beaver—riding our bikes on the street, Donna Reed-style parents.
What’s your earliest food-related memory?
On Sundays after church, we used to go to my aunt’s house. They had a spread every Sunday of Hungarian foods: salami and cheese and open-faced bread, and pickles and lots of desserts, strudel and keifles. We were the only little kids, so we sat on those plastic-covered couches in our very fancy dresses with our little anklets and patent-leather shoes. The older aunts would end up in the kitchen speaking Windish [a language that blends Slovenian and Hungarian] and Mom and Dad would be at the dining room table with their cousins.
What was a typical family meal like?
Everybody had their regular seats. Mom and Dad at the two heads. We always ate pretty basic: meat, potatoes, a vegetable. A lot of conversation. That’s when everything came out. Not only the stories, but Mom saying, “You stick up for your sister!” or “Your family is the most important thing.” That’s where everybody would get that. When we were making dinner, we would put music on and that’s when we did our dancing, using the refrigerator handle as a dancing partner. We were always dancing.
Tell me about Székely Goulash.
It’s a Hungarian pork recipe. My mom used to make it on New Year’s Day. She always used to say we should be having pork on New Year’s Day, because pork brings you good luck. I remember her always taking out the Hungarian cookbook to make this recipe.
Would you eat Székely Goulash other times during the year, or just on New Year’s?
It’s more of a winter food because it’s hearty and good. It’s not like we had it a lot, but it was a special thing when we did. Growing up, I remember liking the name of it: Székely Goulash.
When I think of New Year’s Day in our house, I picture the dining room table set really beautifully, and us eating on china, but I can’t remember how long we’ve been doing that.
A long time. And I always did the china because it was a special day. And I think any time you do something Hungarian it’s kind of fun. I’ve even done it for company, just to show a Hungarian dish.
Do you remember the first time you cooked it for us?
Oh, it was a big deal, reading the Hungarian cookbook. Because it talks about using lard and different ingredients that aren’t really common now. I felt like it was going out of the box by doing this recipe. It’s not your ordinary food.
Growing up, nobody around us was Hungarian. Where we lived, nobody had heard of it. I remember telling my students that my grandparents came from a country called Hungary. And they’d all laugh, “Oh, Hungary!”