Sunken down into the chair, beat down from the day, longingly awaiting the simmering to be done as fatigue slowly enclosed me in its grasp. The year had been simultaneously fast and long with learning to balance work and a new baby. The balance, organization, energy I had always had control over now ceased to exist. I was an outsider to this life, trying to climb my way back inside towards sense, sensibility, predictability. Though grateful and in love with this new baby that entered my life, I struggled to reconcile my former self and new self. The long sleepless nights had introduced a tiredness I had not experienced since college during the sleep deprived nights of endless paper writing, and even that paled in comparison. Bath done, dinner for the baby done, preparation for the next day done. My thoughts now floated into nothingness. Thank God for my husband who had graciously taken over the meals. His ode to perfection meant waiting…. He claimed “all good things come in time… or patience for goodness,” but it was always worth the wait.
The dish gently placed on the table in front of me broke me from my reverie. Succulent chicken thighs nestled in dumplings and bathed in a thick, bold red and smoky sauce. The smoking dish wafted up towards my tired face and I was filled with an earthy smokiness that slowly began tinkering with long forgotten memories. My grandmother’s chicken simmering in oil and topped with paprika filled the background of the small house with its comforting blanket of old world spice as we visited my grandmother on Sunday afternoons for dinner. The molten red spice sprinkling traditional egg dishes of egg salad or deviled eggs at every Murphy-Matula (now adding Mason) gathering. I lifted the spoonful of warm liquid now parallel with every sense. I breathed in the goodness of the parikash csirke. The saucy delicacy filled my nostrils and tastebuds like a warm and comforting blanket. It was the rich, subtle earthiness that brought me back to an earlier struggle with turning outside in and the same one that then, and now filled be with a reinvigorated hope/energy.
Paprika was perhaps my fourth Hungarian word I learned and gratefully so, for it was the same in English as it was in Hungarian (or Magyar) and easy to remember. Depending on where one put the emphasis of the syllable, it could mean pepper (as in the vegetable we ate on sandwiches with butter or cheese daily. pAPreeka) or the spice made from the crushed and ground peppers (Paaaaprika) that sprinkled the land that was Hungary. I soon learned Paprika was the heart of the land. Every person I encountered, from my roommate, her family, my colleagues to my 16-17 year old students all had a story or fact to share about Paprika. Strangely, it was not native to Hungary, but introduced by the Turks during the 16 and 17th centuries. It was discovered by herders and shepherds who had the most contact with the outsiders. They had begun to integrate the sometimes mild, sometimes fiery spice into the peasant dishes of the countryside. Ironically, it was adopted by the aristocrats in the 19th century and has become the dominant spice in most Hungarian dishes ever since. Festivals and holidays were devoted to this spice, school schedules were determined around paprika picking season, and Hungarians, a people proud of their history, had turned something from the outside, pushing and oppressing and turned it inside, reclaiming it as theirs, their culture, their heritage.
As an outsider living in Hungary for two years, paprika became the doorway inside the culture. It gave me a sense of ownership and allowed me to contribute back to a land that had taught me balance, moderation, appreciation for the simple items I had taken for granted in life (dinner with family, talking on the phone, a TV to inform you of what was going on in the world, stores with every ingredient always on hand). I suppose one of my first transformations began in Hungary and with Paprika. Aside from crudely crushed avocado in a bowl, scrambled eggs and toast, and my innovative mustard and potato in a bowl, I had not learned to cook. After moving to Hungary, I realized this would be an essential for survival as there were no microwaves or frozen aisles, and few canned ingredients. Instead there were open markets on Saturdays with fresh vegetables piled in the back of wagons brought in from country towns and a multitude of dried beans and legumes and potatoes along with plenty of paprika.
I slowly learned to cook with my roommate and friend, Zsuzsi, standing at my side. We began from scratch, chopping vegetables, simmering them in oil, then flour and paprika. Stirring quickly, watching for too much browning, adding in stock, potatoes, beans, vegetables and more paprika until the mild, spicy smell began to waft over the entire dish becoming familiar, becoming comfort, becoming home. Days on end, I would walk home in the bitter cold streets, before the snow fell, and start the pot, firing up the vegetables and paprika, stirring and simmering, staring into the pot. I felt the day’s triumphs, struggles, misunderstandings, laughter, and confusion slip off me into the pot simmering before me. It became a daily ritual to stir away the days of living as an outsider and beginning to sprinkle in myself into the pot, becoming part of the culture and the family. Paprikash reconciliation.
Scraping the browned bits of paprika and chicken into my mouth, I realized my husband had brought me back to a time where paprika had become the heart of turning my outside inward. Now standing by his side, sprinkling in the paprika (of course playfully arguing over recipe vs. memory and instinct) we continue adding the paprika, providing a warm blanket in another phase and transformation into parents, Years later, we are still adding the paprika, especially on the days we need to turn the outside in.
- Jen Murphy