My grandparents were immigrants from Eastern Europe, mostly Hungary and Czechoslovakia, who came here for a better life. They brought with them a rich culture, which was reinforced when they settled in ethnically diverse communities such as my home in southeastern Pennsylvania.
They learned English quickly, to be able to secure work in the booming steel industry at the beginning of the 20th century. The town founding fathers, it has been written, attempted to isolate these immigrants, as well as other minorities, by encouraging their settlement in areas outside of the established city. They did us a favor.
The steel companies, who welcomed this influx of laborers, assisted by building low income housing for their employees on the “wrong side of the tracks”. My family settled in an area fondly called “Hunkey Hill”, mostly made up of Hungarians or “Hunkeys”.
There were also Polish, Slovak, Russian, Jewish, Italian, and Irish immigrants who settled nearby. This produced a richness of culture, food, drink and traditions, all of which were honored throughout the years.
You could always tell which neighborhood you had wandered into; sometimes by their native language, and often by the fragrances coming from their kitchen.
My grandmother kept on hand a copy of the paperback recipe book above, mostly for the benefit of my mother, since she herself never used a printed recipe. These amazing women had an instinct for cooking from their heritage. The most impressive thing to me is that they could take the least expensive ingredients and turn them into a feast.
Cabbage, potatoes, home made dumplings, the whole chicken (insides included), ground meat, cuts of pork that the butcher would throw away, animal bones and fats, etc.
A family favorite was Chicken Paprikash with Spaetzle. Chicken parts simmered in a rich broth with bacon, onion and sweet paprika, thickened with sour cream and served over simple drop noodles. This was soul-satisfying comfort food at its best. The process from the cookbook takes several hours, I found a way to simulate it in much less time, as I exclude the long-cooked giblets, and use modern cuts of boneless chicken breast.
The flavors and the fragrance are authentic. These are my roots. They remind me of the best that was my ancestral family. I honor the heritage and pass it along to the next generation, in the hopes that it will mean as much to them as it did to me.
And, just for fun. Billy Crystal’s “Paprikash and Pecan Pie”.