Posted by: tomciocco | June 30, 2008

THE HUNGARIAN FESTIVAL

If you’re really honest with yourself, I think that you’ll be able to come to terms with the fact that most “street fairs” suck. Be they religious, ethnic, “cultural”, or political, they are all too often just a collection of the lowest common denominator hawkers peddling crap, and suckers killing some time and burning the roofs of their mouths on something that’s just been fished out of a deep fryer. 

The Hungarian Festival in New Brunswick, NJ is a bit different. Yes, there are people selling inflated plastic Scooby Doos on a stick, and there is also no shortage of langos, the Hungarian equivalent of zeppoles or funnel cakes, but this festival goes deeper than that. First held in 1975 along (and still to this day) Somerset Street in New Brunswick, a city with an old and still fairly large Hungarian community. This may no longer hold, but New Brunswick always claimed to have the second biggest Hunagrian community (after Cleveland) in the entire U.S., and this is within a small city of only 50,000 inhabitants. Beginning in the 1890s, Hunagarians began settling in New Brunswick to work the barges on the busy Delaware and Raritan canal, as well as to work in the city’s booming Johnson & Johnson plant (J&J was founded in, and still has its world headquarters in New Brunswick). New Brunswick still has a “Magyar Bank” and a “Kossuth Street” (look ’em up).

I also have to admit that as an undergraduate at Rutgers University (my alma mater – GO RU!) the ability to drink (legally) in the street that the Hungarian festival provided was the initial lure. That said, I still do it, and still enjoy it – Does this make me young at heart? Anyway, the fair is always held on the first Saturday of June (June 8th this year) and it has/had always marked the beginning of the excruciating, eventfully uneventful summers in Brunfus-days gone by…but I digress…

The food here is a big and real attraction. You’ll find multiple vendors of kolbasz (Hungarian-style kielbasa), pecsenye (thin, boneless, spiced pork steaks), langos (fried dough), toltott kaposzta (Hungarian-style stuffed cabbage),  palacsinta (jam-filled crepes) and the list goes on. And as we (should) know, Hungary is an old wine nation, and of late, has pushed its way back into the glasses of wine drinkers worldwide. So in addition to BUD pounder cans (which make excellent projectiles when half-full and warm, BTW), you can also get bottles of Dreher beer, a hearty glass of Bull’s Blood (Egri Bikaver ) and even a Nemes Kadarka (Kadarka is a rarely seen eastern-European red grape variety).

In addition to authentic food and drink, there are some really good Hungarian folk groups – both dancing and musical, as well as clothes, books, CDs, prepared and canned foods (always an excellent opportunity to stock up on morello cherries for soup), fencing demonstrations (Yup – the Hungarians are famous friends with fencing, and the Hungarian-American Athletic Club sits right on Somerset Street).

This year, Jen and I spent much of our time eating, drinking and sweating under the tents in front of the Hungarian Scouts Home on Plum Street (June 8, 2008 here in NJ was a SCORCHER – I think it hit 97 degrees! – in JUNE!) I had a kolbasz sandwich, and the stuffed cabbage and Jen a pecsenye, and we each drank a glass of a very nice, fruity Nemes Kadarka (I didn’t catch the name on the bottle ,unfortunately) – see photos below. We later met up with an old friend and her baby, and strolled – slowly – watching the streets fill up with bleary-eyed students, Mexican families, and Hungarian-speaking groups of folks pulling each other this way and that. Local senior citizens sat in folding chairs in the thin sliver of shade in front of the hipster Buda Bar  (not surprising, once called “The Budapest”) and the smell of boiling oil, grilling meat, and sauerkraut rode the heat rising from the blacktop, and the sounds of amplified archaic fiddles rebounded off the church in Mindszenty square…

Don’t take me wrong, New Brunswick’s Hungarian festival is not an elegant evening out in Budapest or a sunny afternoon the shores of Lake Balaton, but what it DOES represent is an honest, and non-quaint expression of ethnicity that is a rarity these days, especially among “old line” American ethnic groups like the Hungarians. So mark your calender for next year – the first Saturday in June: New Brunswick Hungarian Festival – I think that you’ll find at least a couple of things to make the trip worth it (unless you live in Missouri or Bhutan), at very least you can fall back on getting drunk in the street – leagally too.

TOM CIOCCO

kolbasz sandwich

Hungarian Scouts Home - New Brunswick, NJtoltott kaposzta

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