For Hungarians, paprikás krumpli (potatoes cooked in a paprika gravy) is the first dish that comes to mind when thinking about outdoor cooking in a specific metal pot called bogrács, over a fire, even though it is a perfect example how the kitchen of the people of the puszta turned into an urban dish in the 20th century. The story of this transformation starts with the fact that the shepherds of the Great Hungarian Plain or the poor harvest workers hardly had a chance to get their hands on wood—let alone charcoal—to build a campfire. They cooked on a fire by burning corn cobs, straw, and most of all, dry manure, and fishermen mostly used reeds. Instead of an iron tripod, they would hang their pot on the end of a pole, or seasonal workers would sometimes use a brick or a piece of stone to prop it up. If none of these were to be found anywhere near, they would dig a hole below the pot and start the fire there. The Hungarian word lábos (used today for any type of cooking pan) contains the word leg (láb) in it, thus it is common sense that cooking pots used to have legs or stands, but this type of cookware was no longer in use in the 20th century.
But what was cooking in those pots?
Potatoes only became widespread in the countryside in the second half of the 19th century, but even in the 20th century, there were people from rural areas who had never had them. Paprika was used as a condiment already (basically, it was used the same way as pepper is today), but sweet peppers—raw versions similar to bell peppers—became widely known in some parts of the country only after World War I, in military meals. Meat was a rare ingredient in the cauldron: poorer families would eat about 5 kilograms of meat per year, and even smallholder families would eat 100 kilograms per year only (for comparison, nowadays, the average annual meat consumption per person is above 50 kilograms, excluding the meat consumed in restaurants, hotels, and catering). So, it was mostly “noodle soup” cooking, and if it did include some meat as well, the type of meat that made it into the cauldron was something different from what we would think of today. For instance, the herdsmen of the Hortobágy (the Great Hungarian Plain) often ate crow meat.
Shepherds, fishermen, and seasonal workers cooked outdoors out of pure necessity. In rural households, the meals of the day were cooked in open kitchens and in outdoor ovens in the first half of the 20th century. These were replaced by indoor kitchens later on. However, as urban customs and cooking techniques spread in the countryside, the demand for outdoor cooking experiences grew among people who felt more and more disconnected from nature.
An urban citizen would hardly eat any meal cooked over fire, just during military service. During the first half of the 20th century, following Russian example, the army of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy started to use mobile field kitchens, which were soon commonly referred to as “goulash canons”, due to their similarity in form. Before these “goulash canons,” soldiers would cook and eat two by two in shared pots.
However, early on in the 20th century, a romanticization of the Puszta started, which set the ancestral, rustic, and untainted way of life of the peasants and the shepherds as a new ideal (as at so many other times in history). This movement culminated in light operas and horse shows, as well as in gastronomy. Of course, it showed mostly in formalities: chefs dressed as herdsmen would cook fish soup, goulash soup, and pörkölt (traditional Hungarian meat stew with paprika) in large cauldrons outdoors for German tourists, who would usually refer to the latter simply as “Gulasch.”
Soon wooden tables and chairs with carved folk ornaments followed, along with glasses, jugs, plates, ashtrays with folk motifs, as well as bars covered in cane matting and waiters dressed in vests ornamented with folk motifs. Actually, even plates were quite anachronistic in this setting as shepherds and harvest workers used to share their meals sitting around the bogrács, everyone eating straight out of it.
The next big thing in the restaurant industry trying to evoke the “good old days” was “rustic” roast chicken on skewers, even though it had no tradition in Hungarian cuisine. Roasting any type of meat on fire was far less typical of traditional Hungarian folk and shepherd culture than in other cuisines, with the exception of fish, which was often grilled on skewers or baked in a clay crust.
Family gatherings and friends getting together to cook was a whole different world of outdoor cooking in the second half of the 20th century. These took place in holiday resorts, during holidays, summer camps, and excursions, but most of all, at weekend houses, commonly referred to as “the plot” (a telek), the wineyard, or “the mountain” (a hegy) in Hungarian. These places were usually the main point of connection with nature and agriculture for the people who were “stuck” in the city, especially those in public housing projects.
These occasional get-togethers were rather professional and sophisticated in terms of tools: Custom built, multi-rack fireplaces, fixed stands, firedogs or andirons, iron skewers, “combined bayonet-joint barbecue grillers,” “portable camping gas stoves,” “wheeled grills,” and other miracles. The most enigmatic of all tools of the era was the grilling/bbq disc which was made out of spare parts of agricultural machines. It distilled the “make use of what you’ve got” philosophy of the shepherds, the socialist “let’s take as many useful things home from the workshop as possible” mentality, and the principle of the handymen of the era according to which “there is nothing you cannot replicate at home.” The enormous discs of the disc harrows used for tilling the soil served as perfect grilling surfaces after a few tweaks, such as closing the middle hole and adding some handles and legs to stand on.
There were many who tried to take advantage of the new trend, of course. Various books were published on the topic in the 1970s and 1980s, and the food industry also tried to keep up with the demands. New BBQ and grill spice mixes, fish soup bouillon cubes, sweet paprika paste and goulash paste in tubes, goulash soup food flavoring, and even separate beef and pork stew seasonings showed up on the shelves. According to a cookbook of the time, “red onion paste is a must in all Hungarian-style dishes.”
Traditional Hungarian outdoor cooking techniques were eclipsed by grilling techniques after the fall of Communism. Though they had been known before as well, they gained extreme popularity in that period. Grilling can be automated better, it is less complicated, quicker, cleaner; cooking meat on a grill seemed more genteel, so to speak, and more hygenic compared to traditional techniques. And the food industry could sell more ready-to-grill, prepackaged goods for it.
There remained, of course, people who would never refrain from building a campfire and cooking.
There is one particular food that has been made the same age-old way: roast bacon. A perfectly carved stick, waiting patiently for the perfect embers, and dripping the hot fat that the bacon renders on a slice of bread—the key elements are very similar today in a summer camp to what István Ecsedi described in his book on the shepherds of the Great Hungarian Plain.
References: Ottó Herman : A magyar halászat könyve (K.M. Természettudományi Társulat, 1887), István Ecsedi: A debreceni és tiszántúli magyar ember táplálkozása (Debreceni Déri Múzeum Évkönyve, 1934) és László Csizmadia: Sütés-főzés a szabadban és a hétvégi házban (Közgazdasági és Jogi Könyvkiadó, 1984)
Text: Dávid Zubreczki | Photo editing: István Virágvölgyi | English translation: Nóra Vörös [The original article was published in Hungarian]
The Weekly Fortepan blog is a collaboration between Fortepan and the Capa Center. The original Hungarian article can be found at https://hetifortepan.capacenter.hu/en/outdoor-cooking
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