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Monday, October 20, 2014
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Published: Sunday, 9/18/2005

'Hungarian turkey' is a delicious tradition

The dish called "Hungarian turkey" deserves notice for a couple of reasons. First, it defies all current dietary rules. Second, it is a wonderful way to stay in step with an age-old custom that originated in the old country.

And of course the very best way to pay tribute to the centuries-old tradition is to eat some Hungarian turkey around a roaring campfire and concentrate on its origin and flavor rather than thinking about counting fat grams.

This is the perfect time of year to plan a Hungarian turkey party, when there's a little nip in the air and people like to gather around a fire.

No, Hungarian turkey is not an early Thanksgiving turkey dinner. No turkey has ever gone to a Hungarian turkey party. According to legend, Hungarian shepherds who toted the smoked bacon and bread to sustain them on the long journey, originated Hungarian turley. The wood fire provided warmth and fuel to cook the bacon.

The main ingredient is jowl bacon; "that's the turkey" it was explained to me at a party at the home of Posey Lake neighbors Kathy and John Brezvai in late August. Kathie and I became friends while she was walking on Posey Lake Highway past my home; I should have walking too instead of talking.

It was a merry gathering of old friends at the Brezvai home. Most of the men and women grew up in the Birmingham Hungarian neighborhood in Toledo and had been eating and cooking Hungarian turkey long before they tasted a McDonald hamburger. They were eager to share their tradition, and before I knew it a plate with two "turkey" sandwiches was handed to me. It was not my first taste of the tradition and I was delighted to eat it again.

It was wonderful, perhaps better than I remembered. In minutes I was considering a third piece, but willpower prevailed. I had to save room and calories for an outlay of potluck in Kathy's kitchen.

Bob Toth did the honors of cooking the jowl bacon over the fire until it dripped sufficiently to hold over slices of Vienna bread. When the cook determines there is enough bacon grease on the bread, chopped Hungarian yellow peppers, green bell peppers, and luscious slices of homegrown tomatoes are arranged on top. (Some cooks have been known to add pieces of the bacon.) Then it's down the hatch. There are some musts that should be followed in this Old World recipe. The bacon has to be purchased from Tackas, the Hungarian meat market on Genesee Street in Toledo. Before it closed, the National Bakery in the Birmingham neighborhood was the main source for the bread. The fire must be built with apple wood, and some diehard bacon cookers have a tool designed especially for the job. In many families the bacon-cooking tool, made either in wood or stainless steel, is handed down through generations. Bud Zsigray cherishes his father's heirloom skewer reserved only for the bacon.

Despite their desire to preserve the old tradition, this group of Birmingham men takes license with the cooking method to save time. Authentically, the hunk of bacon is cooked at the end of a fork over the fire until it picks up dripping momentum, which takes time. Mr. Toth demonstrated the new way: The bacon was cut into slices, lined up in a rack, and held over the fire, which speeded production of the open-face sandwiches.

The men, all who have deep roots in Birmingham, have been pals for more than 60 years, ever since they were students at Birmingham School. The wives know that Tuesday is golf day, no matter what, and if they need to contact their mates they know they will be at the VFW on Consaul Street after the game. But the women are not always left out. There is the annual picnic, and once a year the couples travel to Myrtle Beach - for golf, what else?

But the group does much more than play golf or sit around a fire cooking Hungarian turkey, and talking about old times. At the Birmingham Hall of Fame dinner on Oct. 8, six scholarships will be presented in the name of the group to students with Birmingham roots. The funds are raised through an annual golf outing at Collins Park and a ticket-only dinner at the VFW. And just to remind the participating golfers who's throwing the outing, the men set up a hot sideshow. You got it: Hungarian turkey is cooked at the park. This year, 47 pounds of bacon dripped.



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