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Published: Sunday, 10/3/2010

Hungarian turkey party: A fun time had by jowls

If you are invited to a Hungarian turkey party, don't set your taste buds for dressing and mashed potatoes and gravy accompaniments.

In fact, don't even expect a turkey.

The time-honored tradition observed by people of Hungarian descent is an outdoor gathering around an open fire featuring a humble food with only two ingredients and a pair of side dishes.

A lot of people in Toledo's Birmingham neighborhood call Hungarian turkey greasy bread, which is indeed an explicit term for what it is; bacon grease dripped over bread.

That may sound easy to prepare but there is skill involved. First you have to have bacon that is a good dripper so that a lot of grease is released as it is held over the fire. Old-timers say that jowl bacon is the only one to use. They say that that the best jowl is sold at Takacs Grocery and Meats, on Genesse Street in Birmingham. Takacs is a one-of-a-kind ethnic market, operated by Lou Takacs, a third generation family member. His 90-year-old grandfather, also Lou, visits the store infrequently, but his father, also Lou, stops in every morning. The word is to call or stop in by 9 a.m. to contact him.

At Takacs, jowls are sold the year around, but the big selling period is in August during the annual Birmingham festival when at least 200 pounds are sold.

Jowls are marketed in several sizes, from one to two pounds. Some customers, according to Takacs sales people, take the jowls home as is, but others ask that it be skinned and sliced, or cut into chunks.

The bacon is scored to release the fat at a faster pace.

My first encounter with Hungarian turkey was about 30 years ago at the home of Bess Packo. It was a memorable backyard setting at twilight where several men encircled the fire and each was holding bacon on the end of the stick over the flames. The late Rev. Martin Hernady was among the cooks tending the bacon and holding it over slices of bread to drip until there was nary a naked spot on the bread that wasn't coated with the grease.

Are they really downing all that grease, I questioned? But the setting soon began to smell like the tantalizing aroma of bacon frying on a cold winter morning and once the sliced tomatoes and onion were added to cover the grease, it was a food match made in heaven.

Vienna bread is said to best absorb the fat, but some people include rye bread for variety. When they are available, homegrown tomatoes add the flavor we all appreciate. The tomatoes and onions are chopped to make eating the open-face sandwich out of hand easier than it would be to wrestle with sliced vegetables.

As for the fire, apple wood is preferred, but charcoal also is used.

Thanks to Kathy and John Brezvai I don't have to build a fire, buy a hunk of jowl, and get the other things around to make my own Hungarian turkey. Every year the Brezvais invite me to join their guests on the other side of Posey Lake at a potluck dinner after the men play at the Devils Lake golf course. Hungarian turkey is always the first course and even though most of the guests were raised on the traditional food, it seems like more is eaten each year.

At the party in August, Bob Toth and Bob Micenic worked overtime holding the bacon over the fire to keep up with the 12 guests' demands and Kathy Brezvai and Elizabeth Toth almost ran out of tomatoes.

The best tool to hold the bacon in dripping position is debatable. Craftsmen make their own holders. Sticks whittled to sharp points work well if the bacon doesn't slip off into the fire.

Mr. Toth has bowed to the newfangled grilling baskets that are designed to hold hamburger patties and sausages. But in the Hungarian turkey circle, the baskets also securely hold four slices of jowl bacon, cut 3/8 inch thick. Mr. Toth likes the basket so well he ordered 12 more for his turkey buddies.

There's a bonus to this age old custom. After there is no more fat in the jowl, the crisp, charred remains are chopped and sprinkled over the top "We should watch that," Ms. Toth said. "That's cholesterol."

Mary Alice Powell is a retired Blade food editor.

Contact her at: mpowell@theblade.com.



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