The Trencherman

Going Hungary: Meditations on a Last Meal

‘The last meal, as a resonant idea, seems to rest on an awareness of impending death. It’s different than just your favorite food. It’s your favorite food…and then you die.’

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Last week, I ate George Lang’s last meal. Or rather, I had the meal Lang said would be his last, four years prior to his death seven years ago — which, as it turns out, wasn’t in fact his last meal at all. On the other hand, that one of New York’s greatest restaurateurs reached his hand out from the other side, to move a 24-year-old chef from south Florida to re-create his last meal, in all its arcane Hungarian glory, might actually mean Lang, posthumously, succeeded. It was his last meal at long last.

It was warm that night, and the sky over the East Village was the color of Meggykeszöce. Of course, I realized that only after the sun had vanished completely, and after the Eddy’s chef, Jeremy Salamon, had emerged from the kitchen bearing two glass Weck jars of the deep purple Meggykeszöce, a Hungarian sour cherry soup. The soup is of a soft periwinkle hue, viscous enough to support a scattering of chamomile flowers but not a quenelle of buttermilk crème fraîche. The chilled soup on a warm evening at the end of the hot day: gentle in color, gentle in flavor, a lullaby for the palate, going gently into the night.

Normally, the menu at the Eddy is a synthesis of New American cuisine — more artfully wrought than much of what one finds in the East Village but not fundamentally different — with a few Hungarian touches, courtesy of Salamon, whose grandparents emigrated from Hungary and who, before he took over the kitchen, ran a Hungarian pop-up called Fond. He’d long been a Lang freak, coming across his 1971 cookbook, George Lang’s Cuisine of Hungary, in the Strand after he moved to New York from Florida. The book, and its recipes, reminded him of his own grandparents. Tonight at the Eddy, the menu was dedicated to Salamon’s hero, the man behind Café Des Artistes, a Hungarian émigré (and Magyar kitchen evangelist), a bon vivant, and — as he describes himself on the cover of his memoir, Nobody Knows the Truffles I’ve Seen “restaurateur-raconteur extraordinaire.” In 2007, four years before he died at age 86, Lang gave an interview to the Voices Nina Lalli on what his last meal would be. The menu, he told her, would include “fisherman’s soup, stuffed goose neck, sour cherry soup, layered cabbage, stuffed peppers, plum dumplings, pancakes with apple meringue, and whipped-cream strudel.”

That article was mentioned in Lang’s obituary in the New York Times, where Salamon saw it, and the kicker was good enough to be his final word: “ ‘And then I will have what it takes to get to another world,’ he said.” Salamon made some modifications. “Goose neck is difficult to find,” he said, so instead he stuffed a poussin with a sweet chunky mixture of pork, apricots, and almonds. Lang’s rustic fisherman stew (Halászlé) was transmuted into a plank of brook trout, dotted with bottarga atop, with a burnt siena broth that was gently silky. The stuffed peppers, in Lang’s book made with traditional green peppers, were here poblanos, though the creamed wild arugula and lushly nutty walnut sauce were very much traditional. I’ve eaten stuffed cabbage for years at Veselka and Little Poland and the Stage around the corner. There they arrive on the plate like a pile of Amazon boxes the UPS guy left out in the rain, same color, same texture. They’re delicious; delicate, they aren’t. Salamon’s version, however, are tidy green care packages made of Savoy cabbage leaves, stuffed with pork rillett and paprikash wrapped neatly like some Japanese parcel left at the foot of your bed at a ryokan. Salamon’s langos were a revelation, fried discuses of dough like the best elephant ears I’d ever had, especially with the powdered sugar replaced with pecorino shavings and drizzled with wildflower honey.

Man, if this was Lang’s last meal, that guy nailed it. The Eddy is a small space, and a large part of it, that night, was occupied by a party of nine made up of Lang’s friends and family. Among them was Jenifer Lang, George’s widow. I was curious whether the meal her husband described a few years before his death was in fact his last meal, but didn’t want to interrupt with so morbid a question. So I called her up a few days later. “No,” she replied when I asked, “I don’t remember what his last meal was, but it wasn’t this.”

But reading through Lang’s memoir, it’s clear that the man had eaten his final meal many times over. As a Hungarian Jew, his family was destroyed by the Holocaust — both his parents were murdered at Auschwitz. After escaping a labor camp, Lang faced execution when he was revealed to be a Jew by members of the Arrow Cross militia. Saved by the invasion of the Russian Army, he soon faced persecution by the Russians, who accused him of being a fascist. Lang had been beaten and tortured and starved. He had escaped to Austria from Hungary literally hiding inside a coffin in a hearse. So before he even arrived in the United States in 1946 — on a boat, as a refugee from the Russians — he’d been born and died scores of times. This, Jenifer Lang muses, was at the heart of his insatiable appetite for this world. “After that,” she said, “he wasn’t afraid of anything.”

Despite its ur–Dad joke title and the fact that it isn’t available on Google Books, Nobody Knows the Truffles I’ve Seen proves that not only could Lang sling a sentence but that he could survive. He was a hustler, a world-hugger, a life-clinger, who had been so close to death so often at such a young age that he carried it with him always. And the funny thing is, it didn’t make him heavier. It made him lighter. That lightness of touch, the diamantine joy, manifest not only in his skill at the violin but as the visionary behind the Four Seasons restaurant and later Café Des Artistes, I think could only exist in the shadow of death.

The last meal, as a resonant idea, seems to rest on an awareness of impending death. It’s different than just your favorite food. It’s what’s your favorite food…and then you die. It’s most famously asked of the condemned, a last twitch of humanity before the executioner sings. In those cases, a last meal is made more enjoyable, meaningful, because finality looms at the end of it. But outside of planned executions, I would wager it’s rare that we actually know what meal will be our last. My grandfather was a man of strange but deep appetites. He lived for omelettes with jelly and slices of strawberry shortcake at Shapiro’s Delicatessen in downtown Indianapolis. My grandmother sucked chicken bones, a habit she picked up when she was poor during the Depression, and grated her own knuckles into the latkes. (At least, that’s what Papa Frank told me as a kid.) Both died, paper-skinned, wafer-thinned, and intubated.

That dinner at the Eddy was on Tuesday, June 5, the day Kate Spade died — just a few days before Anthony Bourdain, on Friday, June 8. And David Buckel died April 14 and Jeremy Safran died on May 7 and Josh Ozersky died on May 4, 2015, and Papa Frank died on June 22, 2014. I still think about all these people all the time, some more than others. What were their last meals? What will be mine?  

Tony talked to David Remnick about this on the New Yorker podcast a year ago. “My last day on Earth, if I had to choose one meal, it would be sushi. I’d be at Jiro or Masa,” he said. “Around the time they serve the omelette, the tamago, I’m ready to go then.” But, since he died in Kaysersberg, a small town in the Alsace region of France, I’m pretty sure Bourdain’s last meal was sausage and sauerkraut at Le Chambard, the small hotel at which he was staying with his friend Eric Ripert. Frankly it’s too heartbreaking to consider whether he knew that lunch was his last. I hope not. I hope his last meal was shared with his friend and that he enjoyed it tremendously. As for me, I don’t know what my last meal will be, or if I’ve already had it. If I go out on the leftover chicken kebab my kids didn’t eat from Greek Xpress, so be it. At least I fully enjoyed those dried-out cubes of charred bird for what they were.

It seems impossible to treat every meal as your last one; it seems as if that would lead to paralysis, and it might. But nodding to Lang — and Atisha, millennia before him — the thing is to enjoy the meal and let it go. Lang suffered greatly for this realization, but all this death that surrounds us might at least teach us that. The meal begins. The meal ends. Life goes on. And then it doesn’t.

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