Duffy Spencer, a Westbury resident since 1975, grew up in Queens enjoying Hungarian dishes prepared by her grandmother and two aunts. Her grandmother’s specialties were chicken paprikash, meat and vegetable soups with barley, and, of course, goulash, the popular stew containing chunks of beef, potatoes, vegetables and plenty of paprika. The aunts were bakers, offering palacsinta (crepes) with apricot jam, walnuts with a meringue coating, and cookies with jelly centers.
But once a month, the table was filled with something other than food—piles of new clothes that had been washed and rumpled. The women were packing boxes of clothes to send to relatives living behind the Iron Curtain in Communist Hungary. The family was concerned because there were high tariffs for the family to pay on new clothes or the clothing might be stolen if it was new. So the clothing had to appear used.
It was Winston Churchill who coined the phrase The Iron Curtain. In a speech in 1946 he talked about an iron curtain descending across Europe. He said, “Behind that line lie all the capitals of the ancient states of Central and Eastern Europe. Warsaw, Berlin, Prague, Vienna, Budapest, Belgrade, Bucharest and Sofia, all these famous cities and the populations around them lie in what I must call the Soviet sphere.”
“We had a picture of the relatives,” said Duffy, “and I thought they looked very handsome but distant.”
As time passed and the older generation died off, Duffy’s family lost contact with the Hungarian relatives.
In 1979, Duffy’s mother Fran, trying to reconnect, wrote a letter to her first cousin Feri. He answered and Fran and Duffy’s two younger sisters made a trip to Hungary. In 1981 Duffy went to meet her relatives. Her mother, sisters and nephew were already there visiting. She traveled alone, landing in Budapest. “All I knew was to get on the bus to Szegad and get off at the last stop,” she says. “I was so scared.” A stranger approached and when he found out about her plans, he said, “I take you to bus stop.” She trusted him and he drove her to the bus station. At Szegad she handed the family’s address to a cab driver. “I was going to the end of the earth and didn’t know where I was,” she says. What relief when she arrived and saw her nephew playing outside with another little boy.
The family treated them royally, taking them all over the country and preparing all the delicious Hungarian food she had grown up eating. “The food tasted like what my grandmother and aunts used to make,” she says. Two years later Duffy again traveled to Hungary, this time with her husband, William “Spence” Spencer.
With the dissolution of the USSR in 1989, the Iron Curtain was lifted and it became easier for the Hungarian family to visit the U.S. Over the years relatives have come to the U.S., visiting Duffy and Spence in their home in Westbury, and other family members in Suffolk County and Connecticut. These days with email, it is much easier to stay in contact with the Hungarian relatives. Duffy still keeps in touch with Eszter, Feri’s granddaughter, now by email. Eszter is a research scientist, married with an eight-year-old son.
“Meeting my Hungarian family in person gave me such a sense of history…and belonging in the wider world,” says Duffy. She and Spence are planning to visit Hungary again in the near future.
2 pounds beef chuck, cubed
2 large onions
2 tablespoons paprika
Salt to taste
2–3 tablespoons tomato paste
6 potatoes, cut up
Bunch of carrots (optional)
1 or 2 green peppers (optional)
In a large pot or Dutch oven over medium heat, saute onions until translucent. Remove onions from pot and set aside. In same pot, coat beef cubes in mixture of paprika and salt and cook until brown on all sides. Return the onions to the pot and stir in tomato paste. Add vegetables and cook for approximately one hour on low heat.
This can be served as is or with noodles or spaetzle.