I had a ball in Budapest. Actually, I had a bunch of them. We were walking down the street here, minding our own business, when what should confront me but a simmering cauldron of rooster testicles.
We had stumbled upon an Easter market set up in the middle of a small square not far from our apartment. There were food stalls with all sorts of delicious looking things – spring lamb turning on a spit, potatoes sauteeing in onions and goose fat, pork knuckles in sauerkraut, and lots of other light and healthy snacks. And then there was a pot of rooster testicle stew. That other stuff looked great, but how could I pass up rooster testicles and look myself in the mirror?
What would you do? I know what you would do. You would do what normal people do. You would giggle, crack a little joke, and you go about your life. Right?
Well, not me. Rooster testicles aren’t just food, they’re a challenge. I pride myself on being the ever-so-slightly-more-hirsute Andrew Zimmern, the guy from the TV show Bizarre Foods. If there is some crazy weird morsel out there, chances are I’ll eat it. And there I was, staring at these tiny spherical gauntlets that had been spread at my feet (my apologies for combining a medieval warfare metaphor with a reference to male poultry reproductive organs). I could not back down. I would not back down.
Why on earth was I put in this position in the first place? Apparently Hungarians either 1) are very hungry (har); 2) have an excess of roosters this time of year; 3) don’t like to waste anything, even rooster testicles; or 4) have a terrific sense of humor.
They didn’t look that scary, and the pot of nuts even smelled kind of good, although Janine didn’t agree. I was standing downwind of the big vat of boiling orbs, but I suppose the cooking smells clung to my clothes a bit. Later, Janine would berate me for walking around Budapest smelling like a chicken’s jockstrap. I will admit that Marky Mark may not make Eau du Boule du Coq his next fragrance, but if you ask me she was overreacting. I think she was planning to burn my clothes while I slept, but I’m relieved to report that she restrained herself.
And so I walked up to the stall and proudly and unashamedly announced that I would like an order of rooster testicle stew. “Would you like a full order or a half order?” the nice lady replied. I went for the half order. I’m not crazy, you know. (It is here that I thank my lucky stars that the Hungarians speak English so well. If we had been in Japan I would have certainly inadvertently ordered a double helping.)
By now you’re all dying to know how they were. Well, they were good. They came in an onion-y tomato sauce, which might be the part that Janine most objected to (well, that and the testicle part). They were, well, creamy, a bit gamey, and they were indisputably offal. I guess you could call these testicles the ultimate organ meat.
Enough of this nuttiness. What are we doing in Budapest anyway? Weren’t we just in Burma? Well, yup. Apart from a brief side trip to Japan, we have managed to stay in the southern hemisphere for the winter, but we decided to take one more swing through Europe before heading home. This meant risking some cold weather, however.
Going from southeast Asia to eastern Europe is a massive shift. One day, we were melting in hundred degree heat in a shorts and flip flops (the common garb for men and women alike is a light cotton longhi – a simple sarong that provides some excellent ventilation).
Four plane flights and twenty five hours later we were standing in thirty five degrees of wind chill next to the Danube wearing all the clothes in our suitcase.
Janine had always wanted to see Budapest and Prague, so here we are, freezing our asses off and eating testicles. We were hoping that by April things would warm up a bit, but we were wrong. No matter, Budapest is a lovely city with lots to offer.
In addition to its adventurous cuisine and astonishingly cheap beer and cocktails (at a nice bar, a gin and tonic will run you about $3.50), Budapest has elegant nineteenth century architecture, a very moving and informative Holocaust museum, an old and stately Parliament building, and one of the most beautiful opera houses I’ve ever seen.
The Hungarian State Opera House is a lot nicer than its communist-era name would suggest. It’s another one of those wedding cake jewels that looks like something out of the movie Amadeus. It opened in 1884 and is said to have some of the best acoustics in the world. Janine and I have been on an opera house kick. After taking lots of opera house tours, we finally saw an actual opera in Sydney, but the Sydney Opera House is a decidedly new world creation and we hadn’t experienced old world opera the way we’re supposed to.
We started going to the opera back in San Francisco and decided that we really like it. Operas are like broadway musicals with bigger sets, bigger casts, much bigger orchestras, less dancing, and a lot more singing. The good news was that there was an opera being performed while we were in town, there were tickets available, and they were cheap!
The bad news was that the opera was Parsifal by Richard Wagner.
Let’s set aside, if we can, the complications of seeing an opera by Wagner. Wagner is performed all over the place, so having outsourced my moral decision making to opera buffs who still attend Wagner in New York, San Francisco, and other places, we settled into our seats to see what the fuss was about.
The thing is, we’re opera novices. What we know about opera you can put on the head of a pin. Well, Wagner is complicated, and Parsifal damn near impenetrable. What’s it about? I’m still not entirely sure, and neither, it seems, is the Hungarian State Opera. In the program notes, even they admit that “it’s difficult to pin down what the story is about.” I’ll say. It has something to do with the holy grail and the spear used to wound Christ, and it’s often performed on Good Friday, but that’s about as far as I got. I will say that it was long and that it had more false endings than the Bush family.
Opera requires a lot of patience for the performers and the audience, but Parsifal really puts one to the test. Some guy would come on stage, sing a bunch of exposition for thirty or forty minutes, and then disappear for an hour or two. Where did he go? When’s he coming back? Some other guy would sing two or three lines and then be made to stand on the side of the stage watching everyone else do stuff for hours on end. Was he being punished? What about us? The first act, which clocked in at a hair over two hours, felt like a twenty two inning baseball game in which both pitchers walk the bases loaded in every inning but nobody ever scores.
On the positive side I thought the orchestra was wonderful and the acoustics were indeed splendid. And if I got bored I could look at the ornate room or compose this blog post in my head.
I confess that we didn’t stick it out for the whole five and a half hours, but I’m really glad we went. Like all stretching exercises, now that we’ve seen Wagner it will make all the other stuff a lot more easy.
And now, for your viewing pleasure, the video evidence of my culinary conquest: