Flavors of Hungary

Badacsony - Norbert Mészáros Photography

Flavors of Hungary

Karolina Tima Szabo 

This lady is Charlotte Slovak Biro, the great culinary chef, who taught cooking in San Francisco for many years. 

Charlotte Slovak was born in Budapest to a well-to-do family.  She was a happy and spoiled child, an only girl with two older brothers.  She received an excellent education; studied playing the piano, learned languages, German, French and English.  Her favorite pastime as a young girl was dancing, and in the summer, playing tennis and swimming.  Due to her mother’s illness, she took over managing the household and taking care of the family.  I suppose that is when she put her hands on her grandmother’s and mother’s recipes. That prepared her for the not so carefree life destiny presented her with. 

When Charlotte married the banker Zoltán Bíró, her parents gave them a house by the Danube and a vineyard at Badacsony, by Lake Balaton, as a wedding gift.  The Bíró couple was blessed with two daughters, so Charlotte’s parents give them another vineyard, that each of the girls might inherit one when the time came. 

As Charlotte said in her biography, life was beautiful, socially as well as financially.  Her husband had a high position at the bank and the vineyard provided enough financially for the family and enough food too.  The household had maids, the girls had a German governess.  The family entertained at the vineyard, friends were visiting from Budapest.  Life was beautiful, until the war broke out. Germans occupied the country.  The house was bombed, the vineyards were destroyed. Most of the time the family spent in bomb shelters.  Luck was on their side for a while, they had plenty of food reserved.  But nothing lasts forever. The food was gone, and the family was starving. They did not have even drinking water, they ate the freshly fallen snow, and ate roasted chestnuts. 

After the war ended, the family found a new home, and worked on restoring the vineyard.  It seemed as if they started a new life.  Of course, that is not what happened.  The Russians did not leave Hungary after the war, and the country became a Communist country.  Most of the properties were nationalized. 

The family had to make the biggest decision of their lives, whether to stay or leave the country.  A decision was made overnight in 1949, to leave.  First the girls were sent to Austria.  They received information where it was safer to cross the Iron Curtain.  Next day a message came that the girls are safe.  Charlotte and her husband were planning to cross the border at the same place a few days later.  But their luck ran out, they were captured and thrown into prison. 

Besides sending the girls over the border, Charlotte made another smart decision, to put her recipe book in her baggage.  They were woken up during the night for interrogation, and when they found the recipe book in her bag, that most likely saved their lives.  Charlotte was put in the kitchen to help with preparing the food.  She did not elaborate much on their time in prison, only that she was separated from her daughters.  The girls were in America by that time. When Charlotte and Zoltán left the prison is not known.  Zoltán died soon after his release.  He never saw his daughters again, and never drank the wine saved during the year the girls were born for drinking on their wedding day. 

In 1956, the Hungarian people had enough of the Russian oppression and Communism, and they revolted.  Charlotte “traded” her apartment for a passport and left the country.  I am sure one of the officers was bribed with the apartment, since there was a shortage in housing after the war.  She came to the U.S.  It had been 8 years that she had not seen her daughters.  They were sponsored by Charlotte’s brother, and by that time were college graduates, and had married.   

Charlotte entertained her daughter’s friends with her Hungarian cooking.  Many guests asked for her recipes.  The old hand-written recipe book was falling apart by that time.  So, the “Flavors of Hungary – recipes and memoirs by Charlotte Biro” was published in 1973 by 101 Production in San Francisco.  A newer edition was published in 1992. 

Hungarian culinary art was influenced mostly by Austrian food; still it has an original and unique Hungarian flavor.  Hungarians use few spices in cooking, but the method of cooking, the “édes nemes” (sweet and noble) paprika gives it a special taste, provides a “national character” to our food.  The recipes in her books are simple, easy to follow. They are in English and are adapted to American measurements and ingredients.  "Flavors of Hungary" is a classic guide to old-world Hungarian cooking, including recipes and lore from master cook Charlotte Biro. 

The book is still available at Amazon and other websites. 

Karolina Tima Szabo is a retired Systems Analyst of the Connecticut Post newspaper and  Webmaster of Magyar News Online.  She is the proud grandmother of two.