Photo: Women in Hungarian dresses twirl

Elza's Kitchen follows the lofty ambitions of a local restaurant proprietor in a fictional Hungarian town.

Photograph by Douglas Pearson, SIME

By Don George

Book of the Month: Elza’s Kitchen, by Marc Fitten

Marc Fitten’s new novel, Elza’s Kitchen, serves up a multi-course lesson in the dreams and challenges of contemporary life in Hungary. Set in a fictional prosperous provincial city called Delibab, the novel traces a brief but critical period in the life of Elza, the chef and proprietor of a popular restaurant that serves high-quality versions of traditional Hungarian “grandmother’s dishes” such as chicken paprika and shepherd’s goulash. Elza’s dream is to have her kitchen reviewed by the great restaurant critic for the French magazine Le Gourmand. And one of the thematic threads of the book is her attempt, aided by two of her former culinary professors, to get the critic to visit Delibab.

Elza isn’t the only character with lofty ambitions in this post-socialist society, whose inhabitants are likened to “children let out to recess after years of mental cruelty at the hands of a bitter schoolmarm and her dilapidated classroom.” Her Sous-Chef wants to launch his own restaurant, her new Pastry Chef wants to create her own sweets empire, and her Dishwasher just wants to get a raise.

The pervasiveness of such capitalist dreams in modern Hungary is one of the prime illuminations of the book. Another is its introduction to some of the everyday characters of town life, the Professor of Humanities, the Postal Inspector, the Motorcycle Officer, and the Roma (Gypsy) inhabitants, whose transgressions and tribulations also propel the plot.

The presence of the past is clear in the town’s physical organization, with everything radiating from the church at its center, but its new worship of entertainment and entrepreneurialism is also vividly illustrated in the magical allure of a state-sponsored professional circus and the recently created annual flower parade that draws visitors from around the region and beyond.

Seasoned with a zesty appreciation for the intersection of culture and cuisine and a hearty sauce of humor as well, Fitten blends the promises and problems wrought with the Soviet invasion of 1956 and the collapse of socialism in 1989 into a deliciously edifying goulash of Hungary old and new.

New Book Roundups

Magical Mysteries

Spring has come to the bucolic French village of St. Denis, which means the scent of lamb stew, bottles of Pomerol, and another mystery to solve for Bruno, Chief of Police. In Crowded Grave: A Mystery in the French Countryside, by Martin Walker, Bruno is put on the case after archaeologists find a very modern corpse while searching for ancient remains. Private investigator Vish Puri tramps around a vibrant, bustling Delhi following a trail that begins with some poisoned poultry in Tarquin Hall’s The Case of the Deadly Butter Chicken. Deputy sheriff Dave Robicheaux of New Iberia, Louisiana, is resurrected in Creole Belle, the 19th novel in the series by James Lee Burke. While recuperating from a shootout in the swamps of Bayou Teche, Robicheaux battles external foes and internal demons—including memories of his father’s death in an oil platform explosion—during a sweltering south Louisiana summer.

Alternate Forms of Transport

In her collection of humorous travel essays Planes, Trains, and Auto-Rickshaws: A Journey Through Modern India, award-winning journalist and author Laura Pedersen explores India and riffs on topics ranging from rules for driving in Delhi to the changing roles of women and children in Indian society. Jeremy Seal canoes the famously windy Büyük Menderes or Meander River that connects East and West in Meander: East to West, Indirectly, Along a Turkish River.

Reading Matchmaker

If you like...

...Eat Pray Love then check out Have Mother, Will Travel. Instead of journeys through multiple countries for healing and self-discovery, this book is a multiple-country journey to heal and evolve a mother-daughter relationship. Claire Fontaine is a writer who suddenly packs up her L.A. apartment and buys a house in Florida. Her daughter, Mia Fontaine, works in New York publishing and is a motivational speaker. In 2006, the pair wrote Come Back, an account of Mia’s battle with drugs and their tumultuous relationship. The book was ultimately healing but sent each of the women on different trajectories. Now as Claire approaches midlife and Mia is on the cusp of a career, the two women drop everything to participate in an around-the-world scavenger hunt. Written in alternating voices, the book humorously documents the power of travel to test and deepen relationships.

One Last Thing

Everyday Life in Middle China

We’ve all heard that China is the century’s looming superpower, but beyond the bright lights of Hong Kong, Shanghai, and Beijing, I don’t know much about everyday existence there, particularly in the second-tier cities where many Chinese first make the transition from rural to urban life. That’s why I was especially interested by Aminta Arrington’s new memoir, Home is a Roof over a Pig. Arrington moves with her husband and three children, one of whom is an adopted Chinese daughter, to Tai’an, a university town in Shandong Province, south of Beijing, to teach at Taishan Medical College. Her chronicle of their adventures with the language and with the local culture and characters presents intimate glimpses of the profoundly different ideology and philosophy that underlie the quotidian Chinese experience—and of the essential human kindness that can transcend those differences.

Don George has won numerous awards for his work as a travel writer and editor. He is the author of Travel Writing and the editor of eight literary travel anthologies, including Lights, Camera…Travel!, A Moveable Feast, and The Kindness of Strangers. E-mail Don at dgeorge@ngs.org.

Share

Take a Nat Geo Trip

Select a destination or trip type to find a trip:

See All Trips »

Join Nat Geo Travel's Communities




2014 Traveler Photo Contest

  • Picture of a scuba diver at Green Lake in Austria.

    See All Entries

    Browse all the submissions and check back for the winning images.