A History of Goulash
My earliest memories of goulash are full of warm, satisfying sensations—soft, chewy egg noodles draped in thick brown gravy and big chunks of beef adorned with a few key ingredients like green pepper, onion, and paprika. Even though my Croatian/Ukrainian mother was born and raised in Queens, she was a natural homemaker who somehow managed to perfect the culinary staple of goulash quite early in her 45-year marriage to my Croatian born father. The concept of eating out was one in which our family rarely took part. She didn’t often accept help in the kitchen, but once I knew that we were having goulash for dinner I’d set the table and anticipate the shiny sauce making a mess around my plate as I filled my stomach. Even my picky teenage brother would chow down, along with my dad whose great appetite did not reflect his fit, somewhat lanky body. My dad worked so much that he ate like a lord at dinner and never gained a pound.
At ten years old, I would sit at the long, wood grained kitchen table with thick legs. Under the table, my dad would keep a big jug of red wine that fueled his laughter and stories even when his body was tired from electrical work and/or house renovations. By then, I was usually allowed a little red wine too, though Cherry Coke was more my preference. It was hard to not overeat the thick mass of Pennsylvania Dutch noodles all stuck together to the dark golden brown grains of beef. The goulash cooked in the gravy for about two hours or more, the odd stir sending shape notes of meaty stew smells across the house and into my nostrils. I always wanted more even after I was full. My height was stuck in kid mode, while by that time my weight was starting to spike into pre-teendom. Yet, no one told my body to mature any further for at least five more years. Throughout all the awkwardness, that meal kept me feeling contained in my family unit. It was Croatian; it was ours.
The meal that was goulash originated in Hungary as a basic meat stew with paprika that Central European shepherds ate—the term goulash (gulyás) itself meant something akin to cowboys or herdsmen. Though Croatia’s cuisine was typically more coastal and Mediterranean in nature and my family’s own history along the Dalmatian coast was certainly rooted in those flavors, Croatia was ruled by the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the form of the Habsburg Monarchy from the 16th to the late 19th centuries. In addition to the Romans, Ottoman Turks, Venetians, and even the Napoleonic French, Austria-Hungary was a fixture in Croatia’s cultural traditions, particularly its culinary ones: stuffed cabbage (sarma), kielbasa and sauerkraut (kiseli kupus), stuffed peppers (punjene paprike), all bold, colorful, and full of meat.
The Croatian version differed from the traditional Hungarian goulash in that we tended towards a simpler set of ingredients. They used sour cream and often added milk and mushrooms; ours was more like a stroganoff. My mother worked solo in her kitchen throughout my childhood, but emphasized to me that there was “very little” in the version she made. She couldn’t recall exactly where the recipe came from or why it was so simple. I witnessed her in our large, wood paneled kitchen in Thornwood, NY. She would chop peppers methodically, her wild curly brown hair held back with combs just behind her ears, her glasses foggy over drained colanders of egg noodles and pastas of all sorts, and her fierce green eyes focused on the task at hand. The crackling noise that emanated from the bottom of the steel pot stayed in my eardrums most of all—the floured cubes of beef hitting the warmed olive oil not only produced a savory crust seasoned only with salt and pepper, but also heated up and burst in small pockets. The sound signaled our family’s crest in food form; I will never forget hearing it.
Years later, when I had turned 30 and moved to Carroll Gardens in Brooklyn, I began to feel the need to cook. I don’t know what happened exactly—probably the combination of a semi-decent, regular paycheck assisting at the William Morris Agency, a growing circle of “downtown” artist friends, and a roommate who traveled for work more often than she was home. I bombarded my mother with constant demands over the phone for the recipe. Her retorts were always the same as we went through each step of the process: “We don’t write things down. I don’t know how much I put.” Eventually, we settled on one official script. It was simple indeed: green pepper, onion and garlic sauteed in the same flavored oil that had formed the crust onto the floured meat cubes, followed by adding the meat back in, some red wine (my mother insisted she rarely used wine, but I insisted it become part of the tradition,) a squeeze of tomato paste, one or two cartons of beef stock, and the barest of spices including mainly paprika leftover from the former Hungarian rulers and a dried bay leaf. My mother always warned me to remove the bay leaf before serving, because “you could choke on those things!” The egg noodles were still a mainstay. As I began making the goulash for friends and guests more regularly, I found I could summon a little slice of the comfort that I had discovered at the bottom of a gravied bowl during my growing up.
On a Tuesday night soon after, I had plans to have my current on-off lover Jack over, along with a short redhead named Allison who was fast becoming my best friend and partner-in-crime. I was going to make goulash for them at my place. Allison and I met when we both went to visit Jack at the bar where he worked in Williamsburg, the neighborhood then still somewhat desolate and full of Italians, Hasidic Jews, and greasy diners. It turned out we were both sleeping with Jack. I would go on to sleep with him, while she would go on to sometimes sleep with him without telling me. Looking back, finding each other seemed more important than all that.
My mother had called my office cubicle phone earlier that afternoon. After a lifetime of working too hard at house building and renovation in both New York and Florida, my 75 year old father had suffered a massive heart attack and was in a coma at the hospital in Albany. My mother told me not to come up that night, as she had to see for herself what tomorrow would bring. My father had not only been my connection to old world Croatia, but also the teacher who showed me the lineage of cultures, countries and civilizations that had called Croatia theirs throughout history. He was the person who told stories to us long after the goulash and other homemade meals were digested. He was my link to our roots. He was my friend.
That night, I was in shock and all I could think to do was still make the goulash for Jack and Allison as planned. I was on autopilot, but they both helped me make it into a meal. I broke down in tears repeatedly throughout the night, drank too much wine, and slowly the shock shut me down. There were no comforts in the sounds, smells, or tastes inherent in the meal that my mother had made for us so many times during my childhood. Jack spent the night with me in my bedroom and Allison slept on the couch. Before leaving for work the next morning, she embraced me hard with a strong, southern hug.
Jack was a mostly out-of-work artist with long hair he kept neatly in one of the earlier instances of a man-bun I recalled seeing in Brooklyn, but there wasn’t anything hip about him. He came from a broken home in Pittsburgh and wore clothes far too many times before washing them. He had a notoriously efficient caregiving side, having lived with and acted as nurse for his grandmother until and during her death. Jack stayed with me the whole next day, which fell into a sort of sensory oblivion. The plan was to go upstate in a rental car the following morning to the hospital and likely sit at my father’s bedside as he died without a further story or word.
I slept away much of that in-between day, but the one aspect of it I most remember was hearing Jack in the cramped kitchen, knocking pots and scraping items into bowls. There had been a lot of leftover goulash, since I didn’t know how to make smaller versions of our family recipes, only the behemoth variation tailored to a family reunion or the gathering of a sports team. Jack had dated a Hungarian and had a different idea about how to doctor my goulash. He added a bevy of whatever spices he found in the cabinets and blanketed each of our servings in a bubbling layer of whatever cheese I had in the refrigerator. Sitting with Jack on the couch in front of an empty fireplace eating the amalgamated concoction of goulash was one of the rare moments of comfort I actually managed to feel throughout those days.
I lost my father the next evening. He miraculously became present in the moments before his death, holding the hands of my mother and I as we wished him well on his journey. My brother was unable to be there in time, but I view the scene as all four of us being present just as we had been when we sat around the big wooden table eating dinner every night. Since that loss, our family was always missing something—my father left that big of a hole.
Months after, Allison and I became roommates down the hill from Carroll Gardens on the Red Hook waterfront. For the first time, I had a big, renovated kitchen. My love of goulash remained. It even strengthened in its meaning and experience. Whether Jack would come over, a few new Red Hook friends or 20 people from the neighborhood of misfits that we were quickly becoming familiar with, we would cook in big, deep pots. Allison came from Baton Rouge and New Orleans and was the yin to my Croatian old world yang, cuisine wise. She explained that cooking brought her peace, calm, and was like therapy for her. She had also lost her father years back. We’d take turns, one of us preparing our signature “comfort” dish—my goulash, her gumbo—while the other helped chop ingredients and while we both ate bread and drank wine. Some of the basic components of our dishes were the same: the creole “holy trinity” was onion, celery, and bell pepper (green); my self-proclaimed Croatian holy trinity was onion, bell pepper (green, but now I was occasionally adding in or replacing with the sweeter red), and garlic. In those first few years after losing my father, we kept Red Hook’s stomachs full, loved, and satisfied.
Not more than four years after my father’s death, I finally made the trip back to his Croatian family. Uncles, Aunts, and cousins upon cousins all greeted me with their memories of the dark pigtails, surly grin, and red shorts that I wore constantly when they last saw me—I had been six-years-old at the time. My Teta (aunt) Milka was a fabulous cook, but the meal that I couldn’t resist most was prepared at a seaside yacht club in Split. I ordered the goulash. It was delicious. The meat and brown gravy sat not upon egg noodles, but on hand-rolled gnocchi. I would have never thought of this clearly sophisticated continental combination of textures and flavors. No matter its starch companion, the goulash looked neater on the plate than mine ever did. The meal satiated me as it always managed to do no matter my age, the gains or losses in my life, or the state of my heart.
My cousins walked me along the seaside and told me stories about my father working on small fishing boats in his youth. With his tan skin and dark movie star eyes, he’d take visiting British college girls on boat crossings to the many serene Croatian islands off the Dalmatian coast. I wondered when my father had eaten his first bowl of goulash. I wondered what ingredients his mother used. I hoped his belly was full when he crossed from the old world into the new. I recently found the recipe I had written down on a slip of William Morris Agency note paper. I folded it along its original lines and filed it away in the back of a drawer. Despite the obvious want to switch to the more authentic gnocchi, I can’t resist the sticky egg noodles that my mother always used in her goulash.
Whenever I plan on making more goulash, whether for one other person, a room full of friends, or for my mother and me, something clicks inside. My dad sits at the dinner table, a jug of wine at his feet. My friends surround me in the messy Red Hook kitchen hours after Allison and I laugh our way through two of our respective family recipes and multiple bottles of wine. My mother draws her knife against the wooden block while she prepares our family dish of mysterious origins. The floured meat pops and crackles in the pan until the ocean of diced onion enters the stage. At the Adriatic Yacht Club, my overseas family welcomes me back into our particular familial fabric of time as the boats bob up and down in the waves to the tune of a Croatian sunset.
Maryana Lucia Vestic is a Brooklyn based food writer, home cook/baker, and memoirist, with a background in filmmaking, various legal departments in the entertainment business, massage therapy, and publishing. She mostly pushes the pencil about her Croatian-American experience, food history, immigrant meals, passion for baking, and unearthing the hidden troves of secret recipes.
This essay was previously published in The New School’s Inquisitive Eater in 2016.