My great grandmother Virginia Goettl sat at the kitchen table of my parents' Denver apartment when someone started the tape recorder.
"I was born in 1906 in Europe," she began. "I was a year old when I—"
My grandma, Virginia's daughter Betty, cut in. "Whereabouts in Europe, mom?"
"I was born in Bosnia... Bosnia was a province of Austria-Hungary that they recaptured from the Turks in the early 1800s," she explained after my hearing-impaired grandpa mistakenly thought she said Boston.
It was a quiet family evening in August 1982. My parents were there (my mom was seven months pregnant with me) with my grandparents and my dad's cousin Julie. You can hear the sound of plates being cleared in the background as my dad and grandma set out to capture Virginia's story. "Okay, what we wanted to record mostly was about history, about family history..." Betty starts to explain at the beginning of the tape.
Earlier this year, I borrowed the three tapes they created, and started what I've come to call the "Family History Project." My great grandparents had a life of unplanned adventure after my great grandpa John was diagnosed with tuberculosis in 1929. Their story is beyond the scope of a single blog post.
Those tapes, though, and some of the simple and straightforward statements that emerged from them have shed unexpected light on questions I've had about my family history.
Since my first family recipes post about kiffels, I've wondered why my "German" family prepared so much Hungarian food.
We have a cookbook of different family recipes that my aunt collected for a reunion in 1999. All of the ones attributed to Virginia indicate a strong eastern European influence. And it's not just hers, but several of her relatives' recipes for goulash and paprikash, as well as my mom's kiffels, all point to a past situated well outside the borders I grew up associating with my family.
I don't have all the answers for why my family continually talked about their strong German roots yet were actually located in the southeastern territories of Austria-Hungary.
But the straightforward sentence, "I was born in Bosnia," explains why I grew up with the hearty and comforting flavors of foods infused with Hungarian paprika.
It made me excited to try a recipe for "Real Hungarian Goulash," that my Aunt BJ submitted, explaining that her Aunt Helene Kailer made the stew for her after her first son was born. Preparing the simple, tomato-based beef stew connected me to a part of my family's past that I now perceive more clearly.
I will continue exploring the various facets involved in my Family History Project, examining how a disease led the Goettls from Ohio, through the Deep South, and eventually landed them in Phoenix, Arizona. I can see that path laid out in the food we love, and the recipes we've shared with one another.
So, we'll start at the beginning, with the Hungarian food that I grew up believing was German. Here is Aunt Helene's goulash. And, as my mom was careful to instruct me, be sure to get the Hungarian paprika in the red tin! It's the best.
Real Hungarian Goulash
A note from Aunt BJ: The key is good paprika! Hungarian paprika is sweet and delicious. (Don't use Spanish paprika.)
1/4 cup vegetable oil
1 large sweet onion, chopped (or two smaller onions)
1 red bell pepper, sliced into thin strips
5 Tbs. Hungarian paprika
3 lbs. beef stew meat or a cut up roast
1 can tomato paste
1 1b. bag baby carrots (optional)
16 oz. noodles (I used Ancient Harvest Quinoa Rotelle to make it gluten free)
1. In a dutch oven or stock pot, heat oil to low. Add chopped onion and cook slowly until onions are transparent (about 15 minutes).
2. Add red bell pepper and continue to sauté until tender (5-10 more minutes), stirring regularly.
3. Cover the onions and peppers with the stew meat, and allow meat to brown.
4. Stir in paprika and tomato paste, and then add enough water to cover the meat. Add carrots (if desired). Cover and let cook over low to medium-low heat for 1 1/2 hours, uncovering the pot for the last 30 minutes so that the stew thickens slightly.
5. Serve over noodles, and garnish with parsley.