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Image from page 395 of “The standard domestic science cook book” by Jennie Adrienne Hansey and illus by William H. Lee (1908), flickr

I don’t know if there is a food memory I am not quite remembering but for some reason since the onset of fall, I am finding myself drawn to Hungarian dishes. Maybe my mom used paprika in a dish I enjoyed. I also remember when I was losing weight on Atkins, the one especially enjoyable dish was a version of Hungarian Chicken Paprikash so maybe this is also what has inspired me.

I am trying different recipes for Chicken Paprikash in my cast iron pan and am finding, thankfully, it is fairly cheap because of its use of cheaper cuts of the chicken, such as thighs and drumsticks. I don’t usually like the darker cuts but am finding the cooking of it in this recipe with the use of a sweet onion, sour cream, and paprika mellows out the gamier flavor. The chicken turns out tender and can even withstand slight overcooking if I make a mistake, such as I did in my second trial run last night. I have also discovered stew meat I stashed in my freezer with the news of the pandemic, hence: goulash. I ordered some caraway yesterday to complete my spices so I may try my next Hungarian classic.

The smoky, sweet, sometimes spicy flavor of paprika seems a very good way to celebrate fall. And celebrations are small and private this season. I cannot invest yet in super authentic Hungarian paprika. Spending on luxuries are at a premium. My dog is experiencing some health complications. I am behind on my own health check ups. I take her everywhere with me in our bright yellow car when I get out to do errands and she socializes with dog friends and people friends at my apartment complex. But to get by, we are keeping life as simple as possible and praying for the best.

I did create a story several years ago which I set in a fantastical village incorporating some of the dishes from Eastern Europe. I think at the time I was thinking roughly of Hungary for my protagonist was named “Katinka,” a name possibly originating there. A dish she cooks for her husband is ciorba. Though this was a classic Romanian dish, it was passed to Hungary through a shared border, especially in the region of Transylvania. There are versions of this soup all over the world. Maybe something similar, like a sour ciorba, was inspiring me: A pickle soup I once enjoyed at a Polish restaurant in town. Maybe I was thinking something as refreshingly sour as this delight. Actually, I’m not a big pickle fan unless it’s spicy, but this Polish soup was so amazing and creamy. The bread I chose for my protagonist to make was lipie, apparently a Romanian classic, but I was banking on that same food fusion idea of shared borders, though maybe I should have gone with something like kalach, a sweet bread.

One thing I enjoy trying is to set stories in locations or with cultures unknown to me. Cultural appropriation can be pernicious in such attempts and I have been guilty of that, but am finding it somewhat more manageable if I can give the story a fantastic element, an element of imaginative play, instead of having it represent an attempt to be more authoritative. I often use something otherworldly in the story or fantastical or dystopian. Or sometimes I don’t name a region just make one up based on some research.

A few years ago, I gathered ideas and began a longer story set in Artic Sweden based loosely on the Ice Hotel. A part of me felt I must really try to travel there, but economic and health realities can be a sort of a buzzkill in certain projects. However, one can read stories and accounts, watch videos. I purchased a book on ice sculpting as well as an early explorer narrative among other resources, including a book discussing the native peoples of Lapland, reindeer, music, Laestadianism – a form of Luthernism in Nordic countries originating in the 19th century. I found a yearly ice sculpting competition in my area. And of course, I believe food and drink came into my research.

Research for stories becomes an obsession. I spent a year researching a story involving Chinese immigrants for my graduate Master’s thesis. Other projects based on research: haunted lighthouses of Florida, early Florida history, Three Gorges Damn of China, the Killing Fields of Texas. There may be more but these come to mind. I don’t really write much without research, even when it involves my area. And the good thing about writing fiction is you can kind of bend facts to a certain extent.

Some of the things I love about research is that it brings me closer to my world. I develop an affinity for more people, albeit in a more invisible, removed, microscopic sense. I start to become more curious about places, not to mention the recipes I can glean, lol. This past weekend, I began watching a series called “Artic Circle” on Amazon Prime through the channel Topic. Immediately, I recalled my research of Arctic Sweden and Lapland and the characters I started to develop . I compared and contrasted former beliefs and ideas with what I found illustrated through the show, though of course this show is set in Finland, unlike my story which is set in Arctic Sweden, but the Arctic circle region is close enough for the moment and couldn’t be any more foreign to central Florida.

I am really enjoying “Arctic Circle.” The story takes place in a Finnish border town close to Russia. A warning to you that it involves the horror of a fictitious virus, so if you are already feeling some burnout on this topic, it may not be for you. But it is slow burning, not gory, at least at the beginning, and is an interesting glimpse of a region and some of its real issues and not just a fictional one. Besides, there is indeed a current concern regarding viruses released via unfreezing of organic matter in Arctic regions.

Well, I started out this journey discussing a couple of dishes of Eastern Europe and a flash fiction story I created set in a fictitious, fantastical village. One of the main characters is a bird who talks, which is only possible in the realm of the fantastical. I published it in an online journal called One Thousand and One Stories but it appears to have collapsed. It burned brightly for a while. Originally my title was “nasty bird.” I think to keep it a bit more on the side of a PG rating I will rename it “naughty bird.” My bird is fond of “adult” circumlocutions, eh hem. But they serve the story.

I am posting “Naughty Bird” separately. Enjoy your Monday.