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But who will eat the goulash?

Published 1:00 pm, Saturday, July 17, 2010

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  • Preparing for  lunchtime crowds, Ferenc Gubicza stirs chicken paprikash inside the Fairfield Meat Emporium's kitchen. Photo: Tim Loh / Fairfield Citizen
    Preparing for lunchtime crowds, Ferenc Gubicza stirs chicken paprikash inside the Fairfield Meat Emporium's kitchen. Photo: Tim Loh

 

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Given modern swings in the world of geo-culinary politics, Ferenc Gubicza's next move could be described as daring.

A few hours before lunchtime in the Fairfield Meat Emporium's kitchen, the 58-year-old stands tall over a flaming stove, an apron wrapped around his chest, peering into a sizzling stew of tomatoes, onions, peppers and lard.

He grabs two handfuls of beef sirloin cubes from a plastic bucket and dumps them in. Out comes his wooden spoon, which he stirs in widening circles. Then he heaps on pepper and paprika.

"Whole peppers," notes his brother, Laszlo, 54, "and lots of paprika."

The pot simmers for nearly an hour, and then -- Bam! -- three-dozen servings of Hungarian goulash.

Laszlo leans in to inspect. "It is spicy and rich and colorful," he says, ladling some into a metal bowl. "Hungarian food, it's a little bit complicated." He taps his skull. "Like Hungarians."

For the Gubicza brothers, serving up Hungarian fare left the realm of "complicated" long ago. They were born and raised in the European country, and they spent years there working in the food business.

Their challenge now is in weaving their old-world skill-set into a modern marketplace where the customers are hustling, the grocery stores are supersized, and the most popular international cuisines are Mediterranean or Asian.

Their store location, at 849 Kings Highway, once placed it at the epicenter of a vibrant Hungarian community. But the immigrants are dwindling now, and their offspring have mostly shed their deepest ethnic ties.

The Gubiczas are left with one complicated business plan: serve the aging immigrants, stoke cultural ties among the immigrants' offspring and convert anyone else who stumbles into the shop into a meat emporium enthusiast.

As lunch approaches on a recent morning, few strangers seem willing to take the bait. Laszlo gazes languorously out his storefront window. "A million cars are running by every day," he says. "If people would slow down, maybe we'd have more customers."

Then he comes up with an uncomplicated thought.

"Paul Newman was Hungarian, and he was in the food business," he says. "Maybe if he marketed Hungarian food, we'd be in better shape."

Can this deli stay in healthy shape?

The Hungarian Foundation

Seventy-five years ago, the answer to that question would be a decided "yes." According to the book Fairfield: The Biography of a Community, Hungarian immigrants were the largest ethnic group to arrive in town during the first third of the 20th century.

Take Bob Kranyik, for example. Kranyik grew up in a time and place -- the Grasmere neighborhoods in the 1930s -- when Hungarian food reigned supreme.

Now 78, Kranyik, a former University of Bridgeport professor, is a leading historian of local Hungarian lore. The grandson of four Hungarian immigrants who arrived in this country at the turn of the 20th century, he got his first taste for the study while plumbing his own family's history.

The hobby snowballed. Before long, he'd landed a spot on the editorial board of the Magyar News Online, a Hungarian-American website for which he contributes regularly about this area's past.

On a recent afternoon, he sat in his basement office, flipping through files of photographs and articles, which he keeps stored beneath his desktop computer. He spoke about his family.

Upon arrival, three of his grandparents settled into Bridgeport's West End, he said, which makes them fairly representative of the Hungarian community. The West End had become a destination for Hungarians as early as the 1880s. The immigrants generally found jobs in factories and lived in tenement buildings south of Fairfield Avenue, between today's Captain's Cove and Seaside Park.

In the early 1900s, however, a few Hungarian developers started buying large tracts of land in parts of Fairfield, subdividing them, and selling them cheaply to Bridgeport's Hungarian immigrants. One of the first to do this was Frank Timko, whose name is memorialized on a street sign by the new Fairfield Metro Center site.

Although the subdivided plots were small -- 25 feet by 100 feet, in some cases -- the new land-owners usually couldn't develop them right away. So they kept on living in their Bridgeport tenements and came to Fairfield on the weekends to garden.

The Fairfield book recounts one such development, which took place between 1915 and 1920. Three Hungarian developers carved up the rectangle of land between Jennings Road, High Street and Black Rock Turnpike. The developers charged the immigrants a $250 down-payment and $1 per month for mortgage. They dubbed the area "Karolyi Park," which still exists, and christened new streets there after Hungarian heroes -- such as Andrassy, Hunyadi, Rakoczy, Apponyi, Baros.

The backbone of this new community formed along Kings Highway. And when there were enough Hungarian residents to warrant it, the community erected two churches along the stretch. The first was the Magyar Reformed Church, which went up in 1925. The second was St. Emery's Roman Catholic Church, which was built in 1932, and which is perched right across the street from the Gubiczas' deli.

Kranyik, in a forthcoming article, recalls his childhood and describes Kings Highway of that era as a "Hungarian Highway." He pored through local directories from 1940 while researching the piece. While doing so, he identified more than 250 Hungarian families and businesses that lived and operated along the stretch. Among them are at least five Hungarian grocery stores and butcher shops.

"When I was a kid," Kranyik recalls, "you could go all the way from the Bridgeport border to the Post Road traffic circle, speaking only Hungarian. And everyone could understand you."

The Gubicza's arrival

None of this, by the way, describes how the Gubiczas arrived in Fairfield. They did so in 2005, supplanting the Drotos Brothers Market, which had been in operation there for 34 years (and 40 years before that on Bridgeport's Bostwick Avenue). In reopening the shop, they renamed it the Fairfield Meat Emporium.

The Gubiczas don't belong to the waves of Hungarian immigrants who've left a considerable stamp on the town. They belong instead to the slow trickle of Hungarians who've moved to this country in recent decades.

During their upbringing, their father toiled as a livestock distributor in greater Budapest. They lived about 40 miles southwest of the capital, near a city named Szekesfehervar.

Lazlo locates the city on a map hanging behind his cash register, beside two rows of hanging sausages.

He pokes the city with a butcher knife.

"Home," he says.

After completing their studies in Budapest in the early 1970s, the Gubiczas were offered jobs with Hungary's largest meat processing factory. They didn't take it. Instead, they were drafted into the country's military. Even so, they stuck to their culinary background in serving. They distributed meats and prepared meals for their respective brigades.

Afterwards, Ferenc opened his own butcher shop, while Laszlo left for America in 1981. He arrived in Ann Arbor, Mich., planning to become a student, he says. But he wasn't yet a citizen, had little money, and spoke halting English, so he instead took a job at an Irish grocery store, he says.

He stayed there for a few years and then moved to a larger store. He spent two decades learning the ins and outs of the American grocery business.

Ferenc, meanwhile, relocated to New York City in the mid '90s. He was soon hired by a meat-packing shop in Manhattan's Upper East Side, where he worked as a cook. The brothers reunited five years later. They purchased the butcher shop and renamed it the Yorkville Meat Emporium. The store, which they still own, is located on 81st Street and 2nd Ave.

"That's the last of the butcher shops," says Father Louis Pintye, a New Jersey native and Catholic priest who claims strong ethnic ties to Hungary. Pintye has patronized the Yorkville shop for decades, he says.

Coincidentally, he's the pastor at St. Emery's Church.

The immigrants'

twilight years

Pintye arrived at St. Emery's 13 years ago. He was brought in for two reasons. One, he's a priest. Two, he speaks Hungarian.

In his current ministry, he's witnessing first-hand how members of the last big wave of Hungarian immigration to the area are entering their twilight years. The "56ers," as the immigrants are called, are those who fled Hungary during the anti-Communist revolution of 1956, which the Soviet military crushed.

"The '56ers gave the Hungarian community here another shot in the arm," Pintye says. "Otherwise, the community would have progressed like any other. There were the immigrants at the turn of the century, then the immigrants through the late '30s, which brought in different types of people to America. But the original immigrants of the 1890s are long gone. The only ones still around are the ones who came in 1956."

The church started offering Mass in both Hungarian and English in the early 1970s. At the time, Pintye says, the Hungarian services generally brought in between 60 and 70 people. But these days, the average is closer to 25 or 30. Some regulars make the weekly schlep from Beacon Falls or Shelton, he says. But as the parishioners get older, they're less inclined to drive far.

The challenge, then, is two-fold. One the one hand, it's hard to find a Hungarian-speaking priest these days. On the other hand, it's growing hard to find Hungarian-speaking parishioners.

"You've got to figure, 1956 was over 50 years ago," Pintye says. "If they were 19 years old then, they're pushing 70 now. It's simple mathematics."

The immigrants' children have generally married with other ethnicities, Pintye continues. "And when you intermarry, the language is the first thing to go."

The question, then, for the Gubiczas is this: Can culinary ties outlast linguistic ones?

Leveraging it all

The Gubiczas' business plan required expanding the Hungarian deli's offerings.

Hungary, these days, is about the size of Maine. But it was about three times larger before World War I, Laszlo says, when the first Hungarian immigrants arrived here.

The deli's older clientele reflects this. Laszlo returns to his map.

"In the Hapsburg times, we were connected with Austria, too," he says, waving his butcher knife west of the country's borders. Then the knife charges north. "And Czechoslovakia," he adds. And finally east: "Romania, too, all the way to the Black Sea."

The knife comes down.

"These other people have kept their traditions too," he says. "So we sell other types of food."

Which types, exactly? He points to a few of them: Tyrolean sausage, Prague ham, Greek baby food, Turkish Delight, Canadian bacon, sauerkraut, Knackwurst, Weisswurst, Cajun sausage.

Then he scoops up a box of chocolates.

"We have customers who were Yugoslavians, too," he says. "They're looking for this type of chocolate."

A lunchtime test case

As the morning rolls onward to lunch, customers start trickling into the Fairfield Meat Emporium.

The door swings open and Ilona Zelle Skow, 71, walks in. A Bridgeport resident, Skow recounts how her grandparents moved to the area from Hungary roughly a century ago. She can recall a handful of Hungarian phrases from her bilingual childhood, and she exchanges them briefly with Laszlo.

"I was practicing on the way over," she says afterward.

She then orders a thick white sausage, called Hurka, which she plans to share later with a "Yugoslavian friend" who's a neighbor.

"She's been asking me to get it for weeks," Skow says. "And if I want what I want, then I come shopping here."

Next, Alexandar Bugarchich walks in. An 80-year-old Serbian, he also resides in Bridgeport and frequents the shop. His reasoning is simple: "Hungarians are the best people in my book," he says, gnawing on a sausage link. "They're honest people."

His mother was Hungarian and his father was a Serb. They met in 1926, at Oktoberfest in Munich. His father was an air-force pilot in World War II, he says, and was shot down and killed by German troops.

Bugarchich fled Communist Hungary in the early 1950s, he says, by sneaking into neighboring Austria. He arrived in America the following year, an early member of the "56er" movement. Once in Bridgeport, he found work at Remington Arms, served in the military, and then finally worked as a mechanical engineer at Sikorsky, where he designed helicopters.

Today, he's buying sausages. He has much on his mind, though. His home is in threat of foreclosure, he says, and his wife's health is fading.

Sondra Morton (maiden name: Gazdok) walks in next. A Trumbull resident, she's accompanied by her daughter. She says her father came over from Hungary on a boat and moved to Fairfield with her mother in 1950.

Then she comments on the goulash scents wafting out the deli's door. "Driving in here, I could just smell it," she says. "It took me right back, and my daughter said, `It smells like grandma's house!'"

Morton plans to partake in a uniquely Hungarian tradition over the weekend. She'll gather around an open fire with her husband, daughter and neighbors. They'll skewer a thick slab of bacon on a stick, slice it cross-wise, roast it over the fire, and catch the dripping greases on a piece of rye bread. The rye bread will be topped with cucumbers, tomatoes, onions and radishes. The ritual is called "Szalonna Sutes."

"On the weekends, I used to do it all the time with my parents," she says. Her husband once made Szalonna Sutes with a Hungarian girlfriend. "But in 30 years, we haven't done it together," she says.

Laszlo looks on and smiles.

For a while, it seems that everyone who enters the Fairfield Meat Emporium has ties to Hungary. Then Dave Skartvedt, of Easton, enters the store.

"I come here for the specialty foods if I'm in the area," he says, but quickly turns to the subject of picking fruit on Easton's farms. "We like the good stuff," he continues. "My wife's a good cook. So with good ingredients, she's even better."

Next, a Costa Rican family arrives, who live in Bridgeport. They purchase bologna. As they leave, they cross paths with David Dworski, a Fairfield lawyer and recent chairman of the board of directors for the Fairfield Chamber of Commerce.

Dworski claims Polish roots, but says he knows nothing about the national food. But he's quickly becoming an expert on Hungarian food, frequenting the deli several times a week.

"They're bringing unique traditional recipes into the modern world," he says. He tosses a free sample in his mouth. "You come in and say, `Hmm, I've never tried this.' And they hook you up. It's addictive."

Exactly how addictive Central European food can be may prove the final arbiter of the Fairfield Meat Emporium's fate.

With a couple bowls of goulash in my belly, this reporter is thinking the prospects are good.

"Hurka," Laszlo says, naming the stack of white sausages, which I'm presently gawking at.

The word's scribbled on a card in front of the sausage -- right between "$4.99/pound" and another tightly written word.

Feeling Hungarian, I take a stab.

"Reesa-reeng-a?"

Laszlo Gubicza laughs.

"Rice ring,'" he says. "That's English."