Today's Menu

To readers of Rabelais' followers and lobster-thermidor buffs, la joie de vivre Romanian-style may contain a smack of garlic too much. Although, in all the historical provinces, each under a different rule and influence throughout the Middle Ages and even later, gastronomic variety is far from paltry, and the post-communist foreign cuisine boom has gotten to some of his middle and upper-class neighbors, the average Romanian is neither a gourmand (folk wisdom would promptly castigate this peccadillo), nor, with few exceptions, a gourmet. Lavish meals like Filimon's (in Old and New Squires) have always been served only at very pretentious weddings or receptions, therefore should not be taken for granted by first-time tourists (who, on the other hand, on any visit to any ordinary family, will be required to literally stomach quantities of mouthwatering food that would shock their family doctors.) Ask about the national fare, and they'll tell you: mămăligă, sarmale, mititei, and the like (see details down the line); but, like an Arab who can tell one kind of hummus from dozens of others, or a Belgian capable of the same feat with beer, you would surely find out that preparing sarmale (or the recipe of mămăligă or mititei) varies not only with the region or community, but perhaps with each separate household and even circumstance, turning the ostensibly humble dish into a spectacularly protean (OK, protein too) super-blood-sugar-star. But then there's fasting. Running against the mainstream of modernity, increasing numbers of young people are (or boast about) observing religious fasts, which to an Orthodox Christian represent roughly one third of his life. This may explain, albeit only anecdotally, why there are so few obese people in Romania, where a traditional meal, especially on and after Christmas, or Easter, or any festive occasion, includes a lot more pure fat than any nutritionist would care to prescribe to an entire underweight family. The secret does not lie in barbaric habits such as soaking two pounds of salty, well-peppered lard in two pints of 85 % double-distilled palincă to, well, melt it down – it must be sought elsewhere. The old proverb urging good Christians to "do what the priest says, not what he does" has always found little appeal with salivating, self-indulgent Tartuffes doomed to the eternal blaze of hell, like Muşatescu's heroes – and many of their countrymen.Ways of living one's life to the max, or just having a good time, involve more than one or two "instruments of pleasure," all blended into a synergistic effect. I retain vague memories of hefty family banquets around huge tables, with various family members and friends working on their guitar or mandolin players' skills, or even dancing. Yet Romanians, like Hogaş, are also perfectly capable of enjoying a frugal meal in the wilderness, perhaps as a reminder of Barbarian invasions that drove their ancestors to the wooded mountains. As the Spartan way of life has never been the Romanian dream, eating polenta, i.e. mămăliga, "on mountain paths" is rather like celebrating the unleavened bread of Exodus. Romanians hiking about the mountains today (perhaps the most cherished pastime alongside beer-drinking with friends) are like Jews remembering each year their flight from the oppressor: protective, soothing memory has converted the past fear for one's life into a pleasurable holiday.

by Adrian Solomon