Food lies at the heart of our bodies and our culture; it is there for celebrations and sustenance. NOMaste features a local fierce foodie each month, in four weekly segments. First, an interview, then a top 10 list, followed by a recipe to share, and finally a food review. This food corner will not just feature local chefs but also restaurateurs, buyers, suppliers — any woman involved in any aspect of the food chain, from farm to food truck. Join us each week as we get to know another Foodie in the city.
When you meet some people and get to know them, you simply can’t imagine another version of them different than that. It just wouldn’t make sense, as if the universe would implode. That is how I felt when Aniko told me that she had only been making sausage and cured meats for about four years, and her gardening passion was only fully realized a few years before that. I cannot imagine a world in which Aniko is not making sausage and harvesting her yard for the next years’ food.
“I was never into cooking,” Aniko said. “I told my parents it’s the stupidest thing — it takes forever, you have to go shopping, think about what you’re going to buy, then you spend time cooking, then it’s a bunch of time cleaning — and what — you ate for 15 minutes. It’s ridiculous!”
A crazier statement I could not imagine. Especially when you see her in her television-ready gigantic kitchen, with large expanses of cement countertops, three separate fridges, two separate sink areas, and as much storage as any person could ever dream of. Dried herbs hang from every available beam overhead, next to a fully loaded pot rack. Jars of dried and canned vegetables line the tops of every cabinet, and there is always a large bowl of something on the counter, and smoked meats on a tray ready to devour.
Aniko is a force of nature, who seems to know everything and everyone related to food and cooking in this town. But that was not always the case. A true city girl, born and raised in the bustling capital city of Budapest, Aniko grew up and lived in Hungary until 1994. Living in a place where delicious and affordable food was aplenty, there seemed to be no need to cook when you could just as easily grab a delicious quick meal at the local butcher shop or restaurant. So Aniko never developed the habit of collecting recipes and learning to cook one dish at a time. Not until a move to America — and motherhood — forced her to take up the pan and the pot.
Mostly out of homesickness, and the sad realization that American fare was a pale comparison to the rich, delicious meals of her homeland, Aniko started to make the basics that she yearned for from Hungary. Dishes like chicken paprikash and goulash were things she slowly learned and made regularly, but still, with the busy life of raising three children, caring for a home and a husband, and navigating a new life in a new country, she did not have a lot of time to spend in the kitchen. Certain things were verboten even then, like microwaving your vegetables until they were an unrecognizable mush.
“Steamed vegetables never made any sense to me. Throwing broccoli in the microwave? Why? To me cooking still meant something substantial. Home cooking is just three things — know your ingredients, know your technique, and know your tools. Any combination of those three things will turn into an awesome dish. You don’t need to follow any recipe. Throwing broccoli in the microwave isn’t cooking.” Amen!
Fast forward a few decades, with her wonderful children either in or about to go into college, and Aniko found herself with more time to fulfill some culinary dreams she had simmering on the back burner — and it’s around this time that we had first met. At the time, I had started a modest vegetable garden on my front lawn, and promptly removed all the grass to make way for veggies and flowers. In this spirit, Aniko and I are twins — we balk against the norm. We started chatting about gardens, how and what to plant, when to start seeds, etc.
Aniko quickly developed a plan (spreadsheet) to put in a large, fenced-in vegetable garden on her front lawn in the suburbs of Amherst, and quickly surpassed my basic knowledge.
“The veggie garden started because living in ‘suburbatory’, it is a very sterile environment, and I wasn’t used to it. I couldn’t get used to it… I don’t belong here. The general consensus is that you should behave, you shouldn’t paint your house pink, you shouldn’t do things different from your neighbors; you should have similar everything. You have to be a cookie cutter. So at one point I said, ‘I’m done being a cookie cutter.’ That’s how the garden started.” The front garden boasts an asparagus patch, raspberry bushes, potatoes, eggplants, and, of course, every Hungarian item you can imagine.
The garden started out front because the back was in complete shade from a large family of ash trees. A few years after the front garden was established, the ash trees had died and needed to be removed. This gave way to clear skies, sunshine, and room for a full-on back garden. With her front garden well established, and having learned every trick she needed, she was ready to expand to a mini-farm side plot out back. There, she has everything from a mushroom patch, to grapevines, to large tomato bushes, to a multitude of spices and leafy greens. Aniko grows enough food to feed her entire family of five for a year. She eats all she can in the summer when everything is fresh, and then prepares everything as each crop is ready to harvest, either canning, freezing, drying, or preparing into frozen meals to thaw and enjoy later. Aniko doesn’t have to buy any produce — she grows and stores all of it on her own. She is a one-woman pioneer lady.
I asked her for some examples on how she can be diverse and creative with her larder. “I have tomatoes — some I have as-is, not even cut or peeled, just thrown in the freezer. Let’s say I make a stew — I just toss it in and it works beautifully. It has that summer flavor and it’s not tampered with at all — no sugar, nothing. I have dried tomatoes I can throw into any liquid (like chicken stock, simple syrup, or orange juice) to rehydrate them, and they are now flavor bombs…they are a lot more than just tomatoes. Then I put them in whatever recipe I want.” It is this ability to work off the cuff, taking a simple tomato and both saving them and rejuvenating them in multiple ways that makes her a renaissance woman of the kitchen.
After the vegetables came the sausage — what Aniko is most famous for. About four years or so ago, a neighbor and fellow Hungarian who was in his 80s at the time, showed Aniko the ropes of sausage-making that only an old timer who had been doing this for decades could.
“I could get a recipe and try, but […] the recipe is not going to tell you how to mess up. I think you know what you are actually doing […] once you know how you can mess up, and how to fix that. Then you know you’re trade.”
John guided her through her first sausage batch, and after that she had the confidence to try it on her own. “When I first did the sausage from the beginning to end and it was edible and tasty and what it should be, from the buying, the grinding, the seasoning, the stuffing, the hanging, the smoking, the drying, the whole thing, I was like, ‘Wow, I guess I can!’ And after that it was like, BOOM.” And she has been on a tear ever since, making 100 pounds of Hungarian sausage at a time each winter, along with smaller batches throughout the year. She even helped me make a small batch of sausage one day — a lesson I still hold dear.
Alongside the first sausage adventure was joining a local Charcuterie Club on Facebook, where she got to meet and talk meat with local like-minded people who were interested in smoking and curing. This brought her into the larger food world of Buffalo, where she got to meet and become friends with people like Steve Gedra, a fellow Hungarian, of The Black Sheep (formerly of Bistro Europa). Aniko decided to have a backyard cookout for the Charcuterie Club, since her fellow Hungarian and sausage-making neighbor wanted to show off what real Hungarian food was to the group. “One of the first Hungarian cookouts I did for the Charcuterie Club, Steve came with his dad. Then the next one he came with his dad and his grandmother — how cool is that?! Since then, when I go to Hungary, I bring a kilo of paprika for him, because he appreciates it — he knows what the difference is. Most people don’t know, but he understands.”
She also got to meet Harry Zemsky at a gathering of the club at Hydraulic Hearth, the week before it opened. “He gave us the space just for our meeting and I always show up with food, so I showed up with liver pâté that came from a recipe from a friend in Hungary. Harry liked it […] so I showed the chef how to make it.” It’s not every day something you bring to a party gets the attention of a restaurant owner, and quickly becomes added to the menu after you give the head chef a tutorial on how to make it. This is all part of Aniko’s urban legend status in my eyes.
The local Charcuterie Club paved the way for her to get into an international one, called the Salt Cured Pig. Here she got to communicate with people all over the world, swapping recipes, tricks, and tips, and making friends. This is how she ended up with a warm and adventurous Dutch woman named Barbara at her doorstep one night, and they ended up hanging out all night at the Black Sheep, talking about animal lard and meats with Steve. Later, she ended up introducing her to a local pig farmer that Aniko now goes to for her pig needs. This would have never happened had she not asked John to tell her everything he knew about sausage-making a few years before.
It’s not just the homegrown vegetables and sausage that makes Aniko a maverick of the kitchen and local food world. She also knows where the ingredients she doesn’t grow come from. She has several farms she purchases her meats from, so she knows where her chickens and pigs are coming from. “The general idea behind all this is that growing up I learned you should not rely on what you can get your hands on at any given time, you need to rely on yourself. I can live here for a good year without going to the store. I don’t go to the shop to buy a chicken every other week, I buy 15 chickens and I am good for a while. I don’t go to the store and buy two pork chops, I get a whole pig and I am good for a year.”
Aniko’s most recent adventure was butchering her own whole pig in the traditional American style. Next up is butchering a pig this fall in the traditional Hungarian style. She already has the pig picked out, and it has a name — Skippy. Skippy is currently on a loving farm, free to roam, being well-fed and cared for.
I asked Aniko if she had this passion in her from the start, since she spent a majority of her life a thoroughbred city girl, away from the fields and the animals. Turns out, there was something in the back of her mind all these years. “One summer, I went to visit my grandfather in the countryside and I stayed there for two weeks. It was in a small tiny village, maybe 20 houses max. Behind each house was a gigantic field, farm, and animals, the whole nine yards. I learned to hunt a deer, pick mushrooms, cook pasta, how to run in a field of freshly cut hay so it doesn’t poke your feet, I learned how to kill a chicken. I don’t remember any other summer […] except the farm. That was heaven.”
Recalling another memory of taking her daughters to a horse farm to work and earn riding time, she reminisces, “I would […] smell the hay and horse shit, and think, ‘My god it smells like freedom.’”
So how did Aniko become a NOMaste feature? She is not a chef in a restaurant, doesn’t have a farm that sells to the public, nor is a professional in the greater food world. Yet, because of her enthusiasm, acumen, and élan, she has become a figure in those circles. In the short years that she decided to turn her passion into reality by bringing her culture to life in America, she has mastered skills that not many possess or care to spend the time learning. She is the manifestation of what happens through dedication and single-mindedness. She has entrenched herself in the greater food world both in Buffalo and abroad, solely because she believes in what she is doing, knows what is good, and is pursuing that at full speed.