The other night I found myself impatiently waiting for the caterer to bring out the last meal of the celebration. Keeping with Hungarian tradition, it would be a pot filled with stuffed cabbage. I was little tipsy, swaying a bit though there was no wind; midnight had passed and the cabbage was a little late in arriving. Earlier, I’d noticed the help smoking a cigarette, well deserved do doubt, but if you are expecting a midnight stuffed cabbage, it’s easy to get a bit anxious. And certain meals are not just about the quality, but about the timing.
A Hungarian wedding is something to behold, and marked by an abundance of home-cooked food. As part of the festivities, it’s a tradition to bring out a pot of stuffed cabbage, töltött káposzta, at midnight. Ground pork, rice, and spices, sometimes mixed with beef, rolled into cabbage leaves, boiled in a savory broth, it needs no accompaniment other than a bright dollop of sour cream and slice of bread to sop up the juice. It is great the day after too, not just because its flavors benefit from mellowing, but because it recalls the merriment of the night before.
Stuffed cabbage is popular across the region and many nearby cultures claim it as their own, but it has always felt particularly Hungarian to me, a dish easily adaptable to both bogrács (the cauldrons hung over an open fire) and the kitchen of an Budapest dwelling grandmother. Times change, but stuffed cabbage remains the same.
It’s also a dish that needs a setting to be just right. You don’t make it for a romantic dinner: it’s designed to feed many. It’s festive, but not intimate. There is zero romance in stuffed cabbage. It’s a dish that comes when there is already too much: like weddings, it signals abundance. That said, it’s a bit unfair to give to a party, as it easily falls apart, dribbles, resists being taken in precise forkfuls. Cabbage is not good packaging material. Nor can you take half a stuffed cabbage: you get the whole parcel or nothing at all. Stuffed cabbage reminds you that you always torture the ones you love a little bit.
Now, most will also agree that the wedding is a day for the bride and groom. At least a convincing act is put on to uphold that illusion. But a wedding is really for the fulfillment of the dreams of those closest to the couple. A wedding is for the guests. Parents revive romance as they see themselves in their children, bridesmaids angle for the bouquet, and the best man steals everybody’s attention with a lovingly cutting speech about the groom. As for the sundry guests—I was one of those ranks—they create the celebration. Even if they are broken-hearted, divorced, single, or stand no hope of forming a romantic attachment, they celebrate somebody else’s good fortune, and continue to do so long after the bride and groom are nowhere to be found. And there is no wedding without celebration.
That’s stuffed cabbage’s real role. More than fortification for the coming party, the midnight cabbage represents a kind refusal to give in, be it to sleep or alcohol, or the certain diminishing returns one experiences past midnight at a party that began in the afternoon. One must go on, so there is stuffed cabbage, and sometimes one goes on because there is stuffed cabbage.
The wedding feast itself may be geared towards the bride and groom, and reflects their taste and whims. The spit roast piglet, the vegan stews, the whimsical cake. But once midnight has passed, the people who have also put in the real work—the guests—are rewarded. One parcel of stuffed cabbage is enough. But if it’s not, there is plenty, and you’ve earned it.
Want to learn about cooking traditional Hungarian foods? Taste Hungary’s Cooking Class & Dinner Party, with a local chef, is available for small groups.