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On Frog Legs and Regrets on the Streets of Budapest

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I have walking routes that I know will take me past certain restaurants, places that I don’t even need to eat at to draw sustenance from, which offer comfort from the sidewalk alone. I don’t even have to be hungry. It can be enough just to walk by, to reassure myself that spots like that particular restaurant exist, that it hasn’t turned into a hamburger joint or kebab shop since my last walk, that what’s good and nourishing about it can still be relied upon for future occasions.

Which brings to mind frog legs. Frog legs, like certain restaurants, are just something I like to know are around. It’s good to live in a city where you can get a plate of frog legs if the craving strikes you. Though the dish is disappearing from Budapest menus, it happens that there’s a funny little shack at the end of Király street, where it hits Lövölde Square, that looks like a Danube riverbank fish-fry that got picked up in a heavy wind and dropped in downtown Pest. There, casually featured on the chalkboard menu, drawing no attention to itself sandwiched between more traditional offerings like fried carp and trout, were frog legs. Sixteen hundred forints per batch.

The thing about frog legs is that you can’t dither. If you are fixing to get frog legs, you shouldn’t hesitate. For one thing, they are a very easy dish to talk yourself out of. For another, even places that have them on the menu only occasionally make them available to people with that particular craving. Perhaps there is a shortage, but they are hard to come by. I’m serious, don’t flinch if you want frog legs. In other words, don’t do what I did and just keep walking, telling yourself that despite how miraculous it is to find a frog-leg shack in the middle of Budapest, there will be other occasions. Besides, I had a taste for vibrant summery kolbászos lecsó, the pork sausage and ratatouille they serve from a favorite stand in the Teleki Market (I also stupidly passed by duck breast with Serbian ajvar at Kürt, Budapest’s best, least touted lunch canteen). The whole thing would have been totally worth it were kolbászos lecsó actually on the menu that day. Instead, I settled for cülkös lecsó, ratatouille with pork knuckle, which was far more csülök than lecsó, with the csülök far more fat than meat. The disappointment was mitigated by the fact that it was served from a stand run by a Vietnamese family who specialized in Hungarian cuisine and pho, a combination which is hard not to delight in. But still, had I not flinched, I could have been deep into a plate of frog legs.

Now there used to be a few places in the city to get frog legs. It’s a wonderful dish when fried and served with a dipping sauce, a kind of chicken wing of the pond. Indeed, when French monks were barred from eating meat, they successfully lobbied to have frog legs classified as fish. The amount of meat wrapped around a delicate jumper bone really gives you an appreciation for the amphibian’s fitness. But, heck, what do I know about frog legs? I’ve only had them but two times in my life, most recently at Budapest’s Momotaro, which has since exercised their delightful Chinese salt-and-pepper version from the menu. Previous to that, as a child, I couldn’t resist the novelty and ordered them at the Palmer House Hotel, breaded and fried in butter, Parisian style.

The csülök was a good meal, but still the possibility of frog legs nagged me: would they be gone by tomorrow? (I won’t go tomorrow anyway. Who eats lunch out two days in a row but lawyers and book agents?). Would the proprietor wise up and start serving gourmet burgers? Would he tire of the big city and return to the river bank from whence he certainly came? I should mention now that I have few regrets in life, but they disproportionately center on meals not eaten. An uneaten meal is a small regret made terrible for its banality. That chef’s table at Charlie Trotter’s I couldn’t stick around Chicago for; the deep-fried soft-shell crabs in Saigon that were five times as expensive as any other meal I’d eaten on that trip, the whale-sperm dish from one of New York’s famous Japanese chefs that they had just run out of (for sure, it must be difficult and harrowing to come by). The frog legs on Király aren’t of those meals’ magnitude, but a tiny regret sometimes recalls larger regrets, like Proust’s madeleine in reverse. Frog legs! Who the hell regrets a plate of frog legs but the frogs themselves?

On Népszínház street, walking back from the market, filled with more csülök than lecsó, I noted that the Colorado Pub was now welcoming African immigrants, who were enthusiastically drinking bottles of Dreher on the street and talking on their phones. (I remember in that bar, when settling in for a night of Gypsy music, a well-dressed man turned to me, pointed to my bag and said “careful of that, or some dirty Gypsy will steal it. The man, it later turned out, was a member of the band, and of course, a Gypsy himself). Right after passing the Africans, coming toward me was a blonde in a pink dress, wearing wayfarers. I felt a swoon as I was overcome with possibility. One could imagine any number of futures for oneself and such a blonde. She would be a graphic designer or jazz singer. Her apartment would have a back-facing terrace that looked out over a hidden park in a courtyard. She’d give you your space to work; you’d give her hers. There was no woman more perfect, at that moment.

I should have stopped her, should have said hello; but no, I was full of heavy, fatty csülkös lecsó and sleepy. After she strode by without interruption, I turned and noticed her legs: all I saw were strong, sculpted, well-used frog legs.

You should never walk and feel regret at the same time. Forward momentum and backwards looking is a recipe for confusion. I turned off Népszínház early, and before long, I was back at Király street, going out of my way by a block to pass the misplaced fish-fry shack. There I made certain it hadn’t been turned into a hamburger shack over the course of the afternoon, that frog legs were indeed still to be had and that for sure, I told myself, I’d be back—if only to just walk by.