Politeness at the dinner table is a desirable characteristic, but can also bring unintended consequences. Imagine you are visiting a new partner’s parents for the first time. They live on a farm in the countryside. You don’t yet have any Hungarian skills and they have none in English. After an awkward dinner filled with hand gestures and appreciative nods, your partner’s mother suddenly thrills to the idea of offering you an authentic Hungarian dessert. You are already stuffed, but want to participate in the enthusiasm, and nod in agreement.
She brings out a marrow-colored slab topped with whipped cream. Your partner mistranslates the dish, gesztenyepüré—chestnut puree—as ‘acorn mash.’ You taste it. It’s pungent, the consistency of cookie dough. Smile your approval, glad it’s such a small portion. Mistaking this for more enthusiasm, she takes the plate, and returns from the kitchen with a portion of gesztenyepüré the size of a small brick. Honored-guest-size. Though it’s the last thing you want, you just keep smiling, and thus ensuring this is what you will be fed for the rest of the visit.
Gesztenyepüré is a beloved Hungarian dessert. While you can get it year round, chestnuts are seasonal, so its flavors resonate most in autumn. There is something of a nostalgic feel to the dessert, at once adult and childlike, playful, and classic. If Hungarians ran ocean liners, I imagine there would be gesztenyepüré on the menu every night. Speaking of gesztenyepüré, famed restaurateur George Lang was quoted in Politico.com as saying: “vanilla-and-rum flavored chestnut puree hiding under a mountain of whipped cream, the kind of food that to this day I call normal.” It’s an important word choice, you either consider gesztenyepüré normal or you don’t.
As with most dishes, homemade is the best. Pre-made gesztenyepüré, however, can be bought in most supermarkets in Hungary. Packaged in cardboard, it need only be sliced like cheese and topped with whip cream to be ready to eat. Many prefer running the puree through a potato ricer, which turns it into thick spaghetti or wormlike strands, making it look something like a child’s creation when left alone with some clay and a can of whip cream. It’s true that some foods taste better when reshaped, and such is the case with gesztenyepüré, which benefits from being deprived of its density.
And while gesztenyepüré feels particularly Hungarian, it is also enjoyed around the region. In Austria it is Kastanienreis, or “chestnut rice,” and in France, Mont Blanc or Monte Bianco. For a time in the last century, it seemed as though New Yorkers might take to gesztenyepüré like they took to paprikash. But according to the same Politico article, it was not to be, as the gesztenyepüré-loving Hungarian enclave in Manhattan disappeared due to high rents and gentrification.
Depending on your perspective, a long weekend of being plied with gesztenyepüré could be torture or it could be heaven. In the end, politeness may not prevail in getting a point across, but in a place where hospitality is freely given, and food is a social tool, it can also very sweet indeed.