Tuesday, February 6, 2007


One warm summer day in 1946, about 5:30 in the afternoon, my older sister came home from her job at the Republic Aviation war plant and found, much to her surprise, a Hungarian playwright and Broadway bon vivant in our kitchen -- cooking goulash. There he was, mincing garlic and chopping onions. Ever since I have treasured my "world famous" goulash recipe.

Our up-until-then our ordinary kitchen table was located in our house at 28 First Avenue in Bay Shore, a pretty little watering spot located about 45 miles out on Long Island's south shore. I had been chosen to play the leading role in the Bay Shore Players production of a light comedy called, "June Mad". I was sixteen and was about to receive my first stage kiss in a white off-the-shoulder dress I had borrowed from a girl in the senior class, and, as I said, it was summer.

In summer, important people came to Bay Shore for summertime fun. And, while they were enjoying summertime fun on our white sandy beaches, what if one of those Broadway-Hollywood people should discover me?

Every day I rehearsed and practiced diligently for my debut. Then, one day, just one week before the limited two-day run of "June Mad", a small item appeared on the front page of the weekly Bay Shore Sentinel. It said that Mr. Geza Herzog, the well-known European playwright and Hollywood movie writer, was spending the summer at the Saxon Arms, a small, friendly inn located on Montauk Highway, the main thoroughfare along the south shore of Long Island, up until the Hamptons. Yes, Virginia, the Hamptons were famous then, too.

The very same afternoon the item appeared in the paper, my mother grabbed me and ordered my father to drive us over to the Saxon Arms. As my father stayed happily in the car, we slowly walked in. "Hello", my mother said to the person behind the desk. "I am here to see Mr. Geza Herzog". The lady didn't bat an eyelash. "Upstairs, first door to the left." We went up. I don't know about my mother, but my knees were shaking like Carmen Miranda's hips.

My mother gently knocked. "Koom in." My mother pushed me in front of her, all 98 pounds of me. There he was – the great man – sitting there. Just sitting. An unattractive, fat, balding man. Just sitting. This is the great Hollywood impresario? My mother introduced herself. She told him about my starring role. He sat there, not a word out of him. My mother, with all her charm, said that she had read about him in the local newspaper, and wished to invite him to see her talented daughter appearing in the major dramatic event of the season, which just so happened was taking place at the American Legion Hall, Main Street, Bay Shore.

Herzog looked serious. Several moments passed. He was thinking. Finally, the great man spoke. He said slowly and firmly, "Madame, I vill do anything you vish if you vould do for me vone kind favor. Vould you let me kook supper for you tonight? As you see, madame, in this leetle room I have no place to kook." "Yes, yes, Mr. Herzog. Uh, tonight???" "Yes, yes, tonight. I must make some goulash tonight."

My mother was speechless. Was it possible that this international celebrity and Hungarian-around-town wanted to cook supper in our humble home?

"Yes, Mr. Herzog, you can come over whenever you would like." "…Vonderful! One more thing, madame. You must let Bella koom vith me. It's okay?" Bella was his dog. A Great Dane, and I must say, a great Great Dane.

"I am dying to kook – and to eeet. Do you have vegetables? It's vegetables that go into a goulash – the tomatoes – they must be ripe and juicy. The garlic must be fresh. And – PAPRIKASH. Plenty of paprikash – but the right kind of paprikash – not too sharp, not too sweet. The meat must be …"

"And just think, Geza," my mother lied excitedly, just think, I didn't have a thing planned for supper."

Five minutes later, my mother, me, Geza Herzog and Bella got into the car. My father was used to my mother's flights of fancy, but this, this was too much! What was going on here? Who was that monster of a dog?

Approximately 45 minutes later, our playwright was absorbed in chopping onions, peeling tomatoes and braising cubes of stewing meat. I was assigned a special mission: I get raw ground meat for Bella. Having a dog like that in our house was an event in itself, much less Geza. When I came back home, Geza was on the telephone saying to the operator, "Madame, please be so good as to get me Gabriel Pascal in London? Call me back as soon as you get him." I knew that name! A name of a famous movie director often linked with the name of George Bernard Shaw!

Geza went back to work. Painstakingly, my mother was carefully instructed in the art of preparing Hungarian goulash – the way it must be prepared to be Hungarian goulash. The secret and essential ingredient was this: the goulash must start off with three or four slices of bacon on the bottom of the pot – bacon was the key.

While cooking Geza Herzog recalled his early days in Hollywood, when he revised his New York production, "Wonderbar" which starred Al Jolson. He spoke lovingly of those old Budapest days, when he and those delightful Gabor girls were bosom pals. (Those famous "girls" were vacationing nearby, just about five miles away.)

Just as the wonderful flavors of paprika and other spices began floating through the house, my beautiful 21-year old sister walked through the door. Geza's eyes lighted up.

About six o'clock – there it was – authentic Hungarian goulash, made by an authentic Hungarian. So authentic that we had to pay the grocery bill. And that's why, dear reader, even though I was, at the time, little interested in anything as mundane as cooking, from that day onward, I could always cook up a pot of extra-delicious goulash, but never could I invent another evening like that one.