I avoid Metro stations in Budapest – not for bad reasons, but because they smell so dang delicious. At the entrance of many a Budapest Metro you’ll find a bakery. Once when an American friend came to visit me in Hungary, on his last day I asked him what he’d like to do. He said he wanted to go back and smell the Metro.
One reason the stations here smell so good is because they all sell pogácsa (po-gah-tcha). Pogácsa are small, bite-sized savory scones. They come in a wide variety: with cheese, cabbage, goose cracklings, potato, bacon, pumpkin seed, you name it. This ubiquitous snack is served at weddings, birthday celebrations, get-togethers, office parties. If Hungarians had Super Bowl bashes, which they don’t, there’d definitely be pogácsa.
But pogácsa are more than Hungary’s favorite nibble. They’re part of the country’s culture and symbolic of the journey of life. In many a Hungarian fairy tale the oldest son is sent off by mom to conquer the world with a knapsack full. When Hungarian high schoolers graduate, they’re presented at a leaving ceremony (ballagás) with a little satchel. Inside there is always a pogácsa for the journey.
For me, pogácsa is the kind of food that once I start eating – I can’t stop. I’ve been known to empty a mixing bowl full then ask if there are more. Last month, I was at our school-wide yard sale when I saw two third graders sitting at card tables selling refreshments. One was American, and the other Hungarian. Both had hand-made signs and cash boxes. The American boy sold lemonade. The Hungarian had – you guessed it – a basket full of pogácsa. I bought a couple then returned a few minutes later for some more. After the third trip back, I gave in and bought the whole shoebox.