My Szathmary grandfather was one of 17 children -- he had 15 brothers and one sister. Except for one, all of them lived to be at least 75. My grandfather, who lived to be 86, died relatively young; most of his brothers lived into their 90s.
"Uncle Lewis was my favorite. He lost everything he had in World War I and became a lathe operator.
His adopted son, Uncle Imre, was the greatest wheeler-dealer I've ever known. Among other adventures, in the 1930s he bought up all the goose livers in the region where he lived and shipped them on ice to Strasbourg, in Alsace-Lorraine, selling them to the canners of natural and truffled goose liver. He was a self-made man with only three years of grade-school education.
In Strasbourg, of course, Uncle Imre was completely lost. He couldn't speak a word of French, and his only German was a broken "good morning" and "ja ja ja." I was 14, fluent in German and just beginning to speak a halting, high school French; but because I was the oldest of those relatives who spent the summer on his farm, I was the one who made the trips to Strasbourg with Uncle Imre.
At age 14 I just didn't care much for the quaintness of Strasbourg or the world-famous Alsatian food. But I did like what I knew best from home -- choucroute, or sauerkraut. We had plenty of that as children. So whatever I went with Uncle Imre to the goose-liver canneries, we both had sauerkraut. It was at one of these restaurants that I ate for the first time sauerkraut with partridge and then with quail. European quails are almost the size of a small rock cornish game hen. They are wrapped in bacon and spiced with juniper berries.
On a recent trip to Los Angeles, I noticed quail Alsatian on the menu of Le Dome. You can be sure I ordered the dish. It inspired me to work out a good American version of choucroute Alsatian. For this recipe, although quail, partridge and pheasant can now be found throughout the United States, I suggest you try the most readily available game bird, a small rock cornish game hen. I think it is much closer to the large European quail than the tasty little morsels we have here.
The ultimate taste of the bird comes from the juniper berries and the wonderful streaky bacon in which the bird is wrapped. You can easily double this recipe, and you can prepare it a day or two ahead. In fact, the choucroute improves with reheating. ROCK CORNISH GAME HENS (4 servings) 8 strips bacon 4 rock cornish game hens, 12 to 14 ounces each, defrosted 2 teaspoons salt 1/2 teaspoon black pepper 1 teaspoon juniper berries, crushed 1 teaspoon dried tarragon (optional) 4 sprigs parsley 3 slices onion, separated into rings 2 cups water
Place bacon in cold skillet and cook over low heat until it is soft and starts to curl. Remove to absorbent paper before it turns yellow or brown. Let skillet stand over low heat.
Wash and dry birds. Remove bags with giblets and reserve. (If you make your own chicken broth for the sauerkraut, you can use the necks, gizzards and livers for stock.)
Mix together salt, pepper, juniper berries and tarragon, and rub birds inside and out thoroughly with this mixture.
Cut four 12-inch-square sheets of aluminum foil. Place a parsley sprig and 3 or 4 onion rings in the center of each. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Increase heat under skillet and saute birds quickly, all over, until skin begins to brown. Remove and wrap each bird in a foil square. Place in a shallow roasting pan, breast down, with 2 cups water. Moist-roast 45 minutes to 1 hour, depending on size. Remove birds from oven, open foil carefully, and pour liquid from foil into roasting pan. Increase oven heat to 425 degrees. Wrap breast of each bird with 2 slices bacon. Roast birds, breast up, 10 more minutes. Baste with pan juices once or twice. Remove and keep warm until serving. If you wish, strain roasting juices and serve separately in a sauceboat. CHOUCROUTE ALSATIAN (4 servings) 1/2 cup finely chopped onion 2 tablespoons shortening, perferably lard, goose fat or chicken fat 2 pounds sauerkraut 10 to 12 juniper berries, slightly bruised and, if you wish, tied in a muslin bag 1 bay leaf 1/2 cup dry white wine 1 scant teaspoon sugar 2 cups chicken stock, or 1 can chicken broth with enough water added to make 2 cups, or 2 chicken bouillon cubes dissolved in 2 cups boiling water 1 apple 1 or 2 smoked pork hocks, depending on size, or some smoked pork bones, or an 8-ounce piece of smoked jaw or smoked picnic
In a heavy pot with a tight-fitting lid, saute onions in shortening over low heat.
Squeeze sauerkraut and reserve juice. Rinse kraut in a colander and squeeze again. Shake to separate.
When onions begin to turn golden, slowly mix in sauerkraut. Add juniper berries, bay leaf and white wine. Sprinkle with sugar and add chicken stock. Bring to a boil and adjust heat to very low. Cover and cook 1 hour.
Meanwhile, peel and core apple. Grate it into simmering sauerkraut. Cover and continue to simmer a few minutes. Then add washed, smoked meat and bury it in kraut. Cook a total of 3 hours.
Taste before serving. If not tangy enough for your taste, add some of reserved sauerkraut juice. Pile kraut in middle of a large serving platter. Cut smoked meat into pieces and arrange around sauerkraut. Surround sauerkraut with cornish game hens and serve at once with crusty french bread or plain boiled potatoes.