A Hungarian divorcée restaurateur, bored with her sous chef lover and classic cooking, lights some new fires in Marc Fitten’s second novel, Elza’s Kitchen.
Where do you think the sensual pleasure in food is rooted?
People who’ve experienced a lack of something tend to manifest that lack into their lives. This can result in something as basic as let’s keep the pantry full to something—as in Elza’s case—that’s really a hunger for deeper nourishment. In Elza’s Kitchen, what begins as a need for recognition and acceptance sets in motion events that eventually create a willingness to nourish others and the possibility of building meaningful relationships. The flavors of the region are the ingredients Elza has to work with: paprika, dill, onions, caraway seeds. The sensual pleasure in food is rooted in the fact that humanity breaking bread is mythic, mystic, sensual, and intimate. It’s nourishing. It’s a vital part of the human experience. In this case it happens to taste of paprika and dill.
Why do Elza and other characters in the novel have names, while others are simply tagged by their profession, such as the Sous-Chef?
My naming conventions are a conscious decision that began with my first book, Valeria’s Last Stand. Except for Pisti, who is a little boy, only the female characters are clearly named—even the spaniel, Isabelle. I wanted to center my books around women in a way that figuratively communicated their centrality to their world, not to mention their authority over it. As for the men being known solely by their professions or physical characteristics, I thought this would add a layer to the folktale nature of the work. I chose typical townie characters—the Postman, the Officer, the Professors, professions you find anywhere, but also singular characters with motivations and desires.
What do you think was the hardest adjustment for people once the Iron Curtain came down?
Hungary has been in a post-Soviet world for 20-some years now. It seems that once the glow of revolution subsided, people learned what democracy and capitalism actually are. All of a sudden people had choices. People could choose parties, religions. But choosing requires a degree of responsibility and effort that many people just weren’t accustomed to. Capitalism meant that people didn’t automatically have jobs waiting. There was suddenly a marketplace that required competition. Implicit in competition is the idea that people can be left behind. This was unimaginable in the previous system. I don’t see any one particular thing as hard to adjust to. I see the entire change as a fundamental shift in the firmament. The world is literally not the same as it was yesterday.