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An Austrian cooking lesson; or "How much is an Esslossel?"

In my time I’ve seen Austrian food typo’d as Australian food, and Viennese food in particular rendered by a careless copy editor into Vietnamese cuisine. The food of Austria is elusive in other ways too: all those tongue-busting German names to master: like Weihnachtsgeback; Eierschwammerln and Hirnpofesen, which can best be described as a grilled brain sandwich. 

There is of course the common Wienerschnitzel. But around Southern California, as we all know too well, that’s a low-end hot-dog chain, selling a vague semblance of what the Austrians know as Wienerwurst.  If you want to get something local that’s akin to the actual thing, which is a broad, thin slice of quick-fried veal, you’ll probably have to find a Mexican resto that will sell you what Latamericans call a milanesa.

That's because, despite our county’s infinity of ethnicities, the food of the Hapsburg Empire is also elusive in LA., though I’ve read about a good Austrian place in Beverly Hills that I probably can’t afford. Long ago, there was pioneer film director Joe May’s legendary Blue Danube on South Robertson, a tony establishment that supposedly failed because its Vienna-born patron kept telling celebrity customers like Hedy Lamarr and Otto Preminger exactly what to order. 

I’m sure sorry I missed all that. But nowadays, if I want Austrian cooking, I have to do it myself. 

Like most great cuisines, Austria’s cooking is highly acquisitive — ransacking all its old imperial possessions for recipes, from Italy’s polenta and zuppa Pavese to Hungary’s palinkas and gulyas to Czech, Slovak and Serbian dishes of all sorts. And a bunch of German food besides.  All of it preferably prepared to the standards of old Vienna, perhaps — at least gastronomically — the greatest imperial capital of its millennium.

For a long time, my method of Austrian cooking was effective, but cumbersome: I would download menus of my favorite Viennese eateries, pick likely looking dishes off them, and then pull their recipes off various German-language cookery sites.  This worked generally well, except for when my little German dictionary lacked a crucial translation of a certain unit of measure, called an “Esslossel,” this for how much hot Hungarian paprika you were supposed to put in traditional Gulyassuppe.

I guessed an ounce or two. Trying to avoid bland, I ended up more than doubling the proper amount, resulting in a kind of Danubian vindaloo that had our guests gasping like circus fire eaters working overtime. Do not underestimate  those Mitteleuropische seasonings: They can pack all the wallop of Oaxacan chile molido.

So why not just go buy an Austrian cook book?  Laziness and fear that authenticity might get lost in translation? Who knows?  But as I recently browsed a favorite county library branch’s book sale table, one jumped out at me — for all of 50 cents. A perfect second-hand copy of what looked like a paperback tourist item — a tiny, blue, trilingual Austrian Cooking in German, very clear English and, forsooth, Japanese.

It has 43 excellent-looking recipes by  "A. und M. Holzkorn" and some quite serviceable color pictures by "H. und B. Barnay." Not showbiz sorts, these Barnay and Barnay, nor Holzkorn and Holzkorn: Their names only appear as an afterthought in a footnote on the very bottom of the very last page, under the name of the Salzburg publisher: Risch-Lau & Gebruder Metz. 

But they’ve all done a fine job. It’s all there in my own mother tongue and theirs and Akira Kurasawa’s, too. Now that I know that an "Esslossel" is just a tablespoon, a splendid dish like Esterhazy Rostbraten — not to mention Weihnachtsgeback or Eierschwammerln — should hold no terrors for me.

Nor for my dinner guests, either.