Print and photos published by Tablet Magazine.
Pick salami is a Hungaricum, a uniquely Hungarian product—a counterpart to such nationally specific products as French Champagne, English Stilton, or Italian Gorgonzola. It’s available in nearly every Hungarian food shop, and the logo is proudly worn by the handball team in Szeged, the town where it is produced.
Everyone in Hungary knows Pick. But what many Hungarians don’t know is that the company, the country’s largest pork processor, was founded by a Jew—a man who may not even have eaten his own signature product, and who used his pork profits to build one of the country’s grandest synagogues.
Szeged, the town where Mark Pick started making salami more than 150 years ago, is two hours south of Budapest. The Pick factory sits right on the idyllic Tisza River, behind the Pick Salami and Szeged Paprika Museum—chosen last year by Lonely Planet as one of the world’soddest food museums.
The museum website makes little effort to hide or highlight its Jewish pedigree. “Mark Pick, the product trader of Moravian Jewish origin, was a great traveler,” begins the laconic description. “Once he went to Italy, the homeland of salami, and when he tasted the local specialty he thought how well the pigs in the Szeged region could be used for these purposes.”
Pick reportedly returned to Szeged in 1869 with 40 Italian sausage makers and got to work. In placards in English, Hungarian, and German, the one-story museum unrolls the tale of the founder’s life. After Pick launched the company, he died in 1892; his widow Katalin handled the business until their son Jenő took the reins in 1906. Jenő built the business up to legendary status. By 1939, it was the second-largest food processing plant in all of Hungary.
Beyond these skeletal details, the museum does not delve into the family’s history. Much more of the museum is dedicated to the life of the salami: how workers strip down the pork, coarsely chop it by hand with curved knives, package it in casings, and age it in the cool air by the Tisza River. For the first few decades of its operation, Pick salami was encased in horse intestines. Later, those were replaced with cellulose. Pick is distinguished by its delicate spice mix, its wide girth, and its “noble mold”—a uniform white coating that workers monitor carefully and brush to keep smooth. Visitors to the Pick museum often stop around the corner at the factory outlet, a miniature supermarket where nearly everything is made of pig—dozens of sausage and salami varieties, slabs of bacon, and buckets of offal. For the hearty home cook, there’s a pig head behind a glass refrigerator window. It is hard to imagine that Mark Pick envisioned the swine empire that would grow out of his factory. But by stepping out of the firm bounds of Judaism, Pick created a salami that is still regarded as the heart of Hungarian cuisine.
Jewish historian Andras Zima, who teaches at the Jewish Theological Seminary in Budapest and focuses on the late 19th century, said that the Pick family was one of several well-known pillars of the Jewish community, supporting local schools, synagogues, and communal organizations. They were part of a class of Jewish industrialists who financed the nation’s railroads and launched important brands. People like Mark Pick were comfortable in the modern world, said Zima, although they were usually practicing Jews. “They didn’t eat it, they just sold it,” Zima said of the Pick pork producers. “That was the business.”
It is impossible to know whether Zima or the museum is correct about whether Mark Pick regularly ate his treyf flagship product. What is easier to confirm, Zima said, is that Pick used his pork salami’s profits to help bankroll the building of the monumental Szeged Synagogue, finished in 1907. Hungary’s second-largest synagogue, towering 160 feet high, is surrounded by a wrought-iron gate and faced in beige brick, with the Ten Commandments etched into stone tablets on the façade. It’s partly obscured by leafy tall trees; building rules at the time required Jewish synagogues to blend in with the landscape so as not to rattle Christian Hungarians. But inside, it’s a sumptuous, cavernous space. “Love thy neighbor as thyself” is painted in Hebrew in gold on a sky-blue background below a soaring cupola. Four menorahs illuminate the stage. It’s an impressive building—even more so, perhaps, because it was financed in part by pork profits.
Zima said that Pick’s ascent was a sign of the times. The Austro-Hungarian Empire emancipated Hungarian Jews in 1867, removing all restrictions on their work, education, and living. Hungary at the time was a vast empire, and its leaders launched a program of “Magyarization” to unite the residents under one linguistic umbrella. For the Jews, who identified as Hungarian first, this was a time of great opportunity. Another Hungaricum that gained popularity at the time was Unicum, an herbal liquor created by the Jewish Dr. Zwack to alleviate the digestion problems of the Austro-Hungarian royal family. “If you learned the language, if you got the culture, you could be part of the nation,” Zima said.
That view changed after Hungary lost a great deal of territory after World War I, Zima said, and being ethnically Hungarian became more important. Jews became a separate and distinct minority. So, even though Jenő Pick helmed a beloved food company, when the Nazis invaded Hungary in 1944, Jenő faced the same danger as the rest of Szeged’s 9,000 Jews. Because Hungarian Jews were first deported from the countryside, Jenő fled Szeged for Budapest and survived the war under the protection of the Swedish embassy. After the war, he returned to Szeged—only to see his company nationalized by the Communist regime in 1948. According to the Pick museum, Jenő lived out the rest of his life in Budapest, supported by children living abroad; his son Thomas Pick is currently living in a nursing home in Maine.
When Communism fell, Pick reverted to private hands, and by 1992 it was a joint-stock company. In 2009, the Hungarian Bonafarm group, the country’s largest food processor, bought Pick. Gradually Pick bought up other prominent pork-producing concerns, including Ringa (2007) and Herz (2010)—another salami factory founded by a Jewish man. Pick marketing director Laszlo Madarasz says there is no connection anymore between the company and the Pick family.
I was curious to see what Hungarians think of Pick today. In Budapest, food expert Dora Czukmet me in April in the city’s Seventh District, the Jewish quarter, at the steps of the towering Dohany Street Synagogue, the largest in Europe. The congregation is Neolog—a precursor to the Reform movement that would today be considered Modern Orthodox. Mark Pick was Neolog.
Most of Budapest’s 100,000 Jews today are unaffiliated, and observing dietary law is not a high priority. Czuk, for instance, said she grew up eating pork—it was just part of daily life. A visit to the city’s only kosher butcher confirmed that. Business was slow, the only customers being tourists and ultra-Orthodox locals; kashrut supervisor Tzvi Goldenberg told me most Hungarian Jews don’t keep kosher because they don’t want to pay the higher prices for the meat.
I went to the three-story Central Market Hall, the largest and oldest covered market in the city. On the ground floor, vegetable stalls were packed with staples like dried red pepper, strings of garlic, piles of hot green pepper, and bundles of fresh green asparagus. The produce shops formed the periphery; the market’s center was devoted to salami, almost exclusively Pick. Beyond the displays of fresh salami, large Pick ornaments hung from the canopies. Pick dominated in the market, as it does in shops on most Budapest streets, and even in the airport. It remains an exalted product in Hungary.
Food tour guide Gabor Banfalvi runs Jewish history trips through the Tokaj wine region, where in village after village only abandoned synagogues attest to communities that vanished in WWII. Now he says he’s curious to uncover more stories of Jewish influence on the Hungarian kitchen. Banfalvi grew up under Communism in the 1980s, eating bland, smooth pink sausage called Parizsi. Banfalvi said today he finds Parizsi repellent, but Pick never lost its luxurious cachet.
“Pick salami was sort of a delicacy which usually the family really got excited about when we got hold of,” said Banfalvi, who co-owns the food tourism company Taste Hungary with his wife Carolyn, who has published several books on Hungarian food. “Once you start eating Pick salami you can’t stop.”
Photographs by Daniella Cheslow.