It is the most unique candy bar imaginable. I am not even sure I can call it a candy bar. It is a roll of sweet, lemony cottage cheese – smooth and fluffy, none of that weird, gritty, rubbery stuff – covered in a layer of crunchy milk chocolate. It’s about the size of my middle finger and it’s wrapped in a red polka-dot foil. It’s “Turo Rudi.” Literally translated: Cottage Cheese Roll. Or “rollie,” if we want to be accurate.
It is only for the Hungarian palate. I have never met an American who enjoyed it. I think you have to grow up with it to appreciate its weirdness. You have to have eaten enough to know how to open the package so that the chocolate doesn’t brake off and how to fish the last bits of chocolate crumbs out of the foil. You have to have crushed enough rollies in your backpack on hot school days to appreciate the way it tastes when it’s melted and to not be too surprised when it comes to represent your entire personal history and identity.
Because of course, it is more than just a roll of cottage cheese, covered in chocolate.
The last time I had one was in October 2006. My parents’ fridge was always stocked with them when we were home in Budapest for a visit. Turo Rudi can be eaten for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and for every imaginable snack in between. But it doesn’t travel well, so after gorging myself on them for two weeks, I fished the last one out of my carry-on luggage when we landed in Boston at the end of our trip. I didn’t want some angry customs official to confiscate my exotic candy.
Since then, Turo Rudi only lived in my dreams. My brother and I would sometimes list flavors we missed from home: Coffee served by the angry waitresses at the Muvesz. Wiener schnitzel made by Grandma. Challa bread dipped in hot cocoa. And Turo Rudi.
It is weird how all of our memories of home, childhood, and happiness in the end boil down to food.
This year – three years after the last Turo Rudi – my Mom found them on the Internet. Oh glorious, wonderful, magical Internet! My parents are now living in the U.S. and for our birthdays my brother and I both received five Turo Rudis ordered from a little Hungarian store in Florida. They arrived packed in a box of ice and my Mom handed us the packages as if they had diamonds in them.
The joy I felt when I bit into the first one after such a long time was overwhelming. No food should make you feel this incredible. Then immediately my hoarding instinct took over – I wanted to make those five bars last as long as possible. Never mind that they are now available with the click of a mouse. I was still used to the thought that I had to savor every single crumb, because who knows when I’ll have the next chance.
I feel like an idiot when I get emotional about food. I mean, really…. How can my entire being, my history be defined and captured in something so stupid and simple? A roll of cottage cheese, covered in chocolate.
I hate to get whiny about how confusing it is to be an American citizen when I know that I will never truly be an American. How confusing it is to not stick out in a crowd when I feel so alien. How I am afraid that the feeling of watching my entire life from the outside will never go away; that I will never truly be a participant in my destiny. That no one will ever know the real me.
I generally don’t think about these things.
But a small bite of Turo Rudi brought it all back in a second. The first delicious bite was soon followed by melancholy for people and places lost. I haven’t been homesick in ages until that bite, but as soon as I swallowed I felt that painful empty feeling creep toward the pit of my stomach. The Turo Rudi tasted the same, just like it did years and years ago. But I was different and I couldn’t turn off my brain as it associated the sweet taste with the things I missed from home.
I did eat all five bars in the next couple of days. Each bite was delicious beyond what I remembered, but so much more complicated and sad than just grabbing them out of my parents’ fridge in Budapest without a second thought.
As much as I want to click over to the little store in Florida and get my next fix, I am not going to. I want my Turo Rudi memories to be happy ones about school and camp and home. I don’t want them to be fraught with so much anxiety about my sense of belonging and identity. It’s just not fair to put that much pressure on a small roll of cottage cheese, covered in chocolate.