Beethoven and The Barbecued Ox
Your appetite for food reflects your appetite for life. Old Spanish saying.
My dad, Jerry, is hosting his annual barbecue tomorrow night, and he’s got his grandsons busy scurrying about getting ready for it. Every summer Jerry enjoys having a large summer barbecue for family and friends, and he’ll often roast a pig and serve vast quantities of homemade sausage. Jerry is the master meat chef and chief organizer, inviting well over 100 people, and delegating everything from site and food preparation to musical talent, tents and tables.
A few years ago he called me to tell me that Crystal Gayle was singing at it. (She was, but she turned out to be a local singer who spelled her name differently. He’s always up to mischief like that). My dad has a generous heart and a larger than life personality, and is always doing things on a grand scale.
Apparently he comes from a long line of big scale barbecuers, dating back at least to the 1700’s when his family would roast an ox on special occasions. There were about 300 families of lower nobility at that time in the Hungarian empire called the Golden Horned Bulls, and Jerry’s grandmother’s family, the Andels, as well as several other related families – the Mesko, Palotay, Medzihradszky and Zmeskal families to name a few – were in this class.
Around 1792 Nikolaus Zmeskall became best friends with a budding, young musical talent named Ludwig Van Beethoven, and together they would travel by horse and buggy from Vienna across what was then Hungary (and is now Slovakia) to Lestiny, where they would spend several days hanging out together with our large extended family and friends. (More to come in later stories on their lifelong relationship). Beethoven’s appetite rivaled his musical talent, and he loved to hang out with Nikolaus and drink and eat.
This recipe was made by the golden horned bull families on very special occasions, and required the assistance of several dozen people from the village to prepare. An entire orchestra would be arranged to entertain the guests and Beethoven and Nikolaus would play together. I don’t know if my dad can top that.
The Stuffed and Roasted Ox Recipe
- 1 ox, skinned (two thousand pounds); leave the head and hooves in place
- 1 sheep
- 1 newborn calf
- 1 capon (a castrated cockerel (rooster) –preferably the one whose crowing wakes you at 5am)
- 1 pigeon or quail, depending on which you have on hand
- Salt (lots)
- Lard (buckets)
- Spit the width of a telephone pole, and the length of about 20-24 feet
- Several five foot long iron spikes
- Cross poles
- Large iron pokers
- Wheel mechanism similar to a grindstone, to turn the spit
- Pit filled with wood, longer than the ox
- Hammer and nails at least a foot long
- Several brooms tied with saucepans at the end
- Several large, wet rags
- Table large enough to hold the ox (usually made specifically for this purpose)
- Gold paint and paint brush
- Several hundred black handled knives
- Generously salt and cover the quail or pigeon with bacon drippings and stuff with large pieces of bacon
- Don’t forget to salt the quail inside as well
- Slice open the capon’s underside, and remove the innards; place the quail inside
- Salt and lard the plucked capon
- Slice open the gut of the newborn calf, remove it’s innards, and place the capon inside
- Rub the salt and lard all over the calf
- Slice open the belly of the lamb, and place the salted and larded calf inside
- Rub the lamb all over with the salt and lard
- Slice the throat of the ox large enough to fit the spit through
- Slice open the stomach of the ox, just large enough to nestle the lamb in, and remove the lungs, tripe and stomach, but leave the kidneys in tact
- Place the stuffed lamb inside the belly of the ox
- Sew up the ox’s underside
- Wrap the hooves and horns with wet rags
Now comes the labor intensive part, requiring the assistance of at least 3 dozen people, including a blacksmith who can forge the iron pokers and spikes.
- Drive the spit through the throat of the ox and out the other end
- This is the one of the most difficult steps, and requires expertise: carefully drive the 5 ft spikes down through the backbone of the ox, through the spit and out the belly of the ox
- Even more difficult: now hammer the hooves of the ox to it’s shoulderblades, so that it looks like it is in a reclining position: this is how it will eventually sit, roasted, on the table.
- With the strength of 20 men, 10 on each side of the spit, life the secured ox onto the crosspoles
- Place the logs below the hanging ox and light the fire
- Have several women boil salt and lard, and place it in the buckets tied to the brooms
- Engage several men in turning the wheel (which is several feet from the fire, thank goodness) so that the ox turns over and over above the flames
- Roast for four hours, poking the fire to keep it stoked and occasionally the ox to ensure if it cooking evenly
- Baste the beast constantly with the buckets of salted lard
- Replace the rags on the hooves and horns when they dry out with fresh wet ones, and make sure they don’t catch fire: roasting hoof smells awful
- The ox is done with the quail is as soft as butter, which should be after about 4 hours of roasting. The outside of the ox will be iridescent with gorgeous hues of rose red and deep brown.
- Douse the fire with water, then push 5 wagon shafts under the ox
- Have at least 10 strong men lift the ox down off the crosspoles and onto the wagons
- Cart the ox to the table, and lift onto the table, ever so gently
- Remove the wet rags and have your estate painter paint the hooves and horns gold (in honor of the golden horned bulls, natch).
- Tie a piece of fabric with your family seal onto the horns, draped over the snout of the ox.
Finally, have several village women ready with their baskets of collected black handled knives, and have them drive the hundreds upon hundreds of knives into the beast. The magnificent ox is ready to eat, looking like an enormous prehistoric porcupine.
I should also mention that this meal was eaten with…. sausage.
This is an actual stuffed, roasted ox recipe made by the Golden Bull families that I found in an old Hungarian cookbook, in the section of Hungarian food history. Apparently the recipe was found in the manuscript of an unnamed chef in 1694. Other similar recipes have been found as well.
I have also collected copies of over 150 letters from Beethoven to Niklaus, and visited our family’s church in Liptov that has historical records of their close relationship and visits there. I am also reading a book called Eroica that was written in the 1930’s that details their lives together (fiction, but based on the letters). As for the Andel family, they attended the same church for the past several hundred years, married into the Medzihradszky family, and have the crest of the golden horned bull and other things in their possession.