The First Mikulás Dinner

Since its founding in 1991, the Coalition celebrates each year and thanks its supporters in December while celebrating the Hungarian “Mikulás” tradition. To date Mikulás dinners have been hosted by nine different Hungarian Ambassadors at the Hungarian Embassy (and were held for two years at the German Embassy and the University Club). Mikulás Dinner began with a memorable feast held at the Kossuth House in 1990. Zsolt Szekeres, HAC Treasurer, recalls the story.

“The first Hungarian Ambassador sent to Washington after the changes of 1989 was Peter Zwack, businessman and owner of the distillery that produced the legendary digestive “Unicum”. The newly elected Hungarian leadership thought that by sending an experienced businessman, they would send the right signal to U.S. investors and policymakers, showing that Hungary is eager to do business. At the time, Hungary’s treasury was empty and the country in dire need of capital and know-how.

Ambassador Zwack, who had his own ideas, engaged Kálmán Kalla as Embassy chef, a professional already well-known in Budapest for his innovative culinary artistry. Chef Kalla managed to create Hungarian dishes that would compete with the lightest and most refined French cuisine, thus making a big dent in the accepted belief that Hungarian food, while tasty, is necessarily heavy.

One of the first to notice Chef Kalla’s cuisine was Johnny Apple, the renowned Washington correspondent of The New York Times. He found Kalla’s creations so exceptional that he described them in a half-page article in the New York Times. The result: tout Washington became keen on getting invitations to Hungarian Embassy events.

Meanwhile, Coalition leaders were trying to come up with their own ideas on how to attract government and business people for Hungary. At that time, conferences and business breakfasts were so common that hosting one more event would not really appeal to anyone unless we could offer someone, or something, exceptional.

Benő Vajda, a Hungarian American pediatrician who hosted many Coalition discussions at his Virginia estate, came up with a brilliant idea. Benő, an avid hunter, offered his next deer to the Coalition, suggesting that Chef Kalla should prepare what we called “a dear dinner”. Dear to all who helped Hungary in those early difficult times.

The idea was embraced by Rev. Imre Bertalan, who offered the Kossuth House in downtown Washington as a lunch venue – he figured 30 people could fit.

Invitations went out for a “dear lunch” cooked by Chef Kalla. The invitees were government and business folks who, under normal circumstances, would be inaccessible to an unknown NGO; yet in less than a day we received over 50 confirmations, and had to turn some down. In the end, we squeezed in 45 guests for an elegant luncheon on Mikulás Day (December 6) of 1990. No one from the Coalition had a place to sit, but the event was a resounding success.

And thus a tradition was born. The yearly Mikulás Dinner no longer features fresh venison, but is still a “dear dinner” for those who help us help Hungary.”