Tradition & History

Famous Hungarian Inventors – Part One

Hungarians are proud of their scientists and inventors, but few know that the world of cuisine also owes much to Hungary.

A Hungarian scientist spread soy sauce to the Western world, a Hungarian Count naturalized grapes and wine in California, and Hungarians played a key role in the emergence of top American gastronomy.

Let’s take a look at some famous Hungarians in food and wine.

1. Ágoston Haraszthy (1812–1869): The father of California wine culture

Haraszthy was one of the first Hungarians to settle in America. During his travels, he spent a lot of time with various Indian tribes and made notes of which he later published as a book titled Travels in North America. He emigrated to the United States with his family in 1840 and first settled in Wisconsin, where he founded the Haraszthy Village (now known as Sauk City).

Upon founding the new city, Haraszthy began building roads, bridges and mills. He also started hops and sheep breeding, and established the area’s first regular steamboat. He even established a vineyard, but after several years of trying, he was not satisfied with the quality of the wine produced there. So, in 1848, in the hope of finding a better wine-growing area, he wound up his Wisconsin estates and moved to California.

Haraszthy and his family settled in San Diego, a city of just 650 inhabitants at the end of 1849, where he bought land and planted orchards. He soon took an active role in local business and politics; and with one partner, he established the company that operated the first regular omnibus service. 

He was elected Sheriff of San Diego, and became a member of the first Legislature of the State of California. During his time in office, he traveled a lot around the San Francisco bay area in search of a more vine-growing region than the subtropical San Diego countryside. At the end of the parliamentary term, he liquidated his San Diego interests and moved to San Francisco.

In 1857, he visited the Sonoma Valley, where he immediately recognized the excellent qualities of the area. He established a vineyard and winery on 226 hectares named Buena Vista. Haraszthy believed it was possible to produce quality wines in this area that could compete with their most famous European counterparts. He visited Hungary and other European wine producing countries in 1861 and returned to the United States with more than 300 grape varieties. However, European vine varieties were not resistant enough to American pathogens and pests.

Haraszthy is most respected for laying the foundations of what is now the world-famous California grape and wine culture. The Buena Vista Winery, which he founded, still operates in Sonoma.

2. László Berczeller (1855-1955): Obsessed with soybeans

A medical professor from a wealthy Jewish family fought to eradicate hunger. He graduated from the University of Budapest, and then between 1918 and 1920, he dealt with blood protein testing in a Berlin-based research laboratory led by the famous Professor Wassermann. His next major research topic was to develop a low-cost, mass-food option that he wanted to achieve by making soybeans fit for human consumption.

Later in Vienna, he managed to produce nutrients at a nutrition-chemistry institute he led. The invention was accepted by the League of Nations, and a mass production method was developed in France with chemist François Arnold.

Berczeller first encountered soy, one of the main ingredients of Oriental cuisine but unknown in Europe, in a Japanese restaurant in Berlin in 1913. He later developed soy milk, soy flour and cheap soy bread. But his patents were infringed unscrupulously, especially in Nazi Germany, which used soy to feed its soldiers. In 1955, he died in a poorhouse in France, with an overwhelmed mind.

3. Lajos Szathmáry (1919-1996): The first television chef

Szathmáry was born on a train to a Transylvanian family fleeing from the Romanian army. He graduated from high school in Sárospatak, then enrolled at Pázmány Péter University in Budapest and applied for the College of Journalism. He acquired editorial training at the Athenaeum Printing House, where he was entrusted with manuscripts from great Hungarian writers, such as Zsigmond Móricz, Géza Féja and Lőrinc Szabó.

In the fall of 1944, he was sent to the West with his troops, and when the war ended he was found in the American occupation zone of Germany.

He graduated with a doctorate in psychology, then emigrated to the United States in 1951. He worked in kitchens and then developed frozen and packaged meals at a Chicago company that later was used by NASA! He founded his own restaurant, The Bakery, which was one of the city’s most popular places for decades. He achieved his first great success with his book Secrets of a Chef (Chicago, 1971), which has long been on the bestseller list. In his writings, he evoked the memories of Transylvania, Szeklerland, and primarily Marosvásárhely in warm colors.

Szathmáry was also the first celebrity chef in America. He has featured in countless radio and hundreds of TV commercials and appearances, including the Oprah Winfrey show.

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