“Good news!” a friend told me this morning in Rockford.  “McDonald’s is closing 16 restaurants in Serbia.”  Apparently Serbs, who eat the best “hamburgers” in the world and serve them with excellent bread, have stood up to the fast-food wing of the New World Order more stoutly than they resisted Madeleine Albright (though which is less appealing, Big Mac or Big Maddy—the woman should be forbidden to expose those legs in a skirt—is hard to say).

One of the closed restaurants was in Zrenjanin in Banat, a part of Vojvodina (the region between Belgrade and Hungary), where people eat as well as they do anywhere on the globe.  After I appeared on a television show in Zrenjanin last October, the host took me to an old brew-pub where we gorged on barbecued meats and fresh beer.  In the old days, this brewery had been owned by Dundjerski, the richest Serb in Austria-Hungary.  Once, on a trip to Budapest, Dundjerski ordered beer in a fashionable restaurant.  A group of Hungarian aristocrats, want-ing to show their contempt for the peasant, ordered a huge bucket of beer and used it to cool their bottles of champagne.  Undaunted, Dundjerski ordered a bucket of champagne with which he cooled his beer.  Dundjerski lived it up in Budapest, and, if his wife was away, he entertained actresses at his estate in Vojvodina, drinking and frolicking in his swimming pool.

Here, at Dundjerski’s pivnica, is simple living at its best.  The band plays traditional Serbian music, and tables full of students drink beer and sing along.  Most of the songs are 50 to 150 years old, yet these kids seem to have an inexhaustible repertoire.  In the men’s room (whose plumbing is older than some of the songs), the young men give me the familiar suspicious glances that greet foreigners in a land of peasants used to being invaded.  For all they know, I am one of those Hungarians who have come to Vojvodina to buy up property in anticipation of NATO’s next campaign to break up Yugo-slavia and destabilize Europe.  

The week before, I had spent a day with my friend Branko, driving around the hilly parkland of Fruska Gora, a little to the west of Zrenjanin.  We visit several monasteries, including Grgolac, where we stop to admire the altar-painting of Uro‰ Prediã, Dundjerski’s friend.  We have to admire the painting from afar, because a surly nun tells us not to walk on the carpet she has just vacuumed.  Kru‰edol sits on a charming hillside, and, walking around the church, built in an Austrian baroque style that still manages to convey the Orthodox sense of mystery, and through the haphazard monastic complex, we are confronted by a series of odd angles and diminishing perspectives that make us think we are in another world.  Losing our way several times among the hills, we finally come upon Velika Remeta, where a friendly nun insists on giving us a glass of rakija made from quince (dunja).

We stop in Sremski Karlovci—to have a coffee (and more rakija) and to look at the church, I am told, but, in fact, to find a wine shop, where Branko buys enough to float the van he is driving.  We are hungry by now, but we drive on through Novi Sad and up the Danube to the restaurant of “Bata PeÏ.”  This Bubba Peugeot has perched his restaurant on an undeveloped stretch of the Danube.  We look into the handsome interior, with the white cloths and gleaming crystal, but, since the day is just warm enough, we choose to sit outside—if only to escape a pianist who, the poster promises, will be gracefully styling international pop tunes.

We sit and watch the freshets of wind drive little patches of cloud across the sky.  Every time the sun appears, it lights up the wind-whipped waves into beaten gold and tricks us into thinking the Danube really is blue.  The opposite shore is dotted with groves of trees before curving up toward Hungary.  Thinking about what to eat, we toss down several glasses of a very strong dunja.  (Branko’s comment is that he was only drinking to be polite and did not even try to keep up with me.)

We are bent on eating fish from the river, but the waiter, whose grace and discretion belong to another time, suggests we split an order of duck paprikash as a starter.  The paprikash is a masterpiece, not over-flavored with paprika or thickened too much with sour cream.  The duck is still moist and stands up to the sauce far better than beef or pork can.  We are, after all, in a land that was once Hungarian and should expect a good paprikash, but this is so good that I take the idea home with me and try it out in the kitchen with spectacular results.  

Anticipating fish, we are drinking a white wine from the region—crisp and brilliant, without any of the tricks played by Californians hoping to win prizes for the 16 different hints of flavor.  I am a simple man, and the rush of blackberry, oak, cinnamon, and who-knows-what confuses a brain that only wants to enjoy good food and drink.  This wine, I am happy to declare, will win no prizes.  The fish is grilled smudj, a perch or pickerel straight out of the Danube.  It is just oily enough to be grilled, and, although I am stuffed, halfway through the fish, I find myself sucking the last sweet bits off the bone.  I briefly consider attacking the brains and the eyeballs, but enough is enough.  We pass on dessert, though we do drink another bottle of the wine and order Serbian (that is, Turkish) coffee, if only as an excuse to linger.

“Why would anyone want to be anyplace but here?” I ask Branko.  His wife had suggested the place, after eating there during a business conference a day or two earlier.  A large group of conference participants, smug in their American clothes and 1980’s Jack Kemp poofed hairdos, come out on the deck, and Branko groans.  I tell him not to worry.  Out here, there is much too much wind for their hair.  Sure enough, they glance a moment at the Danube in its glory and file back in, a bit disgruntled, holding their blow drys in their hands and talking loudly of their big deals.  This is one of the reasons we sat outside, exults Branko, as the wind, freshening across the river, blows our hair into disarray and scatters napkins across the deck.