Culinary treasures are revealed through a family's history

By Juliet Wittman

published: January 20, 2011

Food is never a mere object, never just the thing in itself. Food always carries a story. Whether Cheetos or pepper, chocolate cake or honey-sweetened tea, a food item can evoke an entire culture, historical era or individual human life. When I think of Czechoslovakia, the country of my parents' birth — the emotional and conceptual background against which my entire childhood unspooled — what I see is a plate of plum dumplings.

There's nothing exotic about fruit dumplings. They're peasant food, simple and ordinary, a bland thick potato-dough case around a single fruit, pit removed and replaced with a spoonful of sugar, served usually with buttered crumbs and powdered sugar. My mother made these wonders once or twice a year as a special treat, and they astonished me every time: the whitish-gray exterior that broke open to expose a deep crimson heart, and the way the bland unctuousness of the dough gave way to the acute sweetness of the fruit.

Czech Point Denver, the current citywide celebration that centers on Opera Colorado's production of Dvorák's Rusalka, includes sessions on music, film and literature. Conspicuously absent are the Central European culinary arts — but that isn't surprising. Nobody suggests there's anything sophisticated about traditional Czech cooking. No famous chefs have emerged to refine the country's cuisine, to try to fuse it (Czech-Asian? Slovak-Norwegian-Californian?) and dazzle us with the results. Reports about the national diet are sparse and repetitive. They say that the Czechs eat roast pork or duck with bread dumplings, garlic soup, white bread with cheese and salami, and so on. Of course there's plum brandy — Slivovitz — and excellent beer. The country is temperate and landlocked, more suitable for raising pigs and sheep than cattle. And twentieth-century history militated against refinement of cuisine: the Nazi occupation, the heavy-spirited years of Communist rule. During those stifling years, the Czechs kept their culture alive the way the fruit keeps its glow and flavor hidden in the flaccid dough. They held clandestine Shakespeare performances in private homes. The books of banned writers were passed around in the form of samizdat. It was dangerous, but none of these dissidents wanted to be seen as heroic, according to Vaclav Havel, the comic and comically ordinary-looking playwright who helped foment the Velvet Revolution and became the first president of a free Czechoslovakia. "Czechs," he explained, "have a strange, almost mysterious horror of anything that is overstated, enthusiastic, lyrical, pathetic or overly serious." So, pork and dumplings: a fitting cuisine for an unassuming nation.

But as in any culture in which people cook, there are treasures that aren't extolled in guidebooks or found in tourist restaurants, treasures that appear on kitchen tables all over the country. Beautiful braided loaves of challah. Homemade pickles. Mushrooms gathered by entire families from the woods after rain. The thin pancakes called palatschinken, filled with jam or a mix of lemon juice and nuts, dusted with powdered sugar and served with cream. In my family, there was Idi-cake, so called because my Aunt Ida made it and — despite the fact that it's a traditional Slovak dessert — none of us knew its real name. Idi-cake is a flat layer of walnuts and sugar, leavened with egg whites and topped with a fudgy, lemony egg yolk icing. (You'll find lemon used for flavoring far more often than cinnamon in old-time Czech desserts.) Apricot trees are everywhere for jams and cakes, and there are all kinds of berries: My cousin Lucka, for example, has three kinds of currants in her Bratislava garden — black, red and white. Treats are made with home-ground poppyseed, and Slovakia still produces a fine soft sheep's-milk cheese called bryndza, which is mixed with bacon and noodles for bryndzovehalusky, a national dish. Foie gras is pretty available, since many country people keep a goose or two.

My mother went to England as a refugee in 1939, met my Czech father there and married him. What she told me about the war years was often centered on food: There was the salami relatives sent from the old country, for instance. She and my father hadn't tasted salami for a year, and they were thrilled. Having no refrigerator, and wanting to save the precious meat for a special occasion, they put it in a cardboard box and hung it from their window. But when they finally reeled it in, the entire salami had been devoured by mice. At one point, my mother worked as a domestic for an English family, and she often talked about the wonder in the children's eyes when she first made strudel for them, stretching the dough over a floured tablecloth until it was so thin that — as Czechs always say — you could read a newspaper through it. "Look, Mummy," the children cried. "Come see what the foreign lady's doing."

Before the invasion of Czechoslovakia, my father's family had owned the Svolen factory where the country's bryndza was produced. He loved cheese, and for a year or so, my parents struggled to keep a small cheese business going in England. I have photographs of my father standing with a large white sheep, my mother with a kerchief on her head, proudly holding up a cheese in a spotless white cloth. But the British palate was intensely conservative at the time, and sheeps'-milk cheeses just didn't suit.

Growing up in grimy, bomb-site-pocked London, I learned about Czechoslovakia through my mother's cooking. A country girl, she knew how to make do on a limited budget. She gave us bread smeared with chicken fat. She made stock from the fishmonger's leftover fish heads and spines — which he handed over wrapped in newspaper for a few pennies; pig's foot jelly; a robust risotto of chicken giblets or the scrapings from a calf's head begged from the butcher. Later, she'd tell me about the shortages that required so much thrift, my pickiness, and the difficulty of getting my howling infant self to ingest the one precious egg a week we were allotted. Her own mouth watered as she dreamed about snatching that egg from my ungrateful lips. Later, when rationing was finally over and meat, fruit, cheese, eggs, milk and butter were more available, there were feasts of roast chicken and such traditional Central European favorites as goulash, stuffed cabbage and chicken paprikash — though I never did find a carp swimming in our bathtub waiting to be sacrificed for Christmas Eve dinner, as non-Jewish Czech children traditionally do.

Vienna was just across the border from the country town where my mother grew up. She had sampled the city's more sophisticated fare, and she was also endlessly curious and experimental in her own cooking. As a result, she was as undaunted by souffles, both savory and sweet, as by stews, as comfortable with puff pastry as strudel dough. She could even transform stodgy old English steamed pudding into a light, chocolatey confection that melted on your tongue.

My parents' families were decimated by the war; my father died a year after the conflict ended. My mother worked long hours as a dressmaker to keep us housed and fed, and our life together was lonely. The only times I glimpsed the sheer joy and sensuality of which she was capable was at dinner, when we were celebrating or entertaining. My mother loved providing food for others, and my friends were always welcome to eat at our house. She'd stand over the table loaded with goodies, raise her sherry glass, tell a dumb joke and start to laugh uncontrollably, sometimes till the tears came.

In 1991, Czechoslovakia split into two countries. Since my relatives are from Slovakia, I've been reproved now and then for calling myself Czech. I understand why Czechs feel the need to maintain their superiority. The Czech Republic is urban and sophisticated, home to scientists and musicians, as well as writers like Kafka, Capek and Kundera. Extraordinary movies emerged during the Prague Spring of the 1960s and are still made there to this day. The image of the archetypal Czech is of a small man, wise and a little world-weary, deeply contemplative in his own eccentric way and given to ironic shoulder shrugs. Slovaks? Well, the wild and crazy guys portrayed on Saturday Night Live by Steve Martin and Dan Aykroyd are supposed to be Czech, but anyone who knows anything can tell they're really Slovak.

But the place where my parents were born was called Czechoslovakia, and I still see the countries as one. Certainly the two cuisines don't differ much. When I finally visited as an adult, I found that Prague was everything I expected, a witchy, grotesque, ghost-ridden, beautiful and history-soaked city. You could easily understand how the Golem was conceived and born here, a being created by the mystical Rabbi Loew in the sixteenth century to protect the Jews. The spell of the city is so strong that, as we stood outside the Old New Synagogue and listened to our guide telling us that the Golem's body was still in the attic, that it will rise and walk again whenever Jews need protection, I shivered in the summer heat.

The food I ate in Prague, however, was the bland food of the guidebooks. My clearest food memory is of a waitress at the restaurant I frequented flatly refusing to provide plain rather than carbonated water. "No," she kept saying. "Only with bubbles." It was a couple of years after liberation, and the Czechs hadn't figured out consumerism yet.

In Slovakia, ancestral memories stirred. Another cousin, Kathryn, had returned to Svolen some years earlier seeking reparations, and by now she owned a city block, on which she ran a beer garden and an ice cream parlor. (Slovaks have an insatiable appetite for ice cream.) The town consists of a castle and a main street with a church on each end. The cheese factory is owned by a French company. Where my family once lived, there's nothing but fenced dirt, discarded wrappers, broken glass. Shortly before my visit, a pile of human bones had been discovered by workers renovating one of the churches, and these were piled haphazardly against a wall. No one knew where they came from, or whose they were.

In Bratislava, the country's capital, Lucka served apricot jam at breakfast and plum dumplings after dinner. In the morning, I listened as she spoke across the fence to a neighbor in a language and accent as familiar to me as my own breath. In the middle of the week-long visit, she took me to meet her friend Margaret, who served us Nescafe and ice cream. I watched them talk in Margaret's formal living room, with silver-framed photographs and vases of intricately hand-carved Czech crystal. It was such an ordinary scene: two old women, both widows, both Auschwitz survivors, bonded in a way I could never understand, chatting in that still, hot place. The old people of my childhood drifted into my mind, the displaced Czechs and Hungarians in their London rooms. Mr. Nachod, who walked the neighborhood with his black spaniel, Blescu, and sometimes let me filch the brown sugar cubes he had specially sent from Europe from his sugar bowl. And gentle, tiny Auntie Marta — Martaneni — lying in her bed in a darkened room. The first time I visited her alone, when I was nine, she directed me to a bottle of cognac hidden in a top drawer and suggested I take a sip. I did. It felt wicked and wonderful; I can still feel the slow burn behind my breastbone.

I have dumplings in the freezer now, little rocks in misted plastic made with last summer's apricots. My daughter, Anna, will visit soon with her two boys, and we'll put together meals from the array of cuisines available to us, frying hamburgers, making quiche or pizza, ordering takeout from the Nepalese place down the street. One night, if someone remembers, I'll rescue the dumplings from the freezer and warm them up for dessert. We'll make sure baby Aubrey has bits of banana to occupy him on his high-chair tray and appease five-year-old Clarkie — who won't want to touch that nasty-looking gray thing — with chocolate. But Anna has been to Bratislava and has seen the apricot trees. She knows about the three kinds of currants in Lucka's garden. She'll pick up her fork, pierce the gray carapace of the dumpling, smile at me briefly, and drive toward the piercing sweetness of the center.