Cafe Society

Culinary treasures are revealed through a family's history

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."