Cafe Society

Culinary treasures are revealed through a family's history

Page 2 of 3

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.

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Juliet Wittman is an investigative reporter and critic with a passion for theater, literature, social justice and food. She has reviewed theater for Westword for over a decade; for many years, she also reviewed memoirs for the Washington Post. She has won several journalism awards and published essays and short stories in literary magazines. Her novel, Stocker's Kitchen, can be obtained at select local bookstores and on Amazon.
Contact: Juliet Wittman