Monday, March 14, 2011

You Are What You Eat: A Look at My Culinary Heritage

Many of the foods and recipes I make, and the ones that appear on this blog, are influenced by places I've been to - England, Germany, Italy, or Spain, for example - but others are influenced by the places I come from.  Although I'm a third generation American, my family still has ties to the countries that brought us here and their traditions inform many aspects of our lives. Of course, one of the most obvious areas of influence is in the foods we prepare and enjoy - I call this my culinary heritage.

My ancestors on both my father's and mother's sides are mostly German, Czech and Slovak (with a bit of Ukrainian and Polish mixed in) so I grew up with an affinity for hearty Eastern European fare.  Daily menus were 'American' or a fusion of many cuisines (my mother was the original culinary traveler in our family!) but special occasions warranted a return to our roots; usually with pork tenderloin (veprova pecene) heavily spiced with caraway and served with handmade bread dumplings (knedlicky) and sauerkraut (zeli). 'Pork, Sauerkraut and Dumplings', as the meal is known in our family, is the staple of birthdays, holidays and pretty much any other occasion that might lend an excuse to indulge in our favorite meal.

Roasting pork in Prague - one of the most common meats in Czech cooking
(picture courtesy of my sister during her visit to me in Germany!)

The smell of caraway still reminds me of family gatherings and I have always considered my mother's firm-but-tender bread dumplings to be something magical and mysterious that no one else can replicate. Indeed, even a trip to the Czech Republic in 2010 left me still searching for a knedlick that could come close to their sweet, doughy perfection.  Many a boyfriend was put to the test with our family meal (because dating someone who doesn't enjoy heaping servings of sauerkraut or oceans of rich, brown gravy would be patently unthinkable) and if you're ever lucky enough to be in our house on Christmas day, you'll surely be able to try it yourself.

Of course, our home-country cooking isn't limited to a single meal.  No Christmas-cookie season would be complete without some form of Lebkuchen (spiced, gingerbread-like cookies from Germany for which I have a great recipe that I will one day share!) or Czech sugar cookies, which are made with powdered sugar and magically develop their own creamy, butter-and-sugar frosting when baked.  Easter is an occasion for the Osterlamm - a lamb-shaped cake baked in a special pan brought over from Germany.  Leftover Easter ham gets turned into flicky, a surprisingly sweet, Czech noodle dish made with brown sugar, ham, noodles and butter, while leftover dumplings (if there are any, which is rare) get scrambled with eggs and served for breakfast.

On the Slovak side, we have halušky a dish consisting of small dumplings made with wheat flour or potatoes, something like Italian gnocchi or German Spaetzle.  Bryndzové halušky is the same dish served with sheep cheese and small flecks of bacon - I've only eaten it in Slovakia, mostly because sheep cheese isn't always readily available here, but if any of you have a recipe, I would love to try to recreate it!

Liver dumpling soup in Nuremberg

Our ethnic foods recall strong memories from my childhood. As a treat, my grandma would prepare heavily buttered slices of bread covered in sugar, which she called "sugar brotcha" (an Americanized form of the German broetchen, or 'little rolls').  We ate soft boiled eggs for breakfast, mashed with crumbled toast in the German way, and grew up loving liver sausage sandwiches (made with Braunschweiger, of course) and liver dumpling soups.  My grandparents were fortunate to have settled close to a large Czech-German community outside Chicago, and I remember Grandma ordering glass jars of fresh milk from the German dairy down the street.  Extended family dinners out were conducted at various local Czech restaurants like The Bohemian Crystal in Westmont, where a pork and dumpling dinner was followed by homemade kolacky (slightly sweet pastries filled with jam, sweet cheese filling or, my personal favorite, poppyseed) and coffee a shade too strong for my childish palate.

In 1992, and again in 1999, my immediate family made a overland journey through Europe to experience and uncover our roots.  My mother filled out gaps in the family tree while we explored the history, culture and food of our ancestors.  For the first time, we tasted the original versions of dishes we'd eaten at home and it was a novelty to realize that whole countries ate favorite foods that had seemed so unusual in the States.  A highlight of the trip was returning to our family villages in rural Slovakia and the Czech Republic and speaking with people who actually knew the persons behind the names on our family tree. In one case, we even shared a meal (bryndzové halušky, naturally) with a man who turned out to be my Dad's second cousin - the family resemblance was striking! 

Countryside outside Sedlčany, home of my ancestors
Matt and I returned to the Czech Republic, in the summer of 2010, and I was amazed at how much had changed. Our 1992 visit had showed us a country nearly untouched by the passage of time, thanks in large part to the Iron Curtain; long stretches of rough driving passed in which we saw few other cars and few people beyond the workers in the fields, harvesting and pulling up potatoes entirely by hand. Our return to the country showed us a modern nation with infrastructure and inflation to match the rest of Europe. Even Sedlčany, the village of my ancestors, was built-up and modern - only the central square and its surrounding buildings was recognizable from the town I'd seen nearly 20 years before.

The same restaurant on the square that my parents took me to as a child - under new management but otherwise unchanged!

While the country had surely changed, the food was, thankfully, much the same.  We searched out genuine kolacky and stuffed ourselves with potato dumplings, game meats and 'salt horns' - a childhood favorite consisting of a horn of crusty bread covered in lip-lickingly, coarse salt.  For Matt, this was the first time he'd tasted many of these things (besides our family pork, sauerkraut and dumplings test which he passed, of course) and I think he enjoyed them.  It wasn't until this trip that I realized just how much my culinary heritage is a part of who I am.  I was so eager for him to try, and like, each dish because I felt like his acceptance of these foods was in some way an acceptance of me. 

Salty Horn heaven in Prague!
(picture from my sister)

Isn't it strange that the foods we eat should form such a large part of our identity?  It brings a whole new meaning to the phrase "You are what you Eat." Are there any foods that are unique to your culture or family? Do you that find your family gatherings revolve around certain ethnic foods? Do you have any great Czech, Slovak, German, Eastern European recipes (or corrections!) to share?  I'd love to hear about your experiences and learn more about your culinary heritage.


  1. Love your blog with the Prague pork stand as we were at last October, 2010 and the basket of Salty Horns. I grew up in the Chicago, Cicero & Berwyn area of Illinois where many Czechs and Slovaks settled including my Great Grand Father & Mother in 1873. The many Czech bakery shops had many delites to savor. Many can be at least satisfied by some things that we can get today, but Houska and especially Salty Horns are what I crave. My wife and daughter can make Houska but we have not mastered Salty Horns yet, but with trip to the Chicago area and Salty Horns from a Berwyn bakery to renew the memory of the taste, we will be trying this fall to master them in North Carolina.

  2. billn - thanks for your post! My Mom was born in the Berwyn area - her family was one of the many Czech/German families in that area! I'm glad that there are still some good ethnic bakeries there - it's always fun to taste old favorites when we visit. But as to the Salty Horns, I think if you can make Houska, you'll be able to master them. My brother has a good recipe which I will have to get my hands on - perhaps I can make them for the blog!