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Czech cooking the “proper” way

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Most Czech pubs pride themselves on featuring a few national specialties. Dishes like svíčková (roast beef in cream sauce), vepřo, knedlo, zelo (pork, dumplings and cabbage), guláš (beef stew), and soups like bramboračka (potato) are commodities as well known here as fish and chips are in England or hamburgers and French fries in the US. While a Czech pub menu can be predictable, the quality of these Czech standards is usually decent and prices are generally reasonable.

However, tell babička that you’ve eaten svíčková in a pub, rather than in her home, and you’re likely to never hear the end of it. Eating meals in restaurants is a concept relatively new to the Czech Republic. My husband’s grandparents are always quick to remind us that we could have better, cheaper food at home. We resist explaining our reasons, knowing his family’s opinions on food are unchangeable.

The ability to prepare traditional Czech food is an integral part of most Czech females’ cooking resumes, at least for those over 40. Surprisingly, many of my Czech contemporaries in their 30s or younger plead ignorance when it comes to preparing national specialties, citing that they don’t know the “proper” way to prepare such dishes.

When I asked about a recipe for svíčková, my Czech girlfriend confessed that until recently she’d never even tried to make it because she assumed it was too difficult. Although my friend cooks regularly for her family, having lived abroad and traveled widely, she prepares a variety of international-style dishes instead of traditional Czech ones. When her kids begged her to try svíčková, she relented, and discovered that the recipe wasn’t as tedious or as complicated as her mother and grandmother had always made it seem.

The myth of preparing traditional Czech food in a “proper” way is perpetuated by older generations of Czech females who often equate their prowess in the kitchen with their overall sense of worth. Whether they realize it or not, these Czech women have handicapped their youngsters by keeping them out of the kitchen. I know from watching Radek cook with the children that, even when he’s baking something as simple as a bábovka (pound cake), he prefers their “help” in a “hands-off” approach to ensure perfection.

Not learning to cook traditional Czech food doesn’t appear to bother younger Czech generations, my husband included, who are perfectly willing to find their Czech food in a restaurant or on one of their monthly visits to babička’s. Although I relish tasting different Czech dishes, particularly seasonal specialties and holiday fare, I’m not in a hurry to bring Czech recipes, beyond the occasional soup, into my own cooking repertoire either. Apart from Czech dessert recipes, which I gladly experiment with, I leave Czech main courses to Radek’s family.

Like my Czech girlfriend, Radek prepares traditional dishes under duress, when the children beg for rajská (beef in tomato sauce) or when he wants to show his American in-laws a taste of Czech cuisine. On the occasions when Radek tries his hand at a Czech dish, I’m always surprised at how precisely he follows his mother’s verbal instructions. Watching him try to assimilate his mother’s instructions into a coherent recipe, with specific measurements and timing, always makes me admire his tenacity. This is compounded by the fact that from my own experience, I’ve found her dishes taste a little different each time, since the only recipe she follows is in her head. Afterward, I’m never sure if his mother is flattered that he asked for a recipe or more distressed thinking that he might not follow her instructions correctly.

Although there is a tendency among older Czech generations to keep secrets of the kitchen among women, in Radek’s family, his grandfather actually does all of the food purchasing and much of the cooking. Radek claims no one ever explicitly taught him how to cook, but he does remember watching and learning vicariously. He first grilled meat as a youngster by skewering cutlets on a fork and grilling them over the open flame of the gas stove.

Like many Czech men, Radek gets much of his cooking pleasure from preparing meat or fish. Over Christmas, Radek purchased a live carp, which he subsequently butchered, de-scaled and cut into filets. When it actually came time to bread and fry the filets however, Radek’s mother took over, excusing him from doing “women’s work.” Even in Radek’s grandparents’ kitchen, his grandmother still prepares the Sunday řízky (fried breaded pork filets), although his grandfather cooks nearly everything else.

Recently, when Oliver ran a fever, Radek called his mother for her tried-and-true cold remedy, a recipe for slepičí polévka (hen soup). Since we already had half of a frozen hen and soup noodles left over from Christmas, I figured Radek could improvise the other vegetables. Not surprisingly however, he wasn’t interested in substituting celery stalk for celery root or adding a few potatoes instead of parsnip. In the end his “quick” get-well soup required a trip to the supermarket, but the results were delicious. Radek reasoned that if he was going to spend time cooking, he might as well prepare it the “proper” way. I’m sure his mother would have been proud to hear it.

Being part of a half-n-half family means our dinners include traditional Czech and American dishes, as well as samplings from other cuisines like Thai, Indian and Italian. When I survey my fellow foreign friends who are also married to Czechs, they have similar mixed dinner traditions. Like Radek, many Czech fathers I know have learned to prepare the specialties they remember from their childhood for their own half-Czech children, particularly when babička lives far away and their non-Czech partners are busy dishing up meals from their own native cuisines. My Czech girlfriends living abroad with non-Czech partners also spend time and energy making sure that their children grow up familiar with traditional Czech foods.

Although the belief that there is a “proper” way of preparing Czech food (i.e. babička’s way) might prevent timid Czechs from getting their hands dirty in the kitchen, it hasn’t stopped most of the “half-n-half” families that I know from successfully incorporating at least a few special Czech dishes into their family’s diet. Babička may have set high standards, but if our family is any example, even non-perfect homemade attempts beat only eating Czech dishes when prepared by someone else.

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