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Firing up the barbeque

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Last weekend we topped of a round of spring birthday celebrations with a three-way party for our Prucha boys. Oliver, Radek and Samuel, all have birthdays within three weeks of each other. In keeping with the traditions of the neighborhood, we decided to host a Saturday afternoon barbeque. Barbequing is common during the spring and summer in the Czech Republic, and most of the larger barbeques that I’ve attended have involved grilling a pig (or part of a pig), lamb or hen. As the hostess this time, I wanted to include a few American traditions and tasty treats so that our children and guests could get a sense of both of our family’s heritages.

Czech barbeques tend to be casual and laid-back, often lasting late into the evening. The children run through the garden before finally crashing in front of the television while parents socialize. At barbeques in the States, the food is often set out on a long table and people pile up their plates and then sit together to eat all at one time. Here, guests usually snack on the meat in intervals as it’s brought freshly from the grill to the table or is passed around the garden. The griller (the men usually take turns at this role) slices the meat into bite-sized pieces and a few pork filets are passed among numerous people. Since the grill rarely stops, the meat and accompanying grilled vegetables keep coming throughout the evening. Side dishes for Czech parties are simple, often including fresh bread, pickles, marinated peppers, raw vegetables, dips, relish and condiments. Silverware is typically unnecessary as the meat and side dishes can be eaten by hand, and napkins tend to be optional. While a keg of beer isn’t essential, most Czechs drink beer (or the non-alcoholic version), but there is also plenty of different waters and juices, as well as wine and liquors available throughout the night.

When Radek and I were married in the US, Radek asked my parents specifically if we could host a “pig roast” for our rehearsal dinner, to give my American family a taste of the Czech traditions he’d grown up with. Although my father tried, he wasn’t able to find a butcher or a store that would sell an entire piglet, which was surprising, given that I grew up in a rural farming region. Undeterred, my dad ordered a ham hock and declared the meat was the same. Radek was initially disappointed that we wouldn’t be able to mimic the party atmosphere created when roasting an entire pig, but once we found the bottled Pilsner Urquell, he was satisfied that the party had sufficient Czech flair. There were only 10 Czechs in attendance at our wedding, but I distinctly remember my mothers’ friends noting how much the Czechs appreciated the food and how heartily they ate. We didn’t run out of food that night, but there weren’t any leftovers. That experience left my American family with the sense that when hosting a Czech, having some extra food on hand couldn’t hurt.

With that thought in mind, I encouraged Radek to be generous in his meat estimations for our upcoming party. After some deliberation, Radek decided against a whole pig, due to logistics, and instead ordered a large turkey and a ham hock. He also ordered a keg with 100 half-pint servings, which seemed rather ambitious in my mind, considering we had only invited around 35 adults, and I knew most of the women wouldn’t drink beer. I didn’t question him though. We host one of these large extravaganzas only once a year (at most), and our neighbors are always generous with their own barbeque parties. Plus, I knew from experience that whatever beer didn’t get drunk or food eaten on Saturday night would be fair game for those who dropped by on Sunday while we were doing our clean-up.

While it’s typical in the US to have summer “pot luck” parties where everyone brings a side dish to share (and in the South where I’m from, macaroni and cheese is even considered a vegetable), I felt awkward asking our guests to contribute food to the party. I had planned to make a spinach artichoke dip, deviled eggs, blue cheese and dill dips for vegetables and other sides to accompany the meat. Our neighbors like a good barbeque and by Friday afternoon, just when I was getting nervous I’d never finish in the kitchen, I had five guests stop by and declare the different contributions they’d be bringing. I was relieved and went to bed knowing at least our food would be plentiful, even if it rained.

Growing up, an integral part of my birthday celebrations was being served a yellow cake decorated to my theme of choice for the year. This year, I planned to do the same for Oliver, who had his heart set on having a dinosaur cake like his cousin in the US. Sammy would get a traditional American yellow cake, just without the frosting, and Radek wanted a family recipe cheesecake. Although it would have been much simpler to order the cakes from a bakery, I wanted to continue my family’s tradition of creating a personalized birthday memory. My parents had the dubious advantage of baking their cakes from a fail-proof Betty Crocker or Dunkin Hines box mix. I made my cakes from scratch. In the two weeks leading up to the party, I made two different yellow cakes with icing, just to perfect the recipe. Our baking dishes were slightly different sizes than the American recipes, but overall the adaptation worked. When baking the cheesecake, I also adapted the recipe and substituted some ingredients for others that I could more readily find in the Czech Republic. The final results were excellent, and I was pleased that the children thought Oliver’s dino cake was cool and that the adults found the cheesecake tasty.

Once the party got underway, I found myself running non-stop, preparing drinks, manning the food table and coordinating a game for the children. Radek and I passed each other coming and going from the kitchen to the garden, but there wasn’t a moment to chat. I was pleased to notice that whenever I checked the food table, the dishes I’d prepared were being tasted by our guests. I was also relieved to note that the food wasn’t disappearing as fast as I’d feared. Oliver spent the evening surrounded by friends and Samuel got passed from lap to lap before he escaped and crawled his way around the garden. Radek was the center of attention as the chief griller, although I watched him pass the responsibility to other guys who ventured close to the grill. The party lasted for over 6 hours before most of guests, including all the children headed to bed. A few women stayed late and chatted, and I enjoyed the chance to finally relax in the mild spring night and revel in the festive atmosphere before the day ended.

By ten the next morning, the neighbors were back. Several guys sat with Radek sipping beers and cutting pieces of the still plentiful grilled meat. Throughout the day, guests drifted by and by late afternoon we had a substantial crowd again. Just as I started to stress over not managing to clean up, our neighbors began to gather their children and slowly head home. It had been a memorable weekend for the Pruchas and I was sorry to see it end. But summer is only just beginning, and I know it won’t be long before we get an invitation to another barbeque.

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