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Half-n-half: Giving thanks

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Last weekend, in honor of our final visit before heading to America for the holidays, my in-laws went all out with traditional Czech holiday fare. Upon arrival, we had a lunch of kachna, knedlíky a zelí (duck, dumplings and cabbage) at my mother-in-law’s. Roasted duck is a common Saturday lunch for Czechs, but Nada made a point of reminding us that this duck was extra-special. The dumplings were made from scratch, and there were two types of cakes waiting for dessert.

As we sat enjoying the meal, Nada made a wry grin and said something to the effect of, “Yes, this is your duck.” Her voice hinted at something more, but neither Radek nor I responded and we finished the lunch in peace. I was thankful. The meal kicked off our Czech “holiday” weekend, and I didn’t want to ruin the festive spirit by fussing too much over the food.

As Nada had alluded, this particular duck did have a history. Having been purchased back in August, by the time the duck made it to our plates, it had a posthumous places-of-temporary-residence list that exceeds mine in the Czech Republic. Originally, the duck had been intended as a welcome “gift” to us from my mother-in-law during her first visit to our new home in Prague. Unfortunately, like many Czech mothers, Nada’s vision of the perfect Czech meal (that she planned to cook at our new house) overrode Radek’s requests/pleas for his mother to leave the duck at home and enjoy the non-Czech meals that we’d already carefully planned.

Although both Radek and Nada had gone to efforts to please the other, in the end, mutual stubbornness won out, and neither the duck nor Nada made the planned trip. Instead, because Nada didn’t have space in her freezer, the duck spent the better part of the autumn being transferred from one relative’s house to the next, since it would have been unthinkable to give the duck away or cook it for someone else. Nada decided to forgo coming to Prague and wait until we made the trip to see her.

A few extra months in the freezer hadn’t affected the duck taste-wise, and even though I’m not a big fan of fatty meat, I had to admit the meal was tasty. I also appreciated the obvious effort Nada had put into the preparations. I had been a bit worried that Nada might want to further discuss her aborted trip to Prague, but the joking comment while serving the duck was the only illusion she made. The extra time between the duck’s purchase and serving seemed to have softened everyone’s hearts.

Within my husband’s family, food is a strong, cultural tie, and food-related discussions generate more heated arguments than politics. Most of our livelier dinner table discussions have centered on food, a trend which seems to hold true among most Czechs of Radek’s mother’s and grandparents’ generation. What someone eats (or doesn’t) becomes a reflection of personal character, and among the older Czech generation, it seems virtually unthinkable that personal tastes might differ from those of the chef’s. In many ways, this attitude is frustrating.

While younger Czech might have adapted to Western ways of eating sandwich lunches, going out to restaurants and forgoing the obligatory soup starter, old-time Czech food traditions still rank at the pinnacle of my in-laws’ priorities. In effect, this means every weekend meal we share with them becomes a large affair reminiscent of an American Thanksgiving.

Culturally, my husband and I come from different traditions concerning table manners and politeness. During family holiday dinners at my home in Virginia, I was trained to only put small portions on my plate but to try everything. If I was offered something I knew in advance I didn’t like, I could say, “No thank you. I’ll pass this time” and know that I wouldn’t be served it. Although I was never told to lie about something I didn’t like, no one would comment if I didn’t clean my plate. I’m sure I was encouraged to have a clean plate as a child, but once I reached adulthood my eating habits and preferences were respected. Needless to say, I remember throwing a lot of uneaten food from everyone’s plates as I helped my mother clean up after a holiday meal.

Meanwhile, Radek’s grandparents and mother characteristically load heaping portions onto our plates without asking our input but with the implicit understanding that everything placed on the plate will be eaten. Nothing should be left because food is not meant to be wasted. When I first became a part of the family, I raised many eyebrows by bringing a plate to the sink with a bit of leftover gristle or a few uneaten potatoes. I tried to convince my mother-in-law to serve me less, so that it would be possible for me to clean my plate. Over the years, my efforts seem to have worked to an extent. If I bring up the argument about wanting to prevent waste, it helps.

The same principle applies when they want to send us home with leftovers. Despite all our protests, we invariably leave laden with food that was either specially prepared or purchased specifically for us. Ill-trained in the art of refusing food, even if it happens to be food I know we won’t eat, I tend to feel at once guilty and annoyed. Unless we cross-over into the realm of being rude and threaten that we’ll throw the food away, neither Radek nor I has been able to convince his family to respect our refusals. I usually get worked-up and nervous and would rather accept the food anyway, although I know it goes against their principles if the food is thrown away.

Yet, every time I think I’ve reached my limit, and I can’t handle another awkward food exchange, I remember all the different dishes and tastes I’ve experienced in the past 6 years and I’m grateful. Without my in-laws’ gift of labor-intensive, traditional Czech meals, I’d have never had tasted děda’s famous bramborový salát (made from 3 kilograms of potatoes) or babička’s řízek (breaded deep-fried chicken or veal cutlets), and of course, the Christmas kapr (carp). None of these foods ranks on my all-time favorite list, but they are a part of Radek’s cultural heritage that I’m glad to know first-hand.

More imporant than the actual food is the recognition that this gift I am offered is, in the eyes of my in-laws, one of the most precious things they can offer. Sharing meals with my in-laws and learning to better communicate about accepting and refusing food offerings is a continuous learning process.

As we prepare to fly to America next week to celebrate the holidays with my family, I’m torn between eagerness to experience the pre-holiday rituals in my parents’ home and my disappointment at missing some of the pre-holiday Czech traditions like St. Mikuláš, the Vánoční trhy (open air Christmas craft festivals) and, of course, the family meals.

Half-n-half invites readers to send us your own half-n-half stories of the holidays, (Mikuláš, Hanukkah, Christmas, Kwanzaa, New Year’s or otherwise) to [email protected]. We will collect your stories in a special holiday edition of Half-n-half to be published after the New Year in the Prague Daily Monitor.

Every Friday Half-n-half highlights personal stories of bilingual families living in the Czech Republic. The main contributor is Emily Prucha, an American living in Prague with her Czech husband and two children. The Prague Daily Monitor and Emily welcome your feedback on Half-n-half; please send comments to [email protected].

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