There’s Always Something

March, 2001

“Wow, you live in Prague? That must be so great!”

Yes, it is pretty great most of the time. Beautiful architecture and thousands of years of history. Regular power, water, and food supplies. A lower crime rate than the U.S. If this is the Foreign Service, it is certainly “Foreign Service Lite.” But there is a downside, especially if you are interested in cooking and eating, as I am.

When you think of Europe, you think of great food. And I imagine that in France, for example, you would be right. But moving eastward…well, not so much. Oh, there are some nice things about the food here. Those tiresome phrases, “sugar-free,” “fat-free,” and even “low-fat” are scarcely, if ever, used. The whole concept of stripping all the good stuff out of food in order to eat more of it is a peculiarly American fixation that I don’t miss a bit. Give me fresh, rich European cream any day. Every day, as a matter of fact. Buttery pastries. Chocolate to die for. The cheeses…ah, the cheeses! Except for Cheddar, which I drive three hours to an American military commissary in Germany to buy, the cheese picture here is complete.

But the steak is stringy and most fruits and vegetables are terribly mistreated. That is, if you consider cabbage to be a real vegetable, which I don’t. Bananas are hard, green and half the size of those sold in American supermarkets. Tomatoes are but a shadow of their sunburnt self. Celery is usually tough and overgrown, usable only for soup. Since many of these items are grown elsewhere–Spain, Italy, Turkey—I suspect that these countries are shipping their second-rate goods to the former Eastern Bloc, and so far, getting away with it. I know that when I cross the border to Germany, the quality of the produce leaps upward (as do the prices, of course).

Even high-priced restaurants show little respect for vegetables. Ordering vegetables on the side in Prague usually results in a scoop of canned carrots, beans and peas like that Veg-All you last saw in your high school cafeteria. And then there’s that weird thing they do with serving salads in a puddle of sugar water…are they trying to turn perfectly good lettuce into kraut? I’ll admit that I have pretty high standards for such things, having spent many years in sub-tropical countries where vegetables are grown year-round, but those salads are just too much for me to take.

On the positive side, if you really LIKE cabbage, there are usually at least two or three varieties for sale. The same goes for onions. Big ropes of garlic cost pennies. Potatoes are very good, but you won’t see your big Idaho baking spuds here. Just dirt-cheap bags of the boiling and mashing variety. Those big yellow and red peppers that cost $5.00 per pound in the U.S. are plentiful and inexpensive. They make an awesome pizza tricolore, and they look terrific sliced up on top of a (homemade) green salad. If you’ve always wanted to experiment with turnips, rutabagas, or celeriac, Prague is your chance. Go for it.

A word about mushrooms. The Czechs really are fixated on mushrooms! Every fall, families go a-mushrooming in the damp hills around Prague, and every fall several individuals pick the wrong kind and meet an unpleasant fate as a result. I could buy any kind of mushroom I want at the local vegetable stand–big and floppy like a desiccated jellyfish, small and black like truffles, dried, etc.–but so far, I have preferred to err on the side of caution. I stick with the plain white farm-raised champignons.

German and Czech cuisine have a lot in common. My Czech teacher once described it to me as Guy Food. Heavy on the meat, including some parts of the cow that were better left uneaten, by humans anyway. It’s great that no part of the cow goes to waste in this culture, but I am still not eating tripe soup! My daughter, who is a pure carnivore and will try any kind of meat, ordered white sausages once–I wish I had had a camera trained on her face when the dish arrived. She said it looked like two huge maggots swimming in a goldfish bowl. Don’t even get me started on that thing they do with the nasty bits where they suspend them in gelatin (aspic). I reckon it’s some medieval method of preservation that should have died out when refrigerators were invented.

I went to a German restaurant with my mother, warning her that I would do my best to order in my very limited German, but that she must be prepared for eat whatever the waitress brought without complaining. This is one of the primary lessons my kids have learned from living overseas, actually. Never question the results of Mommy’s efforts at ordering lunch: she may be a teensy bit irritable about it if you do. My motto is: when in Germany, when in doubt, and especially when there are children present, order something with the words “kase” and “brot” in it. Mom, who admits to being capable of eating anything from Seven-Eleven burritos to Sara Lee cupcakes with a half-life longer than ours, recoiled at the sight of the aspic that appeared with my innocently named cheese plate. “That’s just souse!” she said, in awe that a restaurant would actually charge money for something that only “trash” would eat back home.

For any dish other than a cheese plate, be forewarned that the Czechs and Germans have a shared thing for sauces. In fact, I was greatly impressed to find an entire aisle at the grocery store devoted to omačky of every kind. One side of the aisle is stocked with mayonnaise and salad dressing. The thick, gloppy kind: none of this low-fat nonsense. There are also no preservatives, so one has to store mayonnaise in the fridge and use it fairly quickly-this is no problem in a Czech household. The other side of the aisle has everything from sweet and sour sauce (Uncle Ben’s, for some strange reason) to pizza, pesto, alfredo, hoisin and spaghetti sauce, as well as different types of gravy. It is often hard to find your favorite food from home, unless this happens to be a sauce!

All these sauces are used in pretty creative ways: it would not be unusual here to garnish meat with salad dressing, for example. Knedlicky, or dumplings, are served with practically all meat dishes to soak up every last bit of omačka. I have a theory that this practice of adding fat to already fatty foods must have something to do with the climate=-kind of like fattening up farm animals for the winter.

To my knowledge, all Europeans consume a lot of bread-the Germans do this really well, with thousands of neighborhood bakeries serving up that lovely and healthy variety of bread, rolls, cakes, and pastries in gleaming glass cases. The Czechs also have baked specialities such as vanočka, a holiday bread studded with raisins and almonds. Real bakeries have very nice breads. But most bread is sold unwrapped in open bins at small grocery stores, and is often on the day-old side, or at least tastes that way. Czechs like their rohliky in plain white, with no frills and a hard, baguette-y crust. While I’ve had some very nice pastries and breads here, for freshness, healthy ingredients and variety the Czechs simply cannot compete with their German neighbors.

What will I take home from Europe in the food department? Above all, the last two years have enhanced my appreciation for food that can remember where it came from. When I think of Germany, I will think of fresh bread and apfelkuchen and try to forget the white sausages. A disdain for anything sugar-free or fat-free (well, I was already pretty disdainful in this regard–I was overseas when most of these things were invented in the U.S., and horrified to find more of them every time I came home for a visit!) A taste for inexpensive table wine–not to be confused with cheap plonk. An inability to buy bread at the supermarket, unless it’s from the deli. The habit of eating an early breakfast of yogurt, fruit, and muesli, followed by a good, strong cappucino and a fresh pastry around 10:30 AM. I mean sitting down, at a table, drinking out of a real cup, not a cardboard one. I haven’t eaten a meal in the car since I came to Europe, and I don’t intend to start again when I get back to the U.S. I finally know how to cook a leek. And I will never, ever drink cheap beer out of a can again.

What am I looking forward to in the U.S.? Big deli sandwiches–not these puny little things that people eat here. Real bagels with real cream cheese and Florida orange juice. A huge produce section where 90 percent of the fruits and vegetables grew above the ground. Plantains. Local strawberries, Silver Queen corn. Farmer’s market sugar pumpkins. Georgia peaches. Those little bags of baby carrots. Baby zucchini. Chicago pan pizza. Tex-Mex or Central American food-don’t even get me started on that one, I’d kill for fajitas, refried beans and guacamole right now! And of course, those wonderful grocery stores where you can find most or all of the above, no matter what the season.

Mind you, I’m not complaining. I’ll enjoy the next two years, downing cappucino and pastries in the shadow of cathedrals and enjoying my tacos, refried beans and green salad at home. It just goes to show: there’s always something!

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