on cuisine, class, and change

kolache_Prague

When I was planning my 2011 visit to the Czech Republic, I dreamed of kolache bakeries on every corner. I thought I would eat some schnitzel with gravy, some stroganoff with rice, some goulash with potatoes, and all of the soft and sweet breakfast pastries I could ever want. Feeling homesick for Texas, I was beyond excited to have some familiar, authentic Czech cuisine.

When I arrived in Prague, however, I quickly learned that my expectations were a bit… off. I only found one koláče bakery in the entire city—and trust me, I had to hunt for it. (Meanwhile, the koláče bakery in Hukvaldy strictly served unfamiliar pizza-sized versions.) I saw no sign of schnitzel nor stroganoff. I ordered my hovězí guláš with a side of bread dumplings. Most frequently, I dined on a dish I had never even heard of in all my years: svíčková, which consisted of braised beef, a sort of sweet gravy, cranberries, and whipped cream. On more than one occasion, Seth enjoyed a whole fried trout. But the most surprising discovery of all was the exorbitant amount of Neapolitan-style pizza.

When I was growing up, the majority of my friends ate very “American” family dinners of chicken pot pie, meatloaf, or pot roast. My friend Ashley, whose mother was from Scotland, often helped her mom make bangers and mash or shepherd’s pie. My friend Kathryn, whose maternal grandparents were from Italy, attended weekly pasta al pomodoro dinners with her extended family. When I had the pleasure of staying at my grandmother’s house over the weekend, I ate one of my favorites—veal schnitzel (which my grandmother lovingly dubbed “chicken fried steak”) with brown gravy and a side of white rice. At a young age I was well aware of heritage cuisine, so I assumed that while Ashley’s family’s food was distinctly Scottish and Kathryn’s family’s food was distinctly Italian, my family’s food was distinctly Czech. It was not until I visited the Czech Republic that I learned that our food was not really Czech at all.

Last night while watching a season-two episode of “The Sopranos,” I was intrigued by a scene on cuisine and class. Italian-American Paulie visits the Motherland for the first time, and he is uncomfortable with the local cuisine. Having eaten veal parm, baked ziti, and cannelloni his whole life, he is displeased with the seemingly foreign cuisine in front of him. Linguine with clams and squid ink? I’ll pass, he thinks. He calls the waiter over to the table. “Can I just get some macaroni and gravy?” Realizing that the waiter is confused, a dining companion looks at Paulie and says, “He doesn’t know what you say.” Paulie looks at his dining companion incredulously. “Gravy! Gravy! Tomato sauce!” he says with emphasis. The dining companion and the waiter go back and forth, while a third customer mumbles with frustration and annoyance, “And you thought the Germans were classless pieces of shit!”

When Paulie’s Sicilian family emigrated to New York sometime during the Great Wave of 1880-1920, they brought with them their peasant foods: pasta, rice, gnocchi, bread, and tomato sauce. When they realized financial success in America, however, they continued their economical methods of cooking out of tradition and familiarity. Thus their recollection of Italian food was essentially stuck in a particular moment in time; what they perceived to be authentic was no longer so. One hundred years later, many so-called “old school” Italian-Americans still consider the more delicate, labor-intensive counterparts of their contemporary cuisine—for example, baby octopus, beef sirloin carpaccio, and agnolotti—to be little more than trendy distractions.

bandeja paisa

I predict that in one hundred years, Colombian-Americans will experience the same bewilderment and difficulties in trying to accept their native country’s evolved foods. In Colombia pechuga a la plancha (grilled chicken breast), pollo al horno (baked chicken), chuleta de cerdo (pork chop), sobrebarriga (flank steak), and higado (liver) will no longer be accompanied by today’s beans, rice, salted potato, plantain, and yucca; it is possible that they will not be served at all. In a century’s time the factors that currently prevent Colombia’s cuisine from developing—that is, rampant poverty and inadequate infrastructure—will likely fade. Poor Colombians will get richer and winding roads will get straighter, thus (literally) paving the way for more seafood, produce, and plant protein. Meanwhile, those immigrants who set up shop in Miami will raise their kids on familiar meats and starches, and in turn their kids will raise their kids on familiar meats and starches, and so on until traditional Colombian cuisine becomes inauthentic and modern Colombian cuisine becomes unrecognizable. The bandeja paisa—Colombia’s national dish, at a mere 60 years old—will long remain a fixture in Colombian-American homes, despite its irrelevance in the urbanized Motherland.

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