A few times in Europe I have had the strange experience of realizing that foods I thought were part of my ‘European’ heritage actually don’t exist over here. It has been a little disappointing, disenchanting, and frustrating.
St. Patrick’s day kind of snuck up on me, and I had no real desire to drink green beer in an overcrowded Irish pub. St. Patrick’s day isn’t big in France anyway so that wasn’t much else to do. As I went over my options a thought popped into my mind…what better way to celebrate than with a heaping plate of corned beef and cabbage? And once I thought about it I couldn’t let it go. I had a craving that only salty, savory corned beef and cabbage could satisfy.
I am a wee bit Irish. (But really, I have proof!) My mother’s maiden name was Reilly, a heritage she received from John Owen O’Riley (He changed his name to Reilly when he arrived in the US). He was an Irish farmer who immigrated to the US in 1872 and homesteaded a farm which was also passed through the generations to my mother. I grew up there, a fact that I am very proud of.
My mother made corned beef and cabbage rarely. When she did it was on St. Patrick’s day. I remember her explaining that the Irish ate the brisket cut of the cow (the fatty neck part) because it was a cheap cut. They were often poor.
So on St. Patty’s day, I searched the net long and hard for Irish pubs serving the dish. Nothing. At most, I found posts of American expats in Paris discussing how to find the right ingredients to make it here. Turns out if I wanted to do it myself I would have to special order the brisket from a butcher because they don’t parcel up the meat in the same way here.
I dug a little deeper and found out that the Irish don’t actually eat corned beef and cabbage. Bacon is considered very traditional in Ireland because it was inexpensive. However, when floods of Irish immigrants landed on US soil, they found that pork was expensive, and beef was cheap, so they changed their eating habits. The story is actually quite interesting; I suggest googling it. In the end I wasn’t too disenchanted by the fact that it isn’t Irish. It is something uniquely Irish-American which I think is pretty neat.
The only ray of hope to find the dish would be to find an Americanized Irish pub in Paris. In my dreams! So I was left with a very intense food craving that I wasn’t able to satisfy. At least I didn’t go Ireland and expect to find corned beef. I would have been really disappointed.
Two years ago when I traveled to the Czech Republic I encountered a similar bit of food disenchantment. I expected to find my Great-Grandma Tuma’s kolackies and vomacka there, but couldn’t.
Those foods are the main connection I have to that part of my heritage. I turned down an opportunity to run for Miss Czech Slovak a few years ago because I thought I would feel like a phony running for such a prize. Now I realize that it probably would have been a compelling opportunity to learn more about what being a Czech-American means.
I made some casual inquiries to to my tour guides and other people while I was in Prague but I had no luck. So I turned to the internet.
Turns out that kolacky it is actually a general term for a pastry traditionally made for weddings in Central and Eastern Europe.
The picture below is how I remember my Great-Grandma’s ones looked and (surprise!) this picture was taken in New Prague, the town right next to where my Great-Grandma grew up. Apparently, there are a lot of variations, but the kolackies as I know them are from a small area in Minnesota. It is decently easy to find kolackies at bakeries there, but none of them can touch the ones she used to make.
For vomacka soup, the only hits I found on the internet during my frantic search for info came from the small area of Minnesota that my great-grandma came from. Vomacka soup, by the way, is a creamy, vinegary vegetable soup (although Great-Grandma Tuma added chicken too).
My mission to find the foods in Prague was a failure. I wasn’t able to eat either of those foods while I was there. I was really upset. I think it hit me hard because at that point I had been in Europe for 4.5 months and I was emotionally exhausted and ready to go home.
I think it also boiled down to me missing my great-grandma and some regrets I had about not asking her about her life and heritage or not eating more of her Czech food when she was alive. As much as I adore vomacka now, I didn’t like it when I was little. When my brothers and I went over to her house after school she always made the same thing, at our request: pizza rolls, cottage cheese, and jello. I was only 13 when she died but I feel like I could have done a better job.
Maybe I had also hoped to feel a little bit of a connection to Prague or the culture there, but I didn’t. I felt like just as much as a tourist and stranger as I did in places like Italy and Croatia.
Cyril didn’t understand at all, which was frustrating for me too. One of his grandmas immigrated from Belgium to France after WWII but I only found that out 2 months ago. He never mentioned it because he doesn’t think of himself of being part Belgian. It is a very American concept to think in terms of being 3/4 German, an 8th Czech, with a dash of Swiss and Irish. If you told a French person, ‘I am half German, half Italian,’ they would think that your mother was German and your father was Italian and that you are a duel citizen of the two countries. The subject never really comes up here like it does in the US.
Another sad but true food fact. Chicken alfredo is not Italian. It is a dish that Italian Americans created. Luckily I learned this from my Italian language classes before I headed over to Italy, and I have never had a sentimental or emotional attachment to the dish. For me it is just a fun fact but for some others it is quite disappointing!
Until next time!