My novel, The Chicago Syncopator, is filled with Czech food specialties. Footnotes 18-20 detail not only different kinds of “Bohemian” bakery goods but also the way the Czech neighborhoods in Chicago began to modify the meanings of food names or even change the grammatical structure of a food word as life adjusted to the New World. While the residents were convinced they were eating the genuine article, the names began to slip away from what folks in the “Old Country” understood those food words to mean. That got me thinking about the whole immigrant experience with food and how each ethnic group that comes to America celebrates a tradition of delicacies from “back there,” but are those foods actually representative of what is or what was?
My grandmother prepared what the family commonly referred to as “Bohemian” cooking. They meant the cuisine from the Czech Republic’s province of Bohemia which was a part of Czechoslovakia when I was a boy and was a part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire when my dad wore knee pants. It was a selection of dishes as rigidly defined as a McDonald’s menu, the preparation of which was handed down generation to generation. No variance in preparation was allowed and if some historical deviationist aunt changed the formula to experiment, she was re-educated and shunned for a period of time.
I have spoken to the children, grandchildren and great grandchildren with various ethnic roots, and they relate similar stories. It seems those recipes become in the minds of those people from Africa, Asia, and Latin America the preserved heritage of a people. “This,” these folks declare, “Is the food of my people.” The reality I experience, however, is these foods are really organic time capsules. What is really being preserved, like flies in amber, is a point in time when a family or a group arrived. In another sense, the food is like some genetic marker or trait left over from an earlier evolutionary time.
When a generation or two passes, the shock comes when descendants travel back to the old country. So often I have spoken to people in disbelief when they sample the food in the modern lands of their heritage and say things like, “Our Italian food is better than the Italian food in Italy,” or “My we were disappointed by the food. It didn’t taste like the real (fill in the blank: Chinese, Polish, German) stuff.” I recall one friend with an Italian last name telling me, “They don’t sell the right Italian cheeses over here in Italy.” Huh?
I recall traveling to Prague shortly after the Iron Curtain collapsed, expecting to eat my grandmother’s food expressed precisely in the correct formula. I would find similar giant portion sized replicas of her roast pork, dumplings, and sour kraut, or roast duck with the grease used as gravy. Oh, these foods existed in kind of the same form in restaurants labeled, “Old Bohemian Cooking.” They were not, by the way, the most common restaurants, and they were mostly in areas catering to tourists. Look, I’ve lived abroad for sixteen years of my life, how could I have been so fooled; and yet, I realized in a flash that those expectations had been grooved into my psyche.
This led to a more sober reflection. Since we are the so called land of immigrants, does this mean a lot if not most of us rely on these fossilized remains of times past to understand our heritages? Even more seriously, could it mean by extension that Americans judge other things through the lens of rigid expectations? Oooh, then I became still more concerned. Is it possible that believing these rigid food recipes has led to Americans viewing the world in simplistic black and white terms – the good guys and the bad guys – the white hats and the black hats? Grandma! What have you done!