In our age of celebrity chefs and cookbooks for all skill levels and wallet sizes, we may sometimes forget that food was an important element of life surrounded by special rituals, beliefs and values for many a decade. In this edition of Czech Life I decided to find out what importance food had a hundred or so years ago in this region. In order to do that, I headed to the ethnographic department of the Czech National Museum, where the exhibit Krmě - jídlo – žrádlo, or Dish-Meal-Grub is currently on display.
The ethnographic museum holds its exhibits at the beautiful villa formerly owned by the Kinský noble family in a leafy park under Petřin hill. Petr Janeček, the head of the ethnographic department, was kind enough to show me around the exhibit, which is part of the Monarchy series the National Museum is currently running. Although food itself could not be kept in glass boxes around the villa, the exhibit’s creators decided to present the culture surrounding food, its ingestion and preparation, as well as important personalities from the culinary world of the Czech lands and Austro-Hungary during the reign of Emperor Franz Joseph. Here is how Petr Janeček described the main concept of the exhibit.
“Because gastronomy is a very popular issue today in the Czech Republic – we have many TV shows about gastronomy, many books about cooking and gastronomy – we decided to show what the gastronomy looked like in the Austro-Hungarian monarchy from the middle of the nineteenth century to World War One.
“And we decided that the basis of the exhibit will be rural people, country folk, because they made up the majority of the population of the Czech lands and Central Europe at that time. But we also wanted to show other social strata, for example, the aristocracy. And we also wanted to show the middle class, which was a very dynamic and progressive social group of that period. We are showing not only the gastronomy itself, but also the cultural, social and political context of gastronomy of the second half of the nineteenth century.”
“Here is a table set for four people with silverware from a Czech aristocratic family. Very few people in the monarchy could by this kind of stuff, because its precious silver. They have special utensils for eating chicken. For example, this screw is for the chicken legs.”
The number of utensils also shows us that they would have eaten a few courses.
“Yes, and here we are showing the favorite dish of Emperor Franz Joseph. He was really fond of Wiener Schnitzel, which was not really Wiener, or Viennese, Schnitzel, it was actually brought from Italy by an Austro-Hungarian general of Czech ancestry, General Ratezky. It was a traditional Italian recipe brought to Vienna.
“There is a stereotype that all aristocrats in that time were fond of table etiquette and that all of them knew how to use all of the utensils. It’s not really true. We have many items here that try to give hints to people about what to use them for. For example, we have this spatula and it has the head of a duck, so it was used for duck meat. And another one has a fish. And here we have an esoteric utensil and it has a picture of a squirrel on it. It shows us that it is a nut cracker. So there these slight hints for the people sitting at the table.”
“At that time, potatoes were a very popular food that basically saved the population from hunger and famine. But it is hard to generalize. Even the Wiener Schnitzel could appear on the peasants’ table during holidays or feasts. Veal was very cheap and common in that time.”
We then headed to another part of the exhibit which shows how the “common” people lived.
“We see here the life of the common people – from rich farmers, who were closest to city dwellers, to the poor serfs and industrial workers. We are showing here not only what and how those people ate, but also the evolution of preparation of food – from an open-fire black kitchen, to the modern stove, and ending with the first gas stoves, which are basically what we use today.”
Did they more or less eat what we do today, or did something disappear from the Czech diet?
“Generally they ate less meat than we do today, even the aristocracy did not have it every day. We show a worker’s menu here, for example, and they had meat twice a week. So only on Sunday and usually Saturday.
“The diet really changed at that time, and I think it came much closer to our diet than that of the previous decades. But they did use much more fat and sugar. It wasn’t healthy by today’s standards. But the people did much more physical labor, so it wasn’t a problem.”
And how much did the industrial revolution influence what kind of food was made and how it was prepared?
“The main change was in how food was preserved. The main problem of traditional gastronomy was that the food didn’t last long and they had no means to preserve the food, except by using salt or ice, but there were no freezers. But during the Napoleonic wars cans were invented – first for military use, for the navy. They were glass cans and very heavy. But later they developed tin cans, and from that time on gastronomy was changed forever.”
Among the middle class, the city dwellers, were there culinary celebrities the way that we have today?
“Yes, the most famous one in the Czech lands, to this day, was Magdaléna Dobromila Rettigová. She was the author of the ‘Home Cookery Book’. It is the most famous book of recipes in the Czech Republic. She was very popular in her time. She mostly invented recipes for the middle class. But we are also in the period of the national revival, so she is also thinking about the lower classes. She wrote cooking books for poorer people as well. She was also a very patriotic person. She wanted to start the national revival with food.”
So did members of the lower classes actually read this book of recipes?
And since we are talking about the interaction between upper and lower classes and food, what about the anecdotes about how foods like palačinky or knedliky entered the high society of Austro-Hungary supposedly through the Czech and Slovak cooks. Is there any truth to this?
“If we are talking about food terminology, it is true. Slavic languages influenced, for example, Hungarian, German, even American English. There is the typical Texan word Kolache – cakes. It’s from the Czech-Bohemian diaspora. And in Austro-Hungary food was the main medium of cultural exchange. But there are also many myths and legends connected to this.
“We have a section of the exhibit that is devoted to ‘national’ dishes, which were basically invented in that time. It was a sort of cultural ammunition for various ethnic and political groups to maintain their identity. So for example typical Czech dishes like pork and dumplings, were invented in that period. We cannot actually say that they are typically Czech. We can find very similar dishes for example in Bavaria or in Austria. We can talk about difference on the local or regional level, but comparing it on such a large scale as Czech or German is very hard.”
Before I left the exhibit, feeling like nothing – neither the Viennese Schnitzel nor the Czech goulash – is sacred, I read an excerpt from the forward to Magdaléna Rettigová’s Home Cookery Book, where the mother of Czech cooking offers sage advice, eerily familiar to what we often hear today:
“I am hurrying to put out this little book for my dear fellow Czech women; I am not publishing it as the perfect cookery book, but simply as a collection of dishes that my mother and grandmother (both Czech) used to make. I have tried them all, and these were the best tasting ones that I have found. Study it diligently, my countrywomen, as you should know that well prepared meals can be a real experience and very pleasant, and can preserve the happiness and life of your household.”
Photo: Masha Volynsky
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