Richard Katrovas’ “Czech, Italian, Mexican Cuisine”

from Raising Girls in Bohemia: Meditations of an American Father (a memoir in essays) 

Czech, Italian, Mexican Cuisine

My daughters have grown up in the midst of writers, some famous, most not. Every summer of their lives they have witnessed their mother and me transform into the in-country coordinator and director, respectively, of a program that constitutes a community of a hundred to a hundred and fifty, mostly American, aspiring and established literati. During each year leading up to start time, the Saturday preceding the first Monday of July, they’ve heard essentially the same conversations between their mother and me, the same amicable, professional conflicts and conflict resolutions.

My ex-wife’s and my professional relationship is eerily unchanged from when we were married. The fact that we are so efficient at compartmentalization is perhaps, ironically, one reason our marriage failed, but that’s another matter. Suffice it to say that our failed marriage notwithstanding, our partnership, parental and professional, at least so far, thrives.

And the professional aspect of our partnership centers on annually mounting and executing (of course with the assistance of talented colleagues) an academic program that is entering its eighteenth year, and that resonates significantly in the far-flung, academic/cottage industry of creative writing.

On Sinkulova in Prague 4, near Vysehrad, the park on a hill overlooking the Vltava where the most ancient vestiges of Prague culture are commemorated, stands the five-story apartment building my ex-wife owns with her lawyer brother. Since the divorce, when the girls and I are in Prague I reside in an apartment on the PRIZAMI, the ground floor, and the three girls shuttle between my space and their mother’s on the fourth floor. The two older girls are not happy about the divorce (our five-year-old Ellie, alas, is oblivious), but are adjusting well in no small part because their mother and I have managed our rancor quite deftly.

And, indeed, the Prague Summer Program, our mutual investment that lies vaulted so much deeper than monetary necessity, an investment not unlike parenting, mitigates our rancor. Dominika’s ego investment in the Program has virtually nothing to do with art and pedagogy. Brilliant and insightful but void of artistic ambition and lacking much aesthetic sense, she relishes managing the infrastructure of the program, making the proverbial trains run on time, which she does exceedingly well. My own ego investment is more complex, precisely because of my ambition.

On Sinkulova, just two doors down from my ex-wife’s building, is the Worst Restaurant in the Free World, as that world has expanded to include Central Europe since 1989. If there is a worse restaurant, in Warsaw or Cleveland, Bratislava or Iowa City, it would be worthwhile to dine there simply for the uniquely negative experience, rather in the spirit of attending an elementary-school musical performance: One’s tenderness towards existence may be deepened by an affection for the performers, their flawed humanity, that is very much in spite of the quality of their performance.

Over the past five or six years, despite its proximity, the girls and I have dined in that establishment but seven times, and each instance of patronage we swear will be our last. Of course it’s become a running joke. “Why don’t we eat at that Italian place?” There are several good Italian restaurants within walking distance, but the question thus simply posed points two doors down, and the resounding response is always a unified negative. And yet from time to time I want to give the place another chance, and that of course has become part of the joke. I threaten to take the girls there, and they talk me out of it. I even plead a little, insist that we should not give up on the place, that the previous disasters there could have been coincidental, as statistically unlikely seven such disasters in a row, over five or six years, may be.

I believe in creative writing, the pedagogy, and am proud of the work that gets done in the Prague Summer Program over its four-week duration each July. Yes, there is much silliness, intellectual dishonesty in the academic business of creative writing, but no more so than in the humanities generally, and certainly no more than in the social sciences. The silliness has to do with encouraging people who don’t read to write, and that of course is the fount of its intellectual dishonesty, as well, though at its best creative writing has everything to do with passionate reading, and the radically egalitarian assumption from which it has proceeded over the past forty years, that any Johnny or Sally can make authentic poems and stories, is among the more profoundly American blossoms of the past century. Some giants of world literature may condescend to our little academic business, the cash cow of most English departments in America; they may condescend quite credibly to those of us laboring in the creative-writing mills, but finally even the most haughty Nobel short-lister must grudgingly admit that all serious literature benefits immeasurably from the complex network, the veritable four-generation legion of readers/writers that the academic/cottage industry of creative writing has issued.

The Worst Restaurant in the Free World is clean, the service efficient. It has a nice little bar, and when my ex-wife wants draft beer, I sometimes carry her porcelain pitcher that holds exactly two beers the forty meters or so to the Worst Restaurant in the Free World, where the laconic waiter/busboy/bartender carefully fills it such that I pay for, and my ex-wife therefore is compelled to slurp as she cooks for the girls, very little foam.

My ex-wife Dominika does not hate writers, but she brings to their care a polite distain. She judges us a little ridiculous, as she years ago likewise judged her father, a middling crime novelist who had mild success for all the wrong reasons during the period, after the 1968 Soviet invasion, called Normalization.

I shall not here recount all seven of our previous forays into the Worst Restaurant in the Free World; suffice it to say that each time I was accompanied by one or both of my older daughters, and each time the service was fine and the food wretched. It is difficult to say the common fault from which all the meals suffered, except that whomever has occupied that kitchen seems not so much indifferent to quality as bent upon defiling all standards of culinary decency. When I was still consuming mammal flesh, I ordered a pork loin that arrived nearly raw, and when I requested that it be cooked through the waiter was incredulous, it seemed, not so much at my request as at the likelihood of the kitchen granting it. On another occasion, a chicken breast was likewise half raw. Once, Ema, my oldest, ordered a pizza and what arrived to our table was clearly from a box. When she requested more tomato sauce in perfect Czech, the thawed pie was swept away and returned in ninety seconds with raw tomato slices scattered over it.

So when the Worst Restaurant in the Free World changed its sign to claim “Czech, Italian, Mexican Cuisine,” the girls and I had a hearty laugh. Passing the place two or three times a day, we goof on the sign, its triadic claim of anything remotely resembling an authentic “cuisine.” Our running joke has been that I’ll give the place just one more chance, and of course I’ve been genuinely curious as to how and to what extent that wily cook may render tortillas, beans, sour cream and cheese inedible.

Dominika’s patience with diva writers has worn down over the years to several frayed threads. She is generally patient and classy, but I fear that this year or next she will snap and throttle a famous American poet or novelist. Some famous writers, like folks generally, are low maintenance, and some are high. My ex-wife regards it as my divine duty to her, my primary colleague, to vet properly and subsequently hire only low-maintenance faculty. I have grown much more astute over the years at vetting writers in this regard, but sometimes a High Maintenance slips my guard, or a Low Maintenance morphs with freakish suddenness into a High.

I’ve tried to explain to my ex-wife that sometimes HM’s are worth the massive pains in our collective ass they cause, that a smashing performance in the Ypsilon Theater Reading Series is worth a three a.m. cab ride to the Centrum to unlock an apartment with the very key that the HM has jiggled in the lock for an hour and a half. Indeed, when a Pulitzer Prize or National Book Award spends quality time with students and also gives a smashing reading, well, that’s worth moving an HM from an elegant apartment into the Hilton, on the program’s nickel, at eleven p.m. because there is entirely too much street noise on that verdant and quite lovely section of Prague called Campa. But Dominika is unmoved by all implicit and explicit claims of status among American writers. She simply requires that everyone behaves with an appropriate measure of humility in her country, and that they not be massively stupid, which is how she regards anyone who can’t work a key into a lock, or can’t sleep with a pillow over her head for a single night.

Last week Annie was famished after school, but we were running late for an afternoon appointment so didn’t have time to hoof it to any of our favorite eateries in the neighborhood. I told her I really, really wanted a burrito. She cracked up, finally relented, though she predicted with what seemed metaphysical certainty that we would regret the meal.

It was large, filled the plate. Inside the flour tortilla, that was brittle as a cracker, was an ugly blend of canned black beans, canned corn, cubed chunks of chicken, clumps of un-melted white cheese, all held together by a sickeningly sweet, heavy barbecue sauce that had no doubt arrived on the Delvita Supermarket shelf in a plastic container. A type-two diabetic, I simply couldn’t eat much of it after the first taste, but I picked at it, and Annie picked at hers. She gave me wry, I-told-you-so glances, and I promised I’d make her something good for dinner. The beer of course was fine, and she ordered a second Coke. I smiled at the waiter when he removed our plates, and told him the food was “strasny,” terrible. Then I tipped his sad silence hugely.

The Worst Restaurant in the Free World is at a very nice location. It seems to do a steady business, but mostly from the bar. What moved the owner to transform a criminally bad Italian restaurant, that is, one advertising itself as Italian and grotesquely approximating such an establishment, into one that offers Czech, Italian, and Mexican food? It would be so easy to construct a mediocre burrito. All the necessary ingredients may be found in Prague, even a proper piquant sauce, even refried beans in the International section of the food market in the basement of Tesco.

At first I was going to have Ema translate the following into Czech, but then, given that the restaurant’s menu is in English as well as Czech, I simply slipped the following in an envelope under the door after hours:

Dear Owner,

Because for three or four months each year I live only two buildings away from you on Sinkulova, I have dined several times in your establishment, hoping after my first visit that your cook would be fired or abducted by aliens, and each time after that first visit I have been as deeply disappointed as I’d been on that first visit to your establishment, and yet your food is so aggressively bad I’m intrigued. It is difficult to believe that food can be so bad unless the individual preparing it actually desires that it be awful, and so I can’t help but wonder as to the motivation of your cook, who, though he or she should be in prison or outer space, has evidently instead found job security among the free citizens of the Czech Republic.

I am an American who spent many years in southern California eating good Mexican food, and will gladly teach your cook how to make a burrito. First of all, you need to steam your tortillas. Second, you MUST purchase or prepare refried beans. Third, nothing you put in the burrito should come from a can with the exception of jalapeños. Fourth, you must find genuine salsa; I’ve seen it in stores in Prague, so I know that with a little effort you could acquire it. You could also make it yourself with fresh ingredients, chief among them tomatoes, peppers and cilantro.

Please, friend, burn your menus and start over. Do not advertise “Czech, Italian and Mexican Cuisine.” That is very, very stupid. Of two of those you obviously know absolutely nothing. Have your cook learn to prepare seven or eight dishes very well. Consult cookbooks; consult the Internet. Consult your mother. There are easy ways to learn to prepare good food. You are so conveniently located that if you served any decent food at all my daughters and I would dine with you at least once a week. If you served several good dishes you’d certainly make more money. Don’t you want to make more money? It would take so little additional effort.

If you would at least like me to teach your cook how to make a decent burrito, please feel free to contact me at…

I’ve not heard from the owner, and Ema has raised the intriguing possibility that the Czech, Italian, Mexican restaurant is a money-laundering operation. Be that as it may, I feel better for having made a neighborly gesture, for having at least attempted to improve the quality of life on my block.

Such civic mindedness is of course diluted by the fact that I am not particularly enamored of Czech culture, that very commodity I’ve been hawking to the creative-writing communities of America for seventeen years. Oh, I like twenty or so English translations of Czech novels, most of them by Kundera, Skvorecky, Klima, Hrabal and my old friend Arnost Lustig. I like Dvorak’s music. I like Havel, though not his plays particularly. But I could never bring myself to do the hard work of learning Czech beyond a survival-skill level. What I can understand does not compel me deeper. The simple fact of the matter is that I did not love my Czech wife enough to learn to love her in Czech, and my girls required me to be a fount of English through their formative years, as the baby, who often speaks to me in Czech and I to her in English, will require me to gush English. To condescend from ignorance is the essence of foolishness, but the best I can say of Czech culture, from the depths of my ignorance, is that it is quaint, as quaint as an awful Czech, Italian, Mexican restaurant.

In the nineteenth century Czech identity made sense. It no longer does, anymore than Texan or Californian identities make sense beyond the most superficial and atrociously nostalgic boundaries of regional identification. To the extent that Czechs and other small populations of European ethnicities can become, over the next two generations, European, Czech culture, as such, is already enveloped in mist. Ask Milan Kundera, a world-class Czech writer, why he composes now exclusively in French.

Europe must duplicate the American experience internally. That is, ethnic groups must lose themselves in a common European culture, common European society. Czechs must become, in their hearts, immigrants in a new Europe. But what will be the common language? How will Europeans communicate across ethnic chasms? Listen to the radio in any European car. Watch television in any European home.

And like immigrants they must husband a nostalgia for what they were, or, rather, what they dreamed of being, but in full knowledge that they may never crawl back into the wombs of their Czech mothers, certainly not into the womb of ancient Libuse, who, legend has it, stared down from Vysehrad to the Vltava and received the vision of a great city. I submit that what she saw was not a Czech, but a European city.

Czech cuisine is a subset of German cuisine as Czech culture is a subset of German culture, German history. Rye bread, pork and beer are at the hearts of both German and Czech cultures. When I first met my ex-wife, I was married to a beautiful American who did not want children. On a Fulbright, I got Dominika pregnant in the midst of the Velvet Revolution, and the rest is history.

As an ingénue, Dominika wanted desperately to escape Czechoslovakia, particularly if doing so entailed marrying an American; as a tough and beautiful middle-aged woman, she has embraced all things Czech. She and her lover, a sweet, innocuous little Moravian named Igor, go off on weekends to hike through the countryside, hunting mushrooms. They ride the cultural slipstream of anti-Americanism in the wake of W’s disastrous reign, and I do not blame them. In spring and summer into fall, the Czech countryside is a good place to relax, and if there is one defining feature of Czech culture it is that Czechs relax with a vengeance. Relaxing is how the Czechs defeated each of their historical oppressors. My Czech ex-wife is not good at relaxing, but she is brilliant at organizing and managing the relaxation of others. In this, she is very German, like most of her ancestors.

In the summer, Praguers spend much more time out of town than in, lounging in their chatas, their little summer cabins, tending lazily to gardens. Precisely when we desire the best and brightest, the mighty blossoms of Czech culture to participate in the Prague Summer Program Lecture Series and Ypsilon Theater Reading Series, no one is available; everyone is sitting shirtless on rustic porches, gazing into woods, with the supreme and fortunate exceptions of Ivan Klima and Pavel Srut, two of the best writers still residing in the country.

I truly believe that the Prague Summer Program is a good thing, but when I explain why it is good I become a salesman. I am a quite good salesman, but I hate what happens to language when it is pressed into the service of selling. Persuading someone that a woman should have the right to an abortion is not the same thing as persuading her to purchase a particular brand of mayonnaise. Suffice it to say that the Prague Summer Program is a very good product. Participating in the program, a lot of bright though provincial Americans are dazzled by the city, and in the midst of their bedazzlement are encouraged to focus on the products of their big American literary ambitions. They learn to edit, or better edit, their creative efforts, and simultaneously learn the outline of Czech literary history relative to an annual theme (This year the theme was “Scribbling on the Ether: The Changing Nature of Writing and Publishing”). The dovetailing of creative writing and culture studies is a unique feature of the program. Predictably, over the program’s duration, a lot of late-night drinking and libidinal cavorting occurs among the rank and file, but most buck up in the classroom. I am proud of the general standards, in all its aspects but particularly regarding its academic dimension, the Prague Summer Program has maintained.

I sometimes hate the Prague Summer Program and all established and aspiring writers, but only for a few minutes at a time. More often I am embarrassed for my fellow writers, no matter where in the Pecking Order they fancy themselves to be. I am particularly embarrassed for and by many poets, who, when they mount stages, transform into the most incredibly narcissistic assholes. It is something about lyric poetry, something about the range of personality types that latch early onto that mode of expression, which renders otherwise decent, sensitive, intelligent people into closed systems of self-congratulation for the duration of a performance. Alas, this is particularly true of the very young and clueless, early-twenty-somethings who come to Prague to drink, screw and be affirmed. On Friday nights when the students perform, fledgling poets will sachet, one after the other in five-minute intervals, onto the Ypsilon stage and chant unabashedly the most linguistically unsophisticated, intellectually vapid, aurally awkward, puerile, sometimes even scatological nonsense imaginable. Of course my job is to lead my faculty in their somber task of purging young poets and writers of such stuff, but in a world in which students are customers the operation must be performed so deftly that the student is instructed but feels she or he has also been affirmed.

I am proud that my daughters are good, strong critics. They have noses for fulsome praise and can efficiently process thoughtful, strong criticism. Ema is becoming, alas, a very good writer of expository prose, and Annie will someday, I predict, compose airtight legal briefs. Both have sat through many literary readings, and have offered, to me in private, spot-on critiques of Famous Writers’ performances more scathing than anything one sees in the top-tier literary journals these days. Like their mother, though for different reasons, they’re indifferent to writers’ claims of status.

In higher education the customer is not always right, but in every instance must be regarded as a magnet to our endless stream of iron filings, our purely defensive institutional compassion. The commoditization of knowledge and skill is certainly nothing new, but as higher education in America inches toward a corporate paradigm, at what point is the brutal though compassionate honesty necessary to the rigorous discourse of a vibrant intellectual community compromised beyond the point of no return?

The best teachers of creative writing are simply the best teachers, and many of the best have over the years mentored aspiring writers in the Prague Summer Program. The best have in common the skill, akin to that of a brain surgeon and indeed they are brain surgeons of a sort, to navigate with small super-sharp instruments around the innumerable raw nerves connecting a young ego to a hormone-charged body, and to snip out nasty bits of clotted matter, the false, unreflective assumptions about what art is and how it gets into the world.

I don’t know how many more years my ex-wife and I will be able to run the Prague Summer Program. I dream of quitting it, of quitting the last formal alliance with my ex-wife other than the one our children necessitate. I would love to have, like other academics, three unencumbered summer months each year to dedicate to my own work. But when I imagine quitting, working up the nerve to quite, I feel panic. My life rhythm with the mother of my children, our failed marriage notwithstanding, is simply too comforting, too important a part of our children’s lives, and I do not want to deny our youngest, conceived in the midst of our untethering, the program, the spectacle of her parents’ transformation each July into a man and a woman with a common purpose other than her and her sisters’ wellbeing, though, at bottom, regarding all things, including the program, that is our common purpose.

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