Could the dish reconnect me with my Slovak heritage?
By Laurie Bedusek Eynon
I hadn’t had a plum dumpling since my Grandma Bzdusek died. I was ten years old then, living with my large extended immigrant family on the south side of Milwaukee. Grandma brought the recipe with her from Czechoslovakia, or, as we called it, “The Old Country.” The dumplings—gooey, round dough balls sprinkled with sugary buttered breadcrumbs—were served piled high in a large blue bowl. Cutting into the hot dumpling revealed at its center a fragrant pitted red plum, its warm juices staining the pristine dough like a leaky pen.
My grandma’s six children, who could speak both languages, grew up, married and settled within a few blocks of each other. Nine of us, including my grandma, lived together in the same old coal-heated two-story building behind my father’s storefront tax preparation and insurance office, which specialized in helping recent immigrants navigate the system. He left his job at the meatpacking plant to start this business, a risky move that would eventually propel our family into the middle class. We replaced the coal furnace, and my mother got a washing machine.
My communication with my grandma was limited to a few phrases and lots of gestures because she never learned to speak English, and I, along with the rest of the kids, was forbidden from learning Slovak. (We were Americans now!) Often a dozen or so family members would crowd elbow-to-elbow around the heavy wooden table in the cramped noisy upstairs dining room. The adults argued and laughed in a flurry of Slovak and English. Our diet was heavy with potatoes, cabbage and pork and kolache stuffed with prunes or poppy seeds. The plum dumplings were Sunday fare or special occasions.
Eventually, I moved away from the enclave of Eastern European immigrants in our community in Milwaukee, but it was a formative life experience. So recently, when a few friends asked if I’d join them on a trip to Prague, I immediately said yes. Of course, I wanted to see the fairy-tale spires, the cobbled streets, the statues on the Charles Bridge. But what I really wanted was a plum dumpling. From the moment we touched down at Václav Havel Airport, I was giddy with excitement, listening for voices that echoed the rhythms of the language I grew up hearing, staring at people’s faces for recognizable features.
I assumed plum dumplings would be ubiquitous in Prague. On our first night in town, when I could not find them on the menu of our high-end restaurant, our waiter told me in polite, heavily-accented English, “Plums are out of season.” (It was October.) It had not occurred to me that plums had a season. Couldn’t they be stored in a larder somewhere? Or frozen? To make up for my disappointment, he brought me regular dumplings, small, squiggly shapes of boiled dough, swimming in a flavorful cream sauce, as an accompaniment to my tender hunks of pork. They were quite good. But not what I craved.
My friends went along with me on this dumpling hunt. We inspected the menus of restaurants as we journeyed up and down the twisting, narrow streets of Stare Mesto (Old Town) and the wide tree-lined avenue of Parizska (Paris) Street, and I regaled then with tales of my girlhood in Milwaukee, with its unfamiliar foods and unpronounceable names. I was surprised how much of the language was still in my brain. Once, when I purchased an oplatki, the street vendor, thinking he was being helpful, said “Ah, you want waffle.” No, I said. “The English word is “wafer.” A waffle is totally different.” He argued with me as if I, an American, could not possibly know.
I enjoyed a savory dark goulash with a hearty Czech craft brew at Café Svateho Vaclava in Wenceslas Square. I sipped thick sweet hot chocolate and devoured gooey pastries at the Café Kafka near the Clock Tower in Old Town. I even went to Zlata Praha, the pricey rooftop restaurant at the top of the Hotel Intercontinental Prague. No plum dumplings there either. Days into the journey, I was beginning to think my plum dumpling quest was futile. One day, I was chatting with the concierge at our hotel. His advice: “Eat where the locals eat.” He gave me the names of a few eateries that were off the radar of the tourist hordes.
We found Ceska Kuchyne, (which simply means “Czech Kitchen”) near the large, open-air Havelska market in Old Town. It’s a self-serve, cafeteria-style restaurant, fairly utilitarian, with dark wooden booths and a tile floor. Walking down the line with my tray, I was pleased to see and smell sauerkraut, sausages, boiled potatoes, all dishes familiar to my childhood palate. Then I saw them: plump balls of dough. Could they be? Yes! Plum dumplings!
Actually, they were “fruit” dumplings; I had my choice of apricot, plum or apple. They did not exactly look like my grandma’s. In place of the sugary buttered breadcrumbs, these dumplings were topped with “curd cheese,” which looked like dry cottage cheese. The presentation—white cheese crumbles on a white ball of dough, plopped on a white plate—was hardly aesthetic. When I cut into it, the plum inside was a darker purple, more like a prune, than the sweet red plums in my grandma’s dumplings, and its juices did not ooze pleasingly into the dough. But it was flavorful, moist, and filling.
On the long plane ride home, I thought about my grandma. I could picture her, loose gray braids of hair wrapped around her head, and a white apron with hand-crocheted trim tied around her dark housedress. When I got home, I decided I would make plum dumplings just like hers. I called a cousin to ask if she knew the recipe. “Grandma never wrote anything down,” she said. “She did it all from memory.” It occurred to me then that the reason my Grandma never learned English was that she had never learned to read or write.
It was easy to find recipes on the internet. I looked for an accompanying photo that most resembled the dumplings I remembered. Then I ran into my first challenge: if plums were out of season in Prague, they were also out of season in Indianapolis, where I live. I managed to find a farmer’s market selling plums—from Chile. Upon inspection, they appeared dark and hard, with a waxy, purpled-black peel. I bought them anyway.
The secret to the dumpling dough is mashed potatoes, velvety and rich. I peeled, boiled, and mashed my potatoes, but the result seemed suspiciously sticky. Kneading four cups of flour into this vat of starchy carbohydrates was a daunting task. My hands were nearly stuck together. Flour settled on every surface like pollen and made me sneeze. But the dough did not want to stick to the pesky plums, so it was only by drenching my hands in yet more flour that I could get the dough wrapped around the fruit. I dropped the dough balls into boiling water and waited. When they rose to the surface, I took them out and rolled them in the buttered breadcrumbs, which just rolled right back off.
When I scooped the dumplings into a bowl, they seemed suspiciously heavy. My husband took one bite and grimaced—they were dry and heavy with no hint of potato. The plum inside was hard and mealy. Had these leaden balls of dough been a bit larger, I could have bowled with them.
The next day, I threw the leftovers into the trash (I feared they might permanently clog the garbage disposal) and dragged the bag to the dumpster. As I heaved it into the air, I was overcome with sadness. The world felt much larger when I was ten; the idea that I would one day travel the world, including to our ancestral homeland, seemed unimaginable then. And yet, having just done so, I felt farther from my history than ever.
After my grandma died, it seemed as if our Slovak heritage slowly faded away. Sure, at Christmas time, an aunt would whip up some Slovak fare, but there were always family members who brought buckets of chicken to the table rather than eat the Kapustnica, a soupy jumble of sauerkraut, sausage, mushrooms, barley, and prunes. It was understood that I, my brother, and all my cousins, were to be Americans. We were not encouraged to sound, look, or act like we came from The Old Country. We ate hamburgers from McDonald’s and listened to rock and roll and went off to college. Some of us even Anglicized our unpronounceable last name from “Bzdusek” to “Bedusek.” We never looked back. We never learned to make plum dumplings.
Now, much older and thoroughly Americanized, I think achingly about that crowded dining room table where I sat and ate, and the dish that seems to have vanished along with my childhood.
It was always about more than just the dumplings. ■
Editor’s note: Want to make your own plum dumplings? The Milwaukee Public Library has a recipe from 1963 archived online here.
Laurie Bedusek Eynon is a retired hospital chaplain and former English teacher who currently lives in Indianapolis with her husband. She also enjoys living close to her children and grandchildren, maybe because she grew up surrounded by her extended Milwaukee family. Her plum dumplings may have been a disaster, but she can still make a decent kolache.
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