At this time last year, Michelle and I were in Prague. We had come to Prague from Berlin to spend the holidays with Michelle’s aunt and her cousins.
Christmas Eve was a day of “fasting,” where we ate some breakfast and lunch, but the dishes we ate were things like buckwheat and onions (kasha, essentially)—“ascetic” meals before the Christmas feasts. The centerpiece of the Christmas Eve feast was the traditional Czech Christmas dish: carp. I was particularly excited about having carp because I’d often heard stories about it and it sounded fantastic. I’d also seen pictures of traditional Czech Christmas meals and the carp always stood out in my mind. As we walked around the city that Christmas Eve we still saw a few of the streetcorner vendors who sell carp live on the streets of Prague. They set up some of those small plastic swimming pools (the kind small children [and frat boys] are oh-so-very fond of) and the carp swim around right there on the city streets. Customers then sidle up and pick out their favorite, and the vendor bags the fish live and sends his customer home with it. Over and over again we heard stories of Prague families keeping their Christmas carp alive in the bathtub in the days before the poor thing got served up on a platter—we even heard stories of small children taking baths with the carp (!). Michelle’s mother has bad memories of seeing those carp in those tiny little tanks and pools, but to my eye there was something almost poetic about having a city dotted with pools containing these big, odd-looking fish with those whiskers.
As it turns out, my visions of Christmas carp were based on some kind of fantasy based on old issues of Gourmet Magazine or something. I’d always imagined it baked whole, surrounded with herbs. In reality, the most common way of serving carp in the Czech Republic is more or less exactly the way its cousin, catfish, is served here in North America: batter-fried. And that was the way we had it last year.
That was the beginning of the deluge. For the next few days we were treated to an absurd amount of Czech delicacies—roasts, dumplings, and baked sweets—lots and lots of baked sweets, including Sigmundova’s legendary “wasps’ nests.” Every day we took long walks across the city—including one particularly memorable walk with Ondra and Katerina through Sarka park—it was all we could do to try and keep pace with all the sumptuous meals.
[dedicated to Stepan]