The Czech King: The Colossal Knedlíky
If you have Bohemian (Czech) ancestry, there is a very good chance you love potatoes! While this vegetable is often times referred to as ‘lowly’, I personally feel otherwise. Of course, as a good Czech descendant, my very favorite way to eat them is as knedlíky. No question about it!
We did not have them often, as knedlíky were reserved for special occasions, the most significant of which was Christmas. I can say, though, when knedlíky was on our dinner table, I felt I was feasting like a king! King Wenceslaus himself!
The only drawback to those knedlíky feasts was the fact you could cut the tension in the kitchen during prep-time with a sekáček! The pressure was weighing heavy on the knedlíky makers in a way never evident during any other meal preparations in our home. Perfection was the goal and these proud Bohemian women would settle for no less as they toiled against the clock with the potato ricer, the peaches, and the huge, steaming pots of boiling water.
Now many years after those halcyon days of my youth when my grandmother or mother undertook the solemn duty of making knedlíky, I am working diligently in an effort to make them myself. I am getting close, but so far my end products have been nothing any of my ancestors would be proud of. They would eat them, I am sure, but not without some grumbling.
At the same time as I was continuing my culinary attempts at knedlíky mastery, I began to research a bit about my favorite food and lo and behold knedlíky went from lowly to colossal! I thought there would be no place better for me tell you a bit of this story than right here at Onward To Our Past® as well as in the pages of Czech Slavnosti.
The very first cook who came up with the idea of knedlíky is lost from all memory now, but research indicates its roots go back to at least the 12th Century and the Ashkenazic Jewish community, which relied on the dumpling as their dietary staple, and lived in the Holy Roman Empire. Once this community was expelled from their homes during the various Crusades the spread of knedlíky accompanied them across Europe and beyond and it found a very welcoming home in Bohemia. As a matter of fact, many of the articles I read on the history of the dumpling call Bohemia the ‘dumpling homeland’!
The Ashkenazic word for their dumpling is knaidel and the root of the word knedlíky comes from the Teutonic word, knodel, which means ‘knot’.
Now centuries later the knedlíky continues to be a staple of the Bohemian diet. If you have ever been to the Czech Republic and ordered a meal in a local restaurant you might well have been asked by the wait staff, čtyři nebo šest? “Four or six?” Four or six what? Knedlíky of course! The waiter or waitress is simply trying to size you up of your order. Personally I’ve always been a ‘šest’ man, which may well explain why my grandmother used to call me her ‘knedlík’!
It wasn’t until quite later in my life that I came to discover there actually were more types of knedlíky than just bramborové (potato) knedlíky and ovocné (fruit) knedlíky. It was at a wonderful little Czech restaurant in Euclid, Ohio where we had gathered for my mother’s 90th birthday celebration that I was informed by a cousin that while Marta’s was a terrific Czech restaurant (their roast duck is to die for, by the way) I should be prepared for the fact they only serve houskove (bread) knedlíky.
Now as I have broadened my knedlíky horizons even more, I have come to know many more styles of knedlíky such as plněné (stuffed), švestkové (plum), spekové (bacon), meruňkové (apricot), jahodové (strawberry), Syrove (cheese), jatrov (liver), and I am sure several more I am missing.
While continuing my research and fighting an increasing urge to stop writing and find some knedlíky somewhere, I discovered a most interesting academic paper titled “Ambivalent Traditions: Transforming Gender Symbols and Food Practices in the Czech Republic” by Dr. Haldis Haukanes, Professor, University of Bergen (Norway). Published in Volume 21, No. 1, of the journal Anthropology of East Europe Review, this paper delves into many facets of knedlíky and its intertwining with Czech family and culture. Dr. Haukanes weaves a highly credible and incredible journey across Czech lands and history while focusing on knedlíky. Some of her comments, such as “In the Czech kitchen, dumplings appear to have a special status”; “Women, at least those over about 35 years, are expected to know how to make the traditional meals….in particular the dumplings-meat-and-gravy dishes are considered time-consuming and complicated to make”, and “I don’t know how many times I’ve observed or heard mention made of unsuccessful dumplings spoiling a meal…”. This took me right back to watching my mother and grandmother toil and fret over the knedlíky in our own kitchen. The meal usually consisted of the traditional national Czech meal Vepro-knedlo-zelo (pork, knedlíky, and sauerkraut), the king of the meal always taking center stage on the dining table was the knedlíky!
I strongly recommend you take some time and read Dr. Haukanes’ excellent paper, especially if you, like I, love the history and culture surrounding Czech foods.
So now you know a bit more about the wonderful world of the colossal knedlíky.
I owe a huge debt of gratitude to my grandmother for introducing me to the colossal knedlíky those many years ago!
Tomorrow we bring you a special supplement on knedlíky terminology! Stay tuned right here with…Onward To Our Past®