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Slovak is a language of love – love of food, family and ideas

January 6, 2010

Unlike Jews or other ethnic groups, Slovaks are not bound together by a single religion that preserves our cultural heritage. Instead, we are linked together simply by a shared language, and over the centuries have maintained our culture and ties to each other through the written and spoken word. Even today, Slovaks primarily live a peasant lifestyle, just as our ancestors have for the last several hundred years, growing and making food. We also have a rich intellectual heritage, with many poets, writers, philosophers, inventors and artists amongst us.  Famous Slovaks include Andy Warhol, Angelina Jolie and Stefan Banic, the inventor of the parachute (a sad but typical Slovak entrepreneurial tale I will share at a later time).  There are many other examples, but their names will sound unfamiliar and foreign to your ears.

Enjoying a meal together

Slovaks are a funny group of people, defined by two primary traits; an obsession with good food, and close knit families who like to share and celebrate everything together.  Tonya and her family are in town? Meet at Diane’s tonight for dinner to celebrate.  Ethan’s photographs were bought by National Geographic? Drop everything and come have dinner at Lily’s to celebrate. Jerry is back from France? Dinner’s at 6 at Milan’s.  And bring your neighbors, Wilson and Pat. The more people gathered (neither family membership nor Slovak descent matter – everyone is accepted instantly), and the more food served, the better.   You never know who will show up, or how many, and there is always room for one more seat at the table.

I’ve had the pleasure of being a part of the dynamic combination of people, food and exuberant ideas as a member of a large Slovak family: a noisy bunch of people who love, love, LOVE to get together to talk about ideas and to actively, VOCALLY challenge each other’s, and an enormous amount of fantastic, homemade food that seems to materialize out of nowhere.  In fact, this is ALL we do over the holidays, or whenever we get together. We all talk rather loudly all at the same time, carrying on several conversations at once, we laugh constantly, and we consume vast amounts of delicious food and wine.

Other common Slovak traits that I have witnessed repeatedly are sticking up for each other, a ferocious tenacity, and a penchant for working for oneself.  If any family member experiences a setback of any kind, the rest of the family is there to support them, no questions asked, providing whatever is needed.  You can ALWAYS count on your family. We’re like a giant safety net for each other, and when you have something like that ready to catch you in case you fall, it frees you up to take more risks in life.  And that we do, constantly creating and inventing, trying and failing, pushing on and eventually, usually succeeding, sort of.

I used to think these behaviors were unique to my family, but after researching Slovak history, I now suspect  it’s genetic.  For example, about 100 years ago, when Slovaks lived under Hungarian rule, the Magyars (Hungarians) banned the Slovak language on all public places including churches and schools, thinking that this would force the Slovaks to lose their cultural identity and assimilate into the Hungarian way of life.  Well, it backfired. The Slovaks, royally pissed off, immediately began teaching the Slovak language and history in their homes, and the number of published Slovak books and articles soared like never before.  This is quite amazing, considering that fast modes of communication like the Internet did not yet exist, most did not own phones, and 97% of Slovaks were peasants living on farms in the countryside.  What the Magyars didn’t realize is that Slovaks were always getting together in their homes to eat and talk, and that their laws didn’t stand a chance.  The Magyars eventually gave up, and the Slovaks were soon back on the streets chatting away freely.  Don’t you dare try to shut us up.

27 Comments leave one →
  1. Christine Lagendyk permalink
    January 6, 2010 9:01 pm

    Tonya, thank you for sharing a little bit of your culture and history. I thoroughly enjoyed reading your blog; a great first attempt I’d say. Kudos!

    We lived in Budapest for one year (2006-2007) and did lots of travelling while we were overseas. We spent a weekend in Bratislava and loved it! Such a beautiful city, and wonderful people. We have great memories of that trip.

    I look forward to your next instalment. I may even attempt to make your grandma’s omlets! I’ll let you know how they turn out, if I do.

  2. clatterbach permalink
    January 12, 2010 6:41 pm

    I’d love to hear some recommendations of Slovak novels and, in particular, short story collections if you know of any that may be reasonably accessible. My Czech is good enough to read or attempt most things and I would like to get a foothold into Slovakian. The languages are of course, substantially the same, but I have as yet, little exposure to slovakian. It is, besides, a lot easier to pronounce than Czech, and I go to the Tatras fairly regularly.

    Great blog!

  3. Nikoleta permalink
    January 16, 2010 6:46 pm

    I am slovakian living in the US for 18 years and I must agree with the way u described the SK culture it is so true. I love to see the handwritten recepies and know both the slang and the dialect of the region where Paulina grew up. I also have a book similar to u from my babka and prababka (grandmother and great grandmother). Good luck and I will try the medove kolace for sure thanks for u blog Nikoleta

    • January 16, 2010 6:58 pm

      Hi Nikoleta, thank you so much for the kind words! I hope you will come back to be blog often, and share some of your recipes with me! What part of the US are you in?


      • Nikoteta permalink
        January 24, 2010 5:00 pm

        I live in California

  4. Daniela permalink
    January 27, 2010 12:57 pm

    I see that you can read Slovak , so finally I can write to someone from family in Canada ,

    Ja som Tvoja rodacka zo stareho otcovej strany, po Tvojom otcovi Jerimu a jeho otcovi Jerimu.Velmi sa tesim, ze si sa rozhodla opisat svoju staru mamu a jej kucharske speciality a ze som mala cest ju osobne poznat. O jej zivote som tiez vela pocuvala a to s radostou, lebo bola jedna fantasticka osoba a mala som ju rada. Gratulujem Ti a tesi ma, ze si sa rozhodla opisat Vas rodinny zivot a kuchynu. Vela uspechov Ti prajem i na dalej a poslem Ti i fotografie.Bozk a pozdrav celej Vasej rodine.

  5. January 27, 2010 6:01 pm

    The photo “Visiting Paul and Mary, circa 1967” gave me a bit of a jolt. I have a similar photo of myself as a child (probably taken in 1965) with my brothers and sisters on the exterior staircase of my Slovak grandparents home.

    • January 27, 2010 6:11 pm

      Really?! I have another too that I will post in a later article. Same time frame, but with cousins too. I need your mom to read the last comment from Daniela in Pivnice – she wrote it in Slovak!

  6. Daniela permalink
    January 28, 2010 4:27 am

    If dont understand slovak we could write you in english , my sons and my husband , they are speeking and writting english .

    • January 28, 2010 6:10 am

      Thanks, Daniela :). I translated most of it, and it is a good way to learn it. Tonya

      • Daniela permalink
        January 28, 2010 7:31 am

        Tonya there is mistake on Facebook , that old picture from Pivnice, it is not bakery , it is the butcher shop, man in white is Igor Schuster, and old lady sitting on the chair is Igor mother Juliana born Pintir .

      • January 28, 2010 8:31 am

        Thank you. My dad said that the butcher shop used to be the bakery, and that Paul sold it to Igor. Is that right?

      • Daniela permalink
        January 28, 2010 9:26 am

        Well I think that it was some kind of shop. But I will ask my uncle Brano. I have send you an email with Suster family tree made by my uncle .

      • January 28, 2010 3:05 pm

        Uncle Andy, Pauline’s brother, says it was Paul’s bakery, as does my dad. I wonder if we can find any pictures of it as a bakery or as a butcher?

  7. Daniela permalink
    January 29, 2010 10:40 am

    Sorry at beginning it was bakery , and then it was Igor’s butcher shop. Brano uncle says that he will send us some old pictures of SUSTER family , so I will posted to you .

    • January 29, 2010 5:54 pm

      That would be great. Did you see the ones I posted on Facebook last night?

      • Daniela permalink
        January 30, 2010 11:05 am

        Ano su krasne, a zaujimave, prave hladame kde su fotografie ktoremala Karolina. Potom Ti ich posleme. Inac Michal bol majorom Rakusko – Uhorskeho vojska, a Igor, Michal a Karolina zakoncili Vissiu obchodnu skolu v Dolnom Kubine, Slovensko, a ostatne deti dostali majrtok zem-

  8. Daniela permalink
    February 7, 2010 5:07 pm

    Did you received my email. Fotografia je z roku 1930. Doma máme rodné listy Šusterovcov, ktoré museli vyberať počas II. svetovej vojny , aby dokázali Madarom že nie su židia. Čo sa týka Československých légii u nás jestvuje dosť literatúry o tom , preto že , mnoho naších Slovákov bolo v legiach. Keď prídeš na návštevu tak Ti to ukážem.


  9. Zelka Cani permalink
    August 5, 2010 7:12 am

    Nazdar Tonja, Thought i would start that way but did not want to torture you with Slovak although a great way to learn. Daniela, is she from Pivnica? Daniela ak toto budes citat tak ta pozdravujem. Asi mislim ze si s Pivnici? Moja mam je Pivnicanka a teras byva V Australiji, je s Kuncakovej rodiny a odesla s Pinvici 1968 roku. Moja mama tak tiez sa pamata Susterovu Mesiar aj tak tiez aj Igora lebo ako dieta sa ihravala na dvore z Igorovima detma.
    Well, Tonja, a little note to Daniela, hope she can read it. I loved the way you described the Slovaks, I could not have put it better myself. The more we talk the louder we get and the more we tend to eat, oh, how so true, it is ingrained in our blood. Zelka.

    • August 5, 2010 11:28 am

      Daniela is from Pazova, but relatives live in Pivnica still – Suster relatives!

    • Zelka permalink
      August 5, 2010 10:27 pm

      Yes, it is correct, used to be a bakery first and then Igor turned it into a butchery. After Igor left, mum says it was taken over by the government (zadruga) and mum also remembers that Grna (Mesiar) meaning butcher, worked there and that he worked for the government and then worked for himself but as a butcher and mum says they used to go there to buy their beef whenever grandma went to make beef soup, that was a treat once in a while. So there is a little more insight into this butcher shop. Zelka.

      • August 5, 2010 11:16 pm

        Interesting. My great grandparents, Paul and Maria Milec, owned it when it was a bakery. My grandmother Pauline was working in the bakery when in walked a handsome young man named Jerry Shuster. They married later that year.

        My grandmother always used to say, “I was 23 when I marry. I never miss a thing.”

        When Pauline, Jerry, their daughter and Pauline’s parents left in 1938, they sold the bakery to Jerry’s brother Igor, who then opened up the butchery. It looked very nice back then.

        I did go visit the house recently – it is still standing, not in great condition, and owned by a young couple. There is a plaque on the outside of the building that says it used to be a butcher shop. But the current owners don’t know anything about the place. The old smoke house still stands, and you can see the soot stains from the smoke – that’s where Igor smoked the sausage. My dad built his own smoke house recently, and it looks very similar.

        I have pictures of Igor in the courtyard standing with his grandmother, Julia Suster. She died in 1957 – maybe your mom remembers her? I then had my picture taken in the same spot.

      • Sue Zelenak permalink
        August 6, 2010 2:30 am

        My husband’s grandmother was Suster that lived in Pivnica her name was Juliana, her parents names were Samuel and Alzbeta, born Tot. Don’t know if it’s any relation. Small world ey?
        BTW Hi Zelka 🙂 my fellow Australian.
        I love reading your blog! I’ve yet to show my parents pictures you have on here, maybe they might know your family, as they are from Pivnica as well.

      • August 6, 2010 11:06 am

        Hi there! I am sure we are related but not sure how far back. I have the ancestry records back to the very first Suster family in Pivnice – Stefan Suster and his wife Maria Palotay who arrived in Pivnica in 1793. They had 3 sons: Stefan, Jan and Juraj. Maria died, and Stefan remarried Zuzana Privizer and they had 2 sons: Ondrej and Pavol. Stefan was trained as a shoemaker (hence the name Suster), but became a teacher. His son Stefan died at the age of 14, but the other 4 sons survived and from them are all the Suster descendants in Pivnica.

        My family are direct descendants of Jan Suster, the oldest surviving son of Stefan Suster and Maria Palotay. I have most of the family tree for the Jan branch, but it is incomplete for the other 3 sons. I just found some other ancestor tree information that I need to plug in to mine – I will let you know if there is a Samuel and Alzbeta in that branch. Is the family Lutheran by chance, and did they attend the Lutheran church in Pivnica?

        Very small world! It is so nice to “meet” you, cousin :).


  10. Zelka Cani permalink
    August 6, 2010 11:22 am

    Hi Sue, Lovely to see your post here. The Susters are a huge family and I have been going through the family tree of Pauline’s relatives but do not see any documentation for a Samuel Suster. Can you go back a little further, does your husband know (or even his father who still lives in Pivnica)perhaps knows the name of Samuel Suster’s parents. So that means finding our who his great great grandfather was and his wife and her maiden name.. I would say they would come from the same line of the founder being Stefan Suster (1734-1810). Looking forward to you coming for dinner, ah food, the slovak way of life and we could do a more detailed dig into your husband’s family, if he knows the info that far back. Is your father-in-law planning on visiting Australia this year? He is a wealth of information when it comes to the history of Pivnica and its people, it would be interesting to see which line of Suster’s he does come from.

  11. Zelka Cani permalink
    August 6, 2010 11:32 am

    Hi. I am related to Sue Zelenak’s husband. He is my 3rd cousin, but I am related to him on his mother’s side, not his father’s, who is from a Suster line, at least I think it is his father’s side that is from the Susters. Sue can you confirm this? I do not recall my mum mentioning the Susters from the Kolar end of the family. I seem to be related to everyone by marriage as we have found with your family tree, it is just so amazing all of this. Coming onto Pauline’s Cookbook website was like opening a ‘pandora’s box’ a surprise every which way you look. I was surprised when Sue mentioned her husband is from a Suster line, that I did not know.

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