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Searching for Stefanik

August 21, 2011

Gen. Stefanikova's plane crash in Czecho-Slovakia, May1919. The sky is grey and overcast, and judging by the clothes, it must have been cold. I am not sure if this picture was taken by my great grandfather or not, but it is the Shuster family photo collection.

Digging through an old shoebox of family photos one day, I came across a faded picture of a plane crash.  In the picture men are milling around, poking through the remnants of the small plane that lies crumpled on the ground. On the back of the picture was handwritten, Gen Stefanikova Rosbiti Lietadlo -4-5-1919. Who, I wondered, was General Stefanikova, and why did my great grandparents have a picture of this man’s untimely death in a flying accident?

Milan Stefanik as a young student in Prague where he studied astronomy at Charles University. Štefánik's personal motto was: To Believe, To Love and To Work (Veriť, milovať, pracovať). TF Simon web site.

After some research, I learned that the General was the revered Slovak Milan Stefanik, and that he had tragically crashed his plane in bad weather near Bratislava on May 4, 1919. The dashing young Stefanik had died at 39, just months after seeing his lifelong dream of an independent country for Czechs and Slovaks come true.  He was known as one of the founding fathers of Czecho-Slovakia, established in October, 1918.

Stefanik loved art, and filled his Paris apartment with it. He had many artist friends, including Czech artist Hugo Boettinger who drew this sketch of 25r old Stefanik in 1905. From TF Simon web site.

Stefanik, like my great grandparents and several generations before them, had grown up Slovak in the Austro-Hungarian Empire.  The son of a Lutheran pastor, Stefanik was fiercely proud of his heritage and took offense at the strong anti-Slovak sentiments in the empire.  Speaking Slovak in public was forbidden, as was teaching of the language, culture and history of the Slav people.

Once on a train ride  to visit his family Stefanik was speaking Slovak in a private rail car with his friends. When the train conductor came to collect the tickets, he overheard the Slovak language being spoken and spit in Stefanik’s face.  Stefanik, by then a well known astronomer and diplomat, was furious, and fired off an angry letter to the editor of the national newspaper that caused quite a sensation at the time.

Hugo Boettinger sketch, "At the Station", from TF Simon's web site.

While a student in Prague at the turn of the century (where he was forced to speak Hungarian), Stefanik would travel to Pressburg (now Bratislava) to stay with the family of  the distinguished lawyer Vendelín “Vendko” Kutlík and his wife Bozena. Vendko, known as the “Second Stur” and his wife had been clandestinely teaching students Slovak history from their home, quietly continuing what Ludovit Stur had begun in the “Slovak uprising” of 1848/49.   When Hungarian authorities got wind of Vendko’s teachings he was investigated and authorities claimed he was “the most dangerous Pan-Slav incendiary” in the country,  “poaching Slovak students to Pan-Slavism, leading them to anti-Hungarianism, pulling students into his family circle and even in pubs…

Vendelin "Vendko" Kutlik, 1890's. Born in 1834 in Stara Pazova. His father's family ran a butcher shop; his mother Catherine walked into the shop and was mesmerized by way John prepared her meat - they soon married. Photo from the Kutlik web site below.

Vendko was found guilty of treason, dis-barred, his law firm shut down, and his children were forced to leave school, flee the country or go underground where they continued to secretly teach Slovak.  After a long illness Vendko died in 1904, destitute.

After Vendko’s death, Stefanik moved to Paris and charmed his way into a job at the Observatory in Meudon.  He traveled the world setting up observatories and spent a year in Tahiti where he watched Halley’s Comet and was called Taata Hio Fetia by the natives, the “man who watches stars.” An avid photographer, Stefanik’s stunning photos caused many to visit the island after him.

Stefanik lived in a small Paris apartment on the corner of Rue Le Clerc. Stefanik often brought back objects that laid about his apartment as if in a museum. He liked to hang out in the Cafe Viennois with his artist friends. After an extensive search, Stefanik brought back several pieces by Paul Gauguin from Tahiti that were thought to have been destroyed. Photo from a book on Stefanik dated 1929.

When WWI started, he joined the French Army and flew airplanes over Serbia, a gunner in the back seat shooting down at the invading Austro Hungarians. His plane crashed in 1915, and critically injured, he was airlifted to hospital by fellow pilot Louis Paulhan in the first medivac rescue in history.

General Milan Stefanik, the dashing young man in the French Army uniform in the middle, visited the United States in 1917 to drum up support for his crazy idea of an independent country for Czechs and Slovaks. Here he meets with politicians in Washington DC. He also raised money, awareness and rallied fellow Slovaks to join him in fighting against the Austro-Hungarian Army in WWI. He also traveled to Russia and successfully lobbied to release 100,000 Czech and Slovak POWs and created the Czech0-Slovak Legion. This photo is from the US archives in DC.

On a recent visit to a cemetery in Slovakia where my relatives were buried, I found engraved on a tombstone the maiden name of my great, great grandmother, Maria Andel – it was Kutlik. Maria, Vendko’s family and other “Kutlyks” came from Srance, a small village of a few hundred people nestled in the foothills of the Tatra mountains, a 10 minute walk from Dolny Kubin.   They had arrived there in the 1600’s from Poland; Vendko, it turns out, was Maria’s uncle.

Stefanik’s fantastic achievement of an independent country for his fellow Slovaks was more than the realization of his own dream; it was the culmination of the dreams of many before him, including Stur, Vendko, my family and countless other Slovaks who had quietly fought for the rights of Slovaks and who had suffered under the injustice of Hungarian oppression for a millennium.

Statues and tributes to Stefanik can be found around the world, including Tahiti, France, Slovakia and the United States. A couple of weeks ago I drove to Cleveland, Ohio to find Stefanik as I had read that a a statue had been built in his honor in 1924. The statue stands in the middle of a round-about on the outskirts of picturesque Wade Park on a busy road in eastern Cleveland.

Script engraved in the side of Stefanik's statue in Cleveland. His death must have deeply shocked and saddened Slovaks, including my family who held on to the photo of his plane crash for over 90 years.

A footnote to this story: I learned from a reader after publishing this that Stefanik’s brother, Igor Branislav Štefánik, married Zuzana Suster from Pivnice. Both Zuzana and I descend from the same Stefan Suster who immigrated to Vojvodina in the 1780’s.

An introduction to Vendelin Kutlik – http://www.nasaadvokacia.sk/v_kutlik.html

An essay written in 1937 by T.F. Simon about Stefanik and Paul Gauguin:  http://www.tfsimon.com/Gauguin.html

More photos of Stefanik’s life and of Bettinger’s art

A timeline of Stefanik’s incredible life – http://en.valka.cz/viewtopic.php/t/13202

An excellent overview of Stefanik’s life: http://www.tfsimon.com/stefanik-note.htm

Milan Stefanik: “There is no such thing as the impossible.

Lancaster Central Market

August 14, 2011

Sunflowers at Central Market

“I grew up in an all female household,” Vasso told me.

“My mother worked to support the family, and my grandmother raised me. She taught me everything about the cooking she grew up with in Greece.”

“I started this little business as a part time venture, something for fun to do on the side. But I’m working 7 days a week, baking or selling. It’s a true labor of love.”

I can taste that love. Vasso is the sole proprietor of Yasou, selling authentic Greek pastries in a tiny stall at the Central Market in  Lancaster, PA.

The most enjoyable food you can put in your mouth is made with fresh, local ingredients, and in small quantities by people who put their heart and soul into what they do.  And with the discovery of Vasso and others here in Lancaster, I think I have found the epicenter of the locavore movement here in the United States.

Two hours from Washington, DC is the country’s oldest continuously running farmer’s market, the Lancaster Central Market in operation since 1730.   The market is open Tuesdays and Fridays from 6am-4pm and Saturdays from 6am until 2pm.  The current market is operated in a beautiful Romanesque Revival building built in 1889.

You will find a wide variety of small shops selling everything from flowers and organic produce to European pastries, hand made candies, grass fed free range chickens, creamy milk and unpasteurized cheeses. The owners include people of Greek, German, Italian, Amish, Thai, African and Middle Eastern descent, and the market stalls overflow with their diverse flavors and languages.

Greek pastries by Yasou

My favorites include Yasou, the Greek pastry stall. Vasso makes all the pastries daily, and there is no web site, no ability to ship or pre-order. You simply have to go and sample her cookies and Greek pastries – they are the most delicate morsels you will ever eat.  Her  Finkia and the Almond Kourambiedes cookies (Pauline used to make these) dissolve in a buttery sweetness when they touch your tongue.

Cookies are about $1.7o each, and a box of pastries ranges from $18 to $36.

Linden Dale Farm cheese artisan doles out samples and describes the cheese making process

For cheese I head to the Linden Dale Farm stall at the front of the market.  On this morning I was late to try the popular mozzarella cheese curds, tiny crumbly balls with a fresher, tangier taste than more mature mozzarella balls.

Instead I indulged in a small disk of Laughing Lindy goat cheese, with a soft puckered rind and a smooth, bold taste of cheese in the middle. Each disk is made by hand, is aged three weeks and varies in size and price.

Laughing Lindy

Laughing Lindy reminds me of a favorite Cabecou cheese that I buy at the farmer’s markets in Southwest France.  Another excellent choice is Tome, a wedge of unpasteurized goat cheese aged 9 months. It’s dry like parmesan, and has a strong,  nutty taste.  Prices for cheese ranged from $2.50 to $5.50.

I sampled wonderful hand made pretzels, Greek chickpea patties, took home a pack of thinly rolled frozen spanikopita for $10, a dozen eggs from free range chickens for $2.50 and a grass fed, free range chicken for $3.59 a lb.

If you enjoy high quality food at a reasonable price, spend a weekend in Lancaster. Leave early on Saturday morning in order to get to Central Market as early as possible. Spend the afternoon strolling through the many artistic shops in town, and the night across the street from the market at the Marriott Hotel, and have dinner at the Pressroom, in the old Steinman hardware store. Sundays, I’ll warn you, most businesses are closed, but there is still plenty to see with Amish farms nearby and many historical sites.

For more pictures of Central Market, click here.

Market Street Produce in Central Market

Korbáčiky

July 30, 2011

Korbáčiky

We’ve had relatives visiting from Slovakia this summer, and they came laden with gifts.  Above, smuggled through airport security was korbáčiky, my favorite salty sheep’s cheese that comes in long rolls of string.  There are two varieties – smoked and un-smoked; this is the latter.  The cheese is still sold today by shepherds along the roadside.

300 sheep live at Chalet Krajinka. You can see the shepherd's hut, watch traditional cheese making and eat in the restaurant.

There is a Slovak joke about how this cheese is made: first, you dunk the ball of freshly made sheep cheese in hot water, and then pull it apart into two pieces.  Then you spit into your hands, and roll each piece on your thighs, into thin strings (this is supposed to gross people out, which it usually does).  It’s funnier told in person with hand animations, and I’m told even funnier in Slovak.

Fresh sheep cheese soaked in hot water, spun into string cheese

I was lucky enough to see this cheese made the traditional way at the Chalet Krajinka near Ruzomberok in the Lower Liptov region of Slovakia, and you do indeed dip the sheep’s milk in hot water before rolling it.

Braiding Korbáčiky

Korbáčiky is also often braided, and it was amazing to watch the women braid and twist at lightning speed.

The finished product

Some people find Korbáčiky too salty – soaking it in hot water before eating it helps cut the salt. And placing it in boiling water for 10 or 20 seconds melts it back into a ball.  Korbáčiky is best eaten fresh, but if you want to keep it a while and savor it slowly, like I must with my illicit gift, then freeze it and cut off chunks as needed.  Mailing it via postal service to yourself from Slovakia is not a good idea, as my travel partner discovered when the stinky package arrived a month later.

My relatives sampling the finished product

Most of these pictures were taken by Lily Shuster, my favorite travel partner, cheese mailer and aunt extraordinaire.  Aunt Lily, I didn’t even tell you Josef brought this cheese on his visit. But I’ve had my fill and your brother Jerry has the remains in his possession.

Törökméz

July 21, 2011

Hungarian treat - Törökméz

Recently I had  cheesecake with a sprinkling of sponge toffee topping, a fun play on the classic dessert Crème Brûlée, and it reminded me of  Törökméz.   Translated from Hungarian as “Turkish honey”, Törökméz is a spongy, fragile candy that quickly shatters as it hits your teeth, and then melts in your mouth when it lands on your tongue a second later.

The super sweet treat is usually homemade and as I ate the cheesecake I suddenly remembered making this Turkish honey  as a child; Pauline called it “capalov”.  The main ingredients are sugar and honey, and sometimes walnuts too, with a secret ingredient that causes it to bubble it up like a honeycomb.  Sponge toffee is similar, made with brown sugar and corn syrup.

When you can’t make it yourself, the next best thing is to buy it as a candy bar – the Crunchie bar in Canada and in the UK, or the Violet Crumble in Australia.

Törökméz Ingredients

  • 1 cup sugar
  • 2 tbsp honey
  • 1.5 tsp baking soda
  • 1/3 cup crushed walnuts, optional

Steps

  1. Prepare a lightly greased piece of wax paper on a cookie sheet
  2. On the stove, melt the sugar and honey together and continue to stir until it is golden brown, about 10 minutes
  3. Add the walnuts in, if you are using them
  4. Toss in the baking soda, and it will start to fizz
  5. Immediately pour the carmelized sugar onto the wax paper and allow it to cool, about an hour
  6. Break into pieces

Vanilkový Cukor – Homemade Vanilla Sugar

July 15, 2011

Vanilkový Cukor - Vanilla Sugar. In Pauline's cookbook she wrote it as "Cukro Vaniliji", Slovak spelling no longer in use today.

As I made Pauline’s vanilla sugar recipe today, my husband lay rocking back and forth on the hammock in the backyard, eyes closed, listening to music strumming through the headphones, blissfully unaware that a strange man had run up and stood over him, panting and sweating profusely.

Nick’s eyes fluttered open, his startled eyes locking with those of a nervous young man of Middle Eastern descent, and he dropped his iPod to the ground in surprise.

“What are you doing here?”, Nick demanded.

The young man bent over and picked up the fallen iPod, reconnected it to the cord dangling from Nick’s ears, and handed it back to him, somewhat politely.

“I’m looking for my parents,” the stranger said in a heavy Arabic accent, as his eyes darted nervously about the yard.

“In our backyard?!” Nick asked incredulously.  “Where did come you from?”

“I’m from Iceland“, the young man answered. “Do you know where that is?”

He then gestured to two nearby lawn chairs, and asked Nick if he would like to join him there.  “And could I have a glass of Cognac?” he asked.

Nick wasn’t sure if the two were understanding one another correctly.

“I think you’d better leave,” my husband said. “Now.”

Nick shooed the stranger out of the yard and called the police as I poured the vanilla sugar into the jar and decided it best to move on to mixing drinks.  Our Icelandic Arabian was located a little while later in someone else’s backyard where a similarly bizarre conversation also took place. Off Monsieur Cognac was whisked, back to the mental hospital where he had escaped from earlier in the day, the police reported.

Nick and I later sat down with our drinks and pieces of cake dusted with our superior vanilla sugar, contemplated what could have been, and considered ourselves lucky that the mentally ill stranger in our yard apparently wanted nothing more than to have a seat and a shot of fine French brandy.

Vanilla Sugar

Many of Pauline’s recipes call for vanilla sugar, usually sprinkled on top of the cakes, crepes and other Central European desserts.  Vanilla sugar is fairly uncommon in the US, but you can find it in some supermarkets  (at least in Canada) in small yellow packets made by the 120 year old family owned German company, Dr. Oetker, though it is made with the vastly inferior imitation vanilla flavor, vanillin.

Dr. Oetker's Artificially Flavored Vanilla Sugar

Pure, home made vanilla sugar is less expensive, more fragrant than store bought, and imparts a much richer flavor to desserts.  When Pauline baked, vanilla sugar was made from scratch and kept on the shelf in her kitchen, ready to be sprinkled on fruits, added to coffee, whipped cream, milkshakes or yogurt and of course, used for baking in desserts.  Here is Pauline’s recipe for making your own superior vanilla sugar; generally, only one tablespoon is all you need to use in a recipe.

Fill a glass jar with icing sugar (or superfine sugar) and 2 pods of vanilla pods, cut up.  Seal the jar and shake it to spread the pods through out the sugar evenly. You can keep the jar out on the counter with the lid on, and sift the sugar on your desserts as needed. When the jar begins to run low, simply fill it again with more sugar, as the vanilla pods will last  a while.  When the scent of vanilla begins to fade, simply add another cut up pod.

Vanilijovy Sladoled – Vanilla Bean Ice Cream

July 13, 2011

Vanilijovy Sladoled

Pauline’s recipe for vanilla bean ice cream is even creamier and more decadent than Breyer’s All Natural Pure Premium Ice Cream, the brand I taste tested in vast quantities eons ago.   I served the ice cream with raspberries and home made vanilla sugar.

Ingredients:

  • 2 cups whole milk
  • 2 cups heavy cream (or use 4 cups milk and skip the cream)
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • 8 egg yolks
  • 1 vanilla pod

Ice Cream Flavors at the Hollywood, CA Farmer's Market

Steps:

  1. Mix the egg yolks and sugar in the food processor for about 5 minutes until thick and white
  2. While the yolks are being mixed, heat the cream and milk with the vanilla pod, scraping out the seeds into the milk/cream mixture.  Put the pod in the milk too.
  3. Cook the milk and cream  just until about to boil; allow to thicken
  4. Slowly add the hot milk and cream (take out the pod) into the food processor as it is mixing the yolks
  5. Strain the cream/yolk mixture through a sieve
  6. Cool in the fridge
  7. Place the cooled cream and yolk mixture into an ice cream maker for about 45 minutes until thickened
  8. Freeze at least two hours or over night

Soft ice cream being served at the Farmer's Market in Hollywood, CA

On Being a Professional Ice Cream Taster

July 7, 2011

Pretty ice cream shop in Prague

The first buck I made in the States was as an ice cream taste tester.  I landed this plum “job” at the Orange Park Mall in Florida when accosted by a clipboard carrying survey taker  while window shopping. With nothing else to do, I dutifully answered her 101 questions about my dessert eating habits (it was a lengthy interview). Apparently I answered the questions correctly, and in return I was offered a gallon of ice cream and $10 to participate in a consumer product testing program.  All I had to do was keep a journal of the consumption: things like what was I doing when I ate it, what time was it, what did I eat it with, who else ate it, was it melted or not, and how did I like it. When I turned in the journal, I received my $10 and another gallon.

We had just moved to Jacksonville, Florida when Nick was assigned to an FA18 squadron in the Navy. We were poor: I was unemployed, a new immigrant fresh off the Ryder rental truck from Canada, and we were newly married. Nick made a whopping $15,000 a year as an ensign.  We discovered it was cheaper to buy a townhouse with a low interest loan for poor people like us, which required no money down; this was good, because we had none.  The townhouse, however, was not yet built, so we left our meager belongings in military storage (never a smart thing to do if you actually want your possessions back, or at least undamaged, we soon learned) and looked around for a furnished short term rental.

Cool, luscious Cherry Gelato, Old Town Prague, 2010

We lived in the BOQ (Bachelor Officer’s Quarters) for a month until they kicked us out to make room for actual bachelors, and then we scrambled to find a place near Cecil Field Naval Air Station where Nick was stationed.  If you have ever been out by Cecil Field, at least in the 1980’s, you will agree that there is not much out there besides scrub brush, dusty fields and barren highways. And trailer parks.

Yes, we actually moved into a double wide, furnished (I use that term loosely) Florida red neck trailer.  In hindsight, we would have been better off at the Holiday Inn 2o miles aways paying $1500 a month.  We were lured to the trailer park’s low rent of $350 a month, but soon discovered that a) it is very expensive to put in phone lines and fill huge empty oil tanks where apparently most other trailer park dwellers live without these necessities, and b) the phone, electrical and power companies expect cash payments up front when you are poor like we were.  The $350 quickly ballooned five fold, and I wondered how on earth poor people could ever save money and get ahead.

Lip smacking good Pistachio Gelato, Prague, 2010

The first night in the trailer we nearly froze to death. The cool September day had turned into an unusually frosty night, and without power, heat, sheets or blankets on the pee stained bed (which, thank God, I could not see because it was so dark), we newlyweds spooned and huddled together beneath his flight jacket.  We both woke up with hacking coughs and sore throats, most likely from the disgusting germs left on the bed by the previous human-like occupants.

The first morning in the shitty little trailer, as we soon lovingly called it, was no better. As I moved a cutting board near the sink to start breakfast, several large cockroaches scampered out and over my arm. My pure Canadian eyes had never laid eyes on a roach, and I screamed bloody murder.  Nick thought I was being hacked to death by the crazy ax wielding neighbor we had seen lurking the day before in the dusty patch of weedy land next door.  Nick leaped out of the shower only to find me standing on the arm of the filthy couch as a line of fist sized, black armored rat-like roaches marched around, taunting me.

Punchy Lemon Verbena Gelato, Prague 2010

The shower was, if you can believe it, worse. Years, and years of caked hair had formed in the drain, enamelled to the filthy plastic shower stall with puss like, soap scum that gushed through my toes when I accidentally stepped on it.  As the trickle of cold, rusty water sploshed down on me and on to the floor of the stall, the water began to rise up around my ankles.  I reluctantly bent over to tug at the congealed hair/soap formation in order to unplug the drain, and that’s when I started to heave uncontrollably.

So, back to the ice cream job.  After using every last cent of wedding gift money to pay for the barest of essentials, Nick and I could not afford to eat out or go anywhere. We had no friends yet, did not have a TV or radio, and had nothing but a bare light bulb hanging over our heads in the cockroach infested trailer park kitchen.  We would sit at that rickety faux wooden table, night after night, playing gin rummy and eating ice cream.  We stole the slogan from the upscale restaurant chain, “Po’ Folks”  and adopted it as our own: “we poor but we proud.”

A wide variety served from the gelato cart, Prague Old Town, 2010

We became ice cream eating experts, and were soon consuming a gallon a day. We were thrilled to be making an extra $70 a week eating ice cream. We would try letting it sit out on the counter for an hour, and describe in great detail how the melting ice cream looked, tasted, felt on our tongues, and slid down our throats.  We stirred it into our coffee, ate it over cereal for breakfast and served it to the starving neighborhood kids who peer at us longingly through the window of the screen door.  We would ask them to comment on it too, collecting their adjectives as we handed out cones.

When visiting Bratislava last year, our host, Maria, whipped up vanilla bean panna cotta for dessertt, served with blackberries, freshly chopped mint and a heart shaped swirl of balsamic vinegar cream.

I am sure that no other ice cream taster succeeded at their job as I did, but after several weeks on the job, our interest in the same old cold frosty product waned and I reluctantly gave it up when I found a job consulting in the similarly cold market of computers.  I had not been told anything about the brand or make of the ice cream, but I deftly figured out, due to the flecks of black specks dotting the cream and the creamy custard taste, that is was Breyers All Natural Pure Premium Ice Cream — Natural Vanilla, and to this day I feel largely responsible for bringing it to market.

(Note: around 2006 they swapped out the vanilla beans for fake specks, and the taste just isn’t the same.  I wonder if they need me to come back  to taste and provide more commentary?).