Food and Culture of Czechoslovakia
Czechoslovakia was born in October 1918, out of the disintegration of the Austro-Hungarian Empire after World War I. It would simplify our under-standing of the people and the region if we could say that the mother was Czech and the father Slovakian. But as in real life, it has not been that elemental. Until 1992, the Czech and Slovak republics lived in relative harmony as Czechoslovakia, but with ensuing difficulties between the two republics’ leaders, relations have plummeted. Increasing political differences between the two republics, with the Czechs’ democratic reforms standing in stark contrast to the continuing “authoritarian leadership” and “oppressive rule” of the Slovak Republic, seem to be further intensifying differences.
Although it may seem that the two republics will continue on divergent political paths, there are also differences in their historical and cultural development that distinguish Czechs from Slovaks.
The name Czech derives from the spoken language, and this most westerly branch of Slays make up 70 percent of the urban population of the region of Bohemia, Moravia, and Silesia. Bohemia’s name is believed to have come from the early peoples who inhabited the area — the Boii. For 400 years, Bohemia was an Austrian province whose cuisine was strongly influenced by both Germany and Austria. Vienna was the spiritual capital of Bohemia and the people’s ethos was predominantly Teutonic in nature: disciplined and orderly.
The Slovaks, on the other hand, speak a different though related language and their cuisine and their culture carry strong influences from their neighbor, Hungary. Most Slovaks are engaged in rural pursuits such as farming, lumbering, and cattle raising. And they take great pride in their indigenous dress and traditional festivals.
Up to the 1300s there was considerable German immigration into Bohemia and Magyar immigration into Slovakia. The hopes for a peaceful way of life seemed futile. Up to the mid-1800s continuous strife between ethnic groups, oppressive taxation, and forcible Germanization made daily life uniformly severe. The Austro-Hungarian monarchy was sympathetic only to its own cause, with the result that the period up to the end of the First World War was a tug-of-war between Hungarian and German dominance.
The joy at Czechoslovakia‘s birth in 1918 was short-lived. By 1939, Hitler had forced the surrender of Czechoslovakia to Germany and once more the people were torn and dispersed. Ruthenia went to Hungary, Bohemia and Moravia became German protectorates and Slovakia a pup-pet state. Forcible colonization, exploitation, and brutal oppression became routine again. In May 1945, with the end of the Second World War, a brief period of freedom was hungrily enjoyed as Soviets entered Prague from the east and Americans from the west. But by 1948, the Communists’ “bloodless takeover” occurred.
The food consumed in any land under stress bears little resemblance to the fare available under less burdensome conditions. Heavy exportation of food products and a frequent shortage of dairy products made the postwar diet predominantly carbohydrate, consisting mainly of bread, winter vegetables (cabbage and root vegetables), and potatoes. But strong in Czech memories are gravy-rich pork and veal dish-es, famous hot sausages of endless variety, dumplings that were served throughout a meal, and a large choice of some of the finest beers in Europe. The land satisfied these tastes in abundance: Bohemia, traditionally an area of well-balanced industry and agriculture; Moravia, long the center of animal husbandry, with rich yields of wheat, corn, barley, and sugar beets; Slovakia, always well supplied from her own natural resources.
Sooner or later, no matter where Czechs and Slovaks may be, conversation is bound to turn to nostalgic arguments regarding the choice of the finest of beers, the lightest of dumplings and, among parky (sausage) connoisseurs, which uzenazstvi (beer and sausage tavern) was the best of all.