Tuesday, March 07, 2006

My, how things have changed

I was at a birthday party on Saturday night where it was required to talk the small talk. kd got it started by asking the people around us how long they had been in Prague. None of them had been here for more than 6 months. Then the question came back:

How long have you been here?

Since 1992, except for 2 years that I spent in England.

Wow! You must have seen some serious changes.

Well, yes, Julia, I have seen some serious changes. Today I am going to write about the food situation.

When I came over in 1992 I was semi-vegetarian, meaning that I ate dairy, eggs and fish, but did not eat birds or mammals. I came with Peace Corps and they put us into host families for the 2-month period of our language training. One of my first tasks in Czech was explaining to my host family what I would and would not eat. They didn’t get it at all – the Czech diet is meat-centred and they had ever met a vegetarian before.

It was summer and the family had a beautiful fruit and vegetable garden so vegetarian meals were easy. My host mom gave me lots of organic raw vegetables (she even cut them up for me) and fruit, bread and a piece of cheese or an egg. That was perfect for breakfast and supper; I had lunch, the main meal, at school.

The women who did the cooking in school had never met a vegetarian before either, and there were 3 of us. Some days they just gave us potatoes and some cabbage, other days they prepared something special for us. I ate a lot of omelettes and fried cheese that summer; the two items were the sum total of most vegetarian menus in restaurants as well.

Then summer was over and I moved to Ústí nad Labem. Perhaps this will illustrate the situation for you: my neighbourhood grocery store did not even have a fruit and vegetable section. The big German supermarket (Plus) in the centre of town had a fruit and vegetable section which usually stocked onions, garlic, potatoes, cabbage and sometimes a carrot or two. That’s it. There were greengrocers in town, but they may as well have shut down for the winter.

I started eating meat again after 3 months in Czechoslovakia.

Orange juice

One day a rumour spread amongst the foreigners that there was orange juice at Plus. We all scrambled down there and bought 2 or 3 litres each, no more because it was expensive and we didn’t expect it to disappear as mysteriously as it had arrived. But disappear it did, within a matter of days. It didn’t come back again for 6 weeks and then when it did, one of my American colleagues decided not to take chances and purchased 2 cases of it.

Meanwhile, back in The America

I was in LA in the summer of 1993. I went into a Ralph’s grocery store there and nearly had a meltdown. I counted how many different kinds of orange juice there were, and I still remember: 19. That was counting only the half-gallon cartons of ready-to-drink pure orange juice – not counting the orange-banana or orange-pineapple juices or the frozen concentrates. The score: Ústí nad Labem 1 (only recently and only sometimes), Los Angeles 19.

But that wasn’t the worst of it. The actual tears came when my mom sent me into the toothpaste aisle to get myself some good American toothpaste to take back with me. I broke down because I couldn’t remember how to make a decision when faced with so many choices, all of them in fact the same. I didn’t even bother counting the toothpastes.

Salad

I used to go to Germany to get salads with real lettuce in them. Dresden is only about 70 km from Ústí by train, maybe closer by car, and we could go there for dinner. You could get salads with iceberg lettuce at both McDonald’s and Burger King.

Broccoli

I first saw broccoli in Ústí nad Labem in spring of 1994. I remember exactly where and I remember being so surprised that I didn’t even buy it.

Prague 2006

You can get anything and relative prices have come down. Today, for example, I bought organic green tea, whole grain pasta, soy milk, tahini and products that actually have “suitable for vegetarians” printed on the packaging. You can get all kinds of fruits and vegetables all the time – mangoes, melons, avocados, asparagus… There is way more fish than there used to be; the finer restaurants get their fish flown in fresh every day. I don’t even eat iceberg lettuce anymore because you can get every kind of leaf possible from romaine and lollo rosso to endive, frisée and rocket.

There are restaurants for nearly every kind of cuisine in Prague: French, Mexican, Thai, Pakistani, fusion, whatever.

The only thing that reminds me of how things used to be is that occasionally a herb or spice will disappear from every shop in town at the same time. I have been looking for tarragon for months and have not been able to find it anywhere.

I now deal with the issue of toothpaste choice by always buying the same brand.

10 comments:

Ludovic said...

I remember Visoka L showing her students broccoli for the first time ...
... I also remember my own personal meltdowns when confronted by consumer choice when back in the England ...

... and the Marks and Sparks prepared Indian Feast that K once bought ...
Smazeny Syr (sp?) for ever

Do they still put obloha on the plate in restauraci?

Max said...

Hi Ludo.

Oops, then broccoli must have shown up a year earlier than I remembered.

It was even a big deal when K brought over clementines - she was the best visitor for spoiling us with food from the outside world.

Yes, they do still put obloha on your plate in Czech restaurants. Some menu items have not changed at all, but some traditional pubs have added their attempts at more international dishes to their menus.

Tits Malone said...

MM,

I also recall the toilet paper shortage in Vrbno pod Pradedem that lasted a few weeks just to add insult to injury.

That and being told that vegetables happen only in the summer - it was February at the time.

How much smazeny syr to you think you ate before you said "fuck it man bring me some chicken?" I remember when I caved in...and it was with you from what I remember....bad influence even then MM...hahahahaha

Max said...

For anyone that doesn't get the lingo, smažený sýr is fried cheese, usually served with tartar sauce - on a plate with chips/french fries or from a stand in a bun. I like to think of it as fat fried in fat served with an extra helping of fat.

Dammit, TM, I ate a hell of a lot of smažený sýr. I only touch the stuff about once or twice a year now. Last weekend (after the birthday party referred to in the post) at 3 a.m. while waiting for the night tram at Národní třida. I don't know what I was doing there because I always take taxis rather than night trams (except for that one time with Monkey).

I remember when you caved in, TM - you suddenly developed the weirdest passion for sausages - of the čabajka variety if I remember correctly. Straight from vegetarian to sausage queen - weird.

Tits Malone said...

MM,

You have made me laugh out loud! It's true, I became a sausage addict!

I am always up for a little sausage me...hahaha

Max said...

TM, you just sounded like one of the fat slags from Viz (no personal slight intended, as you know).

I knew someone (probably you) would twist the sausage thing - too easy.

I am leaving work in about 2 minutes to go and drink some beer. Beer is still widely available in the Czech Republic and is still stupidly cheap. You can now get many imported brands, such as MGD, Corona, Stella Artois and Heineken, but why would you bother?

Sausage, TM - all sorts of sausage - is also still widely available.

Anonymous A-Hole said...

I think MGD might be the cheesiest beer on the planet. They don't list cheese as an ingredient, but they might as well.

Max said...

Don't worry, Asshole, no one I know has ever bought an MGD here in the Promised Land of Beer.

Ludovic said...

V L got the broccoli from the embassy! So it doesn't really count

Max said...

Ludo, thanks, I had forgotten about that. Memory not quite as bad as I thought.

I should probably write about our amazing Thanksgiving dinner at some point.