Central Europe


There are few things that make opening your most prized bottle of beer more inevitable than carrying forty pounds of cat food/litter nearly a mile–after a long day of data entry.  So, after quickly catching my breath, taking off my coat, and putting some chickpeas in the pressure cooker, I reached deep into my refrigerator to unearth my bottle of New Glarus Bohemian Lager.

Yes, in a fridge that contains a bottle of the Dogfish Head 120-minute IPA and a Founders Breakfast Stout, I chose a Bohemian Lager.  Not a oak-aged imperial barleywine, or a weiss beer brewed with grains of paradise, saffron and dry-hopped with amarillo hops, or even a 2002 vintage of some high-gravity Belgian nonsense that you can’t even buy in the states; instead, I was saving a single bottle of a simple, Czech style lager, brewed in the traditional style of the Pilsner Urquell brewery in Pilsen, Czech Republic.

Granted, this beer is part of New Glarus’ coveted “Unplugged” series of beers, which, according to the label, is “a very limited edition and we make no promises to ever brew this style again.”  So, considering my love for Czech pilsners, New Glarus beer, and the fact that this beer would most likely only be brewed once, I delayed the inevitable for months before finally succumbing this evening.

As for the beer itself, the brisk (but not effervescent) carbonation, the billowy head of foam (great retention, by the way), and the nose provided all you’d ever expect from this style.  The beer itself is not as crystal clear as most Czech lagers, but this may have been a result of the beer having been lagered in unlined oak casks (a rarity in modern brewing, even in Central Europe).  I do mot mean to be dramatic or overly hyperbolic, but as for the taste, it instantly reminded me of this scene:

More specifically, the malt character was excellent: very bready and light (think baguette, not pumpernickel).  It tasted, actually, like barley, which was refreshing and familiar.  As Czech lagers go, its closer to the more roundly balanced, almost amber-colored Budvar (aka Czechvar in the U.S., tragically) than the classic, sharp Urquell.  The difference is subtle, but impressive, and this beer nailed it.  The piney and peppery Saaz hops are there, but they’re neither screaming, nor cowering; they are, in fact, announcing themselves courteously.  Unlike the vast majority of American craft-brewers–who often can’t resist to cascade-ify their versions, making them too hoppy, like a lagered pale ale–Dan Carey, New Glarus’ brewmaster, has created a beer that is understated to a fault. Vyborne!

As I’ve written previously, brewing a traditional czech pilsner in the United States is a risky endeavor.  The extreme beer types will be unimpressed by the lack of innovation, and the newly converted former bud light drinkers will have difficulties teasing out the complex subtleties of a beer like this.  Strangely, it’s a style without an audience.  In 1915, this beer would have flown off the shelves, but in a time after prohibition and the resulting abundance of mass-produced “pilsners”, the style has been, more than any other, left behind.  That is why I’m savoring this beer so much, as the odds of it making a repeat appearance anytime soon are slim.

Where (some of) the magic happens.  The brewery, despite large demand, only distributes in the state of Wisconsin.  As their bottle-caps proclaim: Drink Indigenous!

Where (some of) the magic happens. The brewery, despite large demand, only distributes in the state of Wisconsin. As their bottle-caps proclaim: "Drink Indigenous!"

As the beer itself is already long-gone, and difficult to come by, I’m not going to even bother grading it in my quest to find the best U.S. brewed pilsner.  Pislners are inherently available, easy drinking beers.  The kind you drink when you’re more interested in your conversation than getting drunk.  So, the NG Bohemian Lager, a beer that’s both expensive and hard to come by will have to be excluded on a technicality.  While I seriously doubt that I’ll find a better tasting pilsner or one that tugs so strongly at my memories, it fails in the proletarian sense.  Whichever pilsner is crowned champion, it will have to be one that (in the region where it’s brewed and distributed) it’s always around, and at decent price.

Sorry, Dan and Deb.  Let’s all hope the fine people of Wisconsin start demanding this beer again, and you can get it into your regular rotation.  Na Zdravi!

My last few food posts have been more anecdote than recipe, so for this post my goal is to keep the story short and sweet, and get to the food as soon as I can.

This story begins with my grandfather Leo, who despite being born in the United States, grew up speaking German in a small area of east central Wisconsin called “The Holyland”.  Dotted with minuscule farming communities all centered around (and named after) Catholic churches, this area persisted as an autonomous German-speaking region well into the twentieth century. My grandfather was from Johnsburg; my mother was born in Marytown, a mere seven miles away.  Other towns included Mt. Calvary, Jericho, and St. Cloud.

St. Marys Church in Marytown Wisconsin.  My mother and her siblings grew up down the hill. (Photo source: Wikipedia)

St. Mary's Church in Marytown, Wisconsin. My mother and her siblings grew up down the hill. (Photo source: Wikipedia)

When I was a kid he spoke English exclusively, but frequently mixed German words, phrases, and idioms into his speech.  A hangover was a “katzenjammer” (pronounced kah-tzen-ya-mer), and from a very young age he called me “Hannes-wurst” which means, literally, “John-sausage”.

The Holyland was for a long time a very insulated German Catholic community.  As a result, the people there created their own slightly modified version of the language over time.  And my Grandfather was third or fourth generation, so his German was anything but “hoch”, that is to say “high”, proper German.  So when we’d go to visit Leo and my grandmother, we’d eat “shtumpus”: a mix of left-over sausage (usually bratwurst), sauerkraut, and mashed potatoes.  It was delicious, but for years afterward I always assumed that “shtumpus” was Holyland-German for “leftovers” or “mash” or some such thing–something delicious, but decidedly humble.

However, as I found out while reading Sanford D’Amato’s column in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel last week, I learned that shtumpus has noble origins.  D’Amato is unquestionably Milwaukee’s finest and widely respected chef and a James Beard Award winner, so when he writes about shtumpus (or as he calls it, “stoemp” or “hutspot”), I feel that my grandfather’s cooking has been exculpated.

However, D’Amato’s version lacks many of the elements of the shtumpus that I was raised on, so last night I thought I’d create my own version: keeping in mind D’Amato’s technique, my grandfather’s love of “speck” (Holyland-German for “fat”), and my own love of root vegetables.  What follows is the delicious result of this effort. This shtumpus may be used as a side dish, or topped with any variety of meats; D’Amato recommends short-ribs, and I used eggplant, pepper and olive ravioli (from the Italian grocery off First Avenue at 11th Street) with toasted pine nuts.

Also, if you’re looking to make this vegetarian,you can just make up for the bacon by adding more butter.  Though there’s so little bacon in this dish, I’d recommend cheating and having a little meat!

The Ingredients:

A 2-3 pound mix of root vegetables, cubed.  Less than half potatoes! (For mine, I used three medium sizes red potatoes, a large parsnip, two medium large turnips, and half of a celery root.)

1/2 pound bacon, diced

One medium onion, diced

1/4 to 1/2 head of cabbage (depending on size), chopped

Milk (no less than whole), a generous splash.

1 to 2 Tablespoons of Butter

Fresh Dill

Salt and Pepper, of course.

The Method:

Start by peeling the root vegetables and chopping them into similarly sized cubes.  Place in a pot, cover with water, add salt,bring to a boil, and simmer until the vegetables are completely done.  Drain into a colander and immediately add back to the pot.  The heat of the pot will help to evaporate the remaining water.  Save about a 1/4 cup of the root vegetable water to steam the cabbage.

While the vegetables are coming up to a boil, dice the bacon, and add to a medium hot skillet with a little butter.  Brown the bacon (not too crispy) and transfer with a slotted spoon to a plate covered with paper towel to drain most of the fat.  Pour out (and reserve) almost all of the bacon fat, but save back a few tablespoons.

Add the onion and saute for a couple minutes in the bacon fat before adding the cabbage, the 1/4 cup root-veg-water, pepper, salt, and a large pinch of minced fresh dill.  Toss in the skillet to combine and cover: to let the cabbage steam (it’ll cook a lot faster this way). Once the cabbage is nearly done, remove the lid to let almost all of the liquid cook off and remove from heat.

Add 1 tablespoon of butter to the root vegetables, along with a generous splash of milk, and a bit of the reserved bacon fat (what the hell, right?).  Mash to desired consistency; I prefer a chunky mash, myself.  Add the cabbage onion mixture, the bacon, and a generous amount of fresh dill to the pot, and stir to combine.

Whether Flemmish or German, Alsatian  or Belgian, this dish is delicious!  Next time you’re going to make mashed potatoes, make this instead!

Karel ČapekIn a 1925 essay titled Let’s Be Revolutionary (Bud’me revolucni in Czech), Karel Čapek wrote:

The word “evolution” seems, if I may say so, to imply very long periods of time, and amounts to procrastination. It may be true that a man must evolve from a child or an executive from a clerk, but this is only because the process takes so long. When a man wakes up in his bed in the morning, we don’t say that he has evolved from a state of sleep to a state of wakefulness; its a sudden change, and if you’re hard to wake up, even a violent upheaval. A hungry man doesn’t become a satiated man through a slow evolutionary process but as the result of a revolutionary act: eating his fill in a hurry. Sleep is not an evolutionary stage of wakefulness; going to sleep is almost like a jump into darkness. A young man who has fallen in love hasn’t evolved through countless leisurely changes from an imperfect creature into a perfect fool; rather, he goes through a sudden precipitous revolution which rocks his very being with passion…A thought doesn’t usually evolve slowly; it jumps at you like a spry flea. From morning to night, life is more a series of small revolutions than a smooth evolution.

But what modern physics is doing to us is even worse. It turns out that all activity in matter is just a lot of small revolutions. Some electron suddenly hops like a crazy man into another orbit; all material processes are supposed to internal, so to speak, communal revolutions in atoms. Everything that happens takes the form of a constant jumping back and forth from one state to another. Matter has neither gentle continuity nor smooth transitions, but only jumps; its really quite terrifying. The ink from my pen dries by means of violent and precipitous events taking place in its black interior. A hundred thousand atoms carry out a homemade revolt so that one letter can dry. The ink itself, however, dries and blackens slowly; I would say that it evolves.

And precisely here we see the strange and profound thing about nature: electrons may prance about, but an inkwell isn’t going to prance about a desk. The atom is terribly revolutionary, but the mass is basically peaceful. The last individual atom undergoes a violent transformation, but matter changes slowly. Human life during a day is a series of revolutions; during a year it is a small piece of evolution. But if we have to change the world, let’s at least be revolutionary like atoms; let’s each of us take a step forward by himself. The world won’t take a step forward; the world is broad and peaceful, like matter. We need millions of individuals to accomplish revolutions in themselves, so that people as a whole can evolve. We need every individual to do what he can do best; then mankind will change a bit too, at its endless leisure, of course. The natural order of things dictates not one revolution, but making a million revolutions. This is the only morality flowing from the revolutionary order of nature.

This quote is by no means a manifesto, a raison d’etre (pretentious phrase or pretentious beer) for this blog. It is more of an example of the type of passage I like: laced with awkward historical phrases, full of contentious concepts, rife with inconsistencies, yet containing a few glistening shards of truth. That said, this passage has been one of my favorites for a few years now, primarily for its fundamental argument–that no act is too small to be significant, that every act has the potential to be, in a sense, revolutionary, and that millions of revolutions on multiple geographic scales (atomic, self, neighbor, street, block, neighborhood, city, state, etc.) are necessary to achieve real change. Change comes from neither the “top, down” or from the “bottom, up.” It comes from all directions simultaneously.

That’s what I’ve been thinking, and I think that its about time that I started writing some of these things down…