If the breeze is just right, the aroma hits you just as you’re stepping off Dlouhá Street into Staroměstské náměstí, Prague’s Old Town Square. It’s a savory, intoxicating blend of a wood fire and slowly roasting meat.
The smell is reeling me in. And why not? This smell is built into the human’s sustenance DNA. Oh sure, you might be a militant vegan, but buried somewhere in your genes is the olfactory memory of juicy roast. It’s the original smell of cooking, the aroma that goes back nearly two million years before the abomination called tofurky, when man first married meat, fire, and smoke. And oh what a beautiful marriage it was. I would’ve volunteered to be the best man at that marriage; except that it was well before my time. Hell, I’d have volunteered to be the flower girl.
Scientists call it the Maillard reaction, a response that occurs when heat hits sugars and proteins. Maillard, schmaillard; scientists and doctors have an annoying habit of sucking the air out the balloon of life with their frigid, barren dialects.
This is meat over a fire and it’s the same siren that beckons from a ramshackle looking barbecue joint somewhere in the American south. A little old place with a small mountain of hickory logs stacked against a brick smokehouse. Every now and then a stooped old guy will toddle out to the stack, grab a log or two, and feed a fire that’s slow smoking racks of ribs; meat off the bone deliciousness that will be served up wrapped in butcher paper, and sold out by sometime before sundown. Maillard, my granny’s fanny.
But this is Prague. It’s not Memphis, or Kansas City or some roadhouse outside of bum fuck Mississippi. Why am I smelling barbecue here?
As we walk across the square, past the ebony statue of Jan Hus, who was himself barbecued at the stake in 1415 for having the effrontery to challenge the Catholic Church, and on towards Staroměstská radnice, the looming town hall, the aroma escalates with each step. Past the horse drawn tourist carriages we see a row of kiosks. Some are selling souvenirs, others are selling beer and still others are selling trdelník, the Czech street dessert.
Two of these kiosks have roaring wood fires off to the side, and over each fire are rows of huge hams in varying stages of doneness, rotating on a spit. The ham is called prazska sunka. These meat mongers also offer gigantic sausages, which are sizzling on flat top griddles.
The two are nearly identical except that one offers manhole cover sized potato pancakes as a side order and the other offers something that is more intriguing.
We walk to the second kiosk and stare in hungry wonder at a giant pan that you could bathe a couple of large dogs in. Bubbling in the pan is a street food called halusky, a mixture of potato dumplings, cabbage, spices and bacon. Bacon? Of course, bacon.
Cora and I exchange a glance. Oh hell, yes.
Each of the kiosks has a fair sized line but the one that offers halusky is the longer one. We opt for that one. I do love potato pancakes but that big pan of simmering dumplings and cabbage sprinkled with chunks of bacon can’t be resisted.
While the line is not a short one, the crew of four burly men is no nonsense and they’re keeping the operation moving. One is tending the fire and the hams, feeding the flames and slicing and plating the ham. A second is tending the flat top and the tub of halusky. A third is the freelancer, helping out where needed. The fourth guy is the counter man; the ramrod. He takes orders and if the customer is waffling, he gives orders – along the lines of figure it out or move out of the way.
From the moment we get in the queue I can tell that counter guy isn’t putting up with indecisive bullshit. People are hungry, there’s ham and halusky to dish out, and Czech crowns to be made.
While I’m standing in line I look at the menu board and see that the ham and halusky are sold by weight, starting at 100 grams. Fuck me. Being from the United States, I wouldn’t know if 100 grams represents a fork full of ham or half a pig.
Metrics are a mystery to me, because in the good old U.S. of A. we use what is called “customary units,” which can be as confounding as all hell, because the system (and I use the word system loosely) uses different units to measure each type of quantity.
I was still in school, elementary I believe, when there was a push for the United States to adopt the metric system – you know, like the rest of the world. But, Americans gotta be Americans and at some point someone probably asked the question, “Why in the fuck are we trying to adopt something that the French use?” (Because, you know, for some reason, it’s always the French). “We’re ‘Muricans goddamn it, and we’re not a-goin’ to be dictated to by the rest of the world, especially the French. We’re exceptional!!” Well, I’ll buy the latter point. We’re exceptionally stubborn.
So while the military and the sciences decided to go with the more logical metric system, the rest of us still have a chart posted on our refrigerators that tells us how many ounces in a cup; how many cups in a quart; quarts in a gallon; cups in a gallon; etc, etc. We need that chart because without it we can’t bake a simple pan of brownies.
That’s part of the reason that I’ve sometimes passed on buying cheese in a European public market, where cheese, and almost everything else, is sold by the kilo. I see ten euros per kilo, my mind thinks in pounds and that all translates to, a bit too steep. In reality that’s ten euros per 2.2 pounds which is a pretty decent deal if you’re talking about really, really good cheese.
I’m about to suggest to Cora that we might be better off just going to a restaurant where food is served by the serving and not by some mysterious unit of measure, when it dawns on me that I have a handy conversion tool in my pocket; my cell phone.
The line is rolling, but I have time. My calculator tells me that 100 grams is just under a quarter of a pound. Two hundred grams, just shy of half a pound; the perfectly sized steak. That seems just about right. Cora is fine with 100. We’re good to go.
We’re third in line, and damn that sausage looks good. Shiny and sizzling. Not unlike an expensive working girl in a high class bar, showing a little cleavage, the sausage has little rents in the casing, exposing a hint of the promise that awaits. On the other side is the ham. I’m close enough to hear the sizzle of fat and see the drippings feed the flames. Okay, ham it is.
I look up and we’re suddenly second in line. The guy in front of us is committing the mortal sin of equivocation and counter guy is losing his patience. The customer orders ham for himself and meat man goes to work slicing and weighing the chunks of ham and laying them on a paper plate.
“That is it?”
“No, uh, the same for my wife.”
Meat man goes to work and places ham in another paper plate.
“That is all for you?”
Each plate of ham gets topped with a chunk of dense brown bread. Brown bread. It’s what we usually get here in Prague.
The customer pays and then drives the final nail in his own coffin. “What about a drink?”
There’s just the slightest moment of silence, as if the entire square and everyone in it has gone silent and motionless, before counter guy looks at the customer in disgusted disbelief and says, “I asked you if that was all and you said yes.”
The customer shrivels away with his two plates of ham and an unquenched thirst.
Cora sees this and quickly tells me that she wants a Fanta Orange.
I step up to the counter, ready to go, “One ham of 100 grams, one of 200 grams, one order of halusky and one Fanta Orange.”
By the time I’ve produced bills from my wallet, meat guy has sliced and plated the orders and topped them with bread. Off to my right, halusky guy holds out a paper bowl filled with the steaming dumplings and cabbage.
“Three hundred grams,” he says. “Is good.”
“Good,” I answer.
Counter guy repeats my order back to me. “That is all for you?”
“The Fanta,” I remind him.
“Right. The Fanta. That is all for you?”
“Yep. We’re good.”
We walk away to find a place to eat. I didn’t piss off counter guy and I feel like I’ve just aced the SAT.
It’s been raining and the benches in the little park, off to the rear of the kiosks, where a puppeteer puts on a marionette show for kids, are all wet. We find a small stone wall to put our plates on and go to work on our food.
The ham is perfect, staining the paper plates with spots of fat. Meat man has kindly included chunks of lightly charred ham;, little jewels that in American barbecue would be called burnt ends, and are worth their weight in gold. I cut off slices of ham and bread and eat them like little bite sized open faced sandwiches.
The halusky is thick and rich and still steaming. It’s the hearty food that we’ve found to be so common in Prague and it’s perfect on a chilly Czech noontime. I’m certain that one can find something light and low calorie here. But why? Oh, yeah, I know. It’s meat and potatoes, and its evil, and bad for your heart, and too high in calories and will harden your arteries, and will likely make you vote for Donald Trump, and blah, blah, blah.
When I’m home I’ll go back to ordering grilled salmon and salad. Okay? “Oh, and by the way, can you put the dressing off to the side so that I can please my fun sucking cardiologist?”