Now that ancestry.com has confirmed my predominantly Slovak heritage, I feel comfortable claiming that my DNA is culturally predisposed to a carb-heavy diet—specifically generous helpings of halušky, fistfuls of Fánky and copious numbers of kolache and knedlicky.
My body may need vitamins, minerals, and nutrients to stay healthy, but my ancient brain perpetually craves the carbs from halušky, made from potato dough and similar to gnocchi. My mother, like hers before her, rough cuts the dough into boiling water, each one like a snowflake in its singularly unique size and shape. Knedlicky, also made from potato dough, is shaped into a dumpling with an Italian plum rolled up inside, boiled, then rolled in melted butter, sugar and bread crumbs.
Slovakia's national treasure, though, is kolache—a sweet, yeasted bread that can be dotted with a variety of fillings; my family always used Lekvar (prune jelly) and to this day I always have a jar of it in my pantry. Fanky is a rare treat that I haven't experienced in decades. Made of fried dough and powdered with plenty of sugar, it used to inspire a mob mentality in our family— babkas and cousins rushing the dessert plate in the church fellowship hall, while I tried to strategically weave my small self between them to retrieve one—an early lesson in supply and demand.
Fortunately, in my grandmother's kitchen, I always had VIP seats—front stage access to small flour clouds, bowls of sugar and always, a Slovak folk song or two. I had, from an early age, a deep interest in my grandmother's past, growing up in Slovakia, a country other than my own. I wanted to learn the language, know the stories, hear the lilt of my grandmother's voice singing a folk song about a shoe cobbler— which in her language sounded like poetry.
Though my grandmother passed, I continue to hear her voice in the kitchen, still accented after six decades of living in America, directing me to scoot up onto the stool and sit beside her while she rolled dough, or spooned filling into the kolache, or handed me the first finished pastry of the batch, warning me to wait until it cooled before I took a bite.
To this day, my body has a Pavlovian reaction to the warm, toasty aroma of yeasted dough baking in the oven, an instant return to sunny afternoons in the breakfast nook, seated around my grandparents' 40's era enamel cottage table, biting into a warm-from-the-oven kolache while my mother and grandmother and aunt gossiped and laughed and reminisced about an earlier life and the tavern they once owned next door (now The Sergeantsville Inn) where regulars included the big band leader, Paul Whiteman, "The King of Jazz."
The stories that resonated with me most, however, were about the apple strudels my great grandmother used to make and the way that kitchen used to look and smell and feel to my mother and aunt as children. This many carbs later, the power and pull of these shared kitchen memories inform the passion and love I feel in every roll of the dough and every sprinkle of the powdered sugar shaker.