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A Woman Of Valor
Gingerbread, food steganography, and loss
[Note: I posted a different version of this nearly four years ago on Medium, and have edited it to capture my love of my “Czech Mama” Karla, who passed away earlier today. This is the best I can do to reflect the remarkable woman she was]
Here is a long pre-amble involving food, what my grandmother would have called a “vorspeise” in Yiddish that made it sound more like “forsch beiss” — to “bite briskly” but I think either phrasing fits.
I have an undue fondness for gingerbread, strange only in cultural hindsight, perfectly sensible when seen through the gravitational and time compaction of six decades of food memories. Gingerbread is not a food of my parents’ house, or my Jewish upbringing, or even events of my childhood. It is more journey than origin or destination, and it turns out, possibly runs deeper than I had expected. Food memories are waypoints in our personal history, amplified by the textures and religious overtones of our Jewish holidays. Potato latkes and jelly donuts for Hanukah bookended with matzah for Passover assure nothing, including ancient texts, can be digested easily.
My path to gingerbread starts, I believe, with cinnamon raisin bagels and wends its way to iced Archway molasses and lemon cookies, typically powering some university project or study break that was more olfactory than educational. Two major and regular side trips along the way — my Aunt May’s chocolate cake frosted with love and the petit fours from winter vacations at Host Farms — left me with happy, joyful memories of sugar icing defeating the cold of winter frost.
Gingerbread, then, is an odd destination. It’s not quite culturally forbidden, but it’s up there with eating Chinese food on paper plates in a kosher home. Discovery of Trader Joe’s gingerbread cookies and mixes fueled this strange obsession. Like summer Phish tours and guitar collecting, it’s a peccadillo accepted by my wife as a harmless affectation even if it does lead to caloric entrapment.
Ever interested in my genealogy, I’ve wondered what chromosomal combination made me a Jewish Gingerbread Man. The secret was revealed, perhaps, in multiple trips to Prague. Czechia is the global nexus for gingerbread; the national cookie confection is a cinnamon, pepper and honey that is to Starbucks gingerbread what Zabar’s bagels are to Einstein frozen bread disks. Czech gingerbread is some seriously good stuff.
My personal affiliation for Prague runs deep due to my grandfather’s proclivity for slivovitz (plum brandy). I’m not sure it’s consumed by anyone without some Czech lineage, and that minor fact coupled with a great uncle’s mid-century business connections in Czechoslovakia (he “sourced” Messerschmidt airplane parts for the fledgling Israeli Air Force) were sufficient evidence for me to lay claim to a Czech birthright, if not genetic then at least cultural inheritance.
On nearly every trip to Prague between 2013-2019 I sampled the best of Czech gingerbread - using Google maps to navigate the 10th century streets to a shop that was only open a few non-touristy hours a day, to the supermarket to buy the Little Debbie’s equivalent individually wrapped treats that I snuck back to the hotel like loose cigarettes. Of course, during the winter holiday season, each pop-up market boasts some hyper-regional variations on pernicky that had to be sampled, sorted and shared.
The cookies above were just a small sample of what my long-time friend and co-worker Inka’s mom Karla made. Karla baked me gingerbread on every trip, having it delivered my hotel with the fervor of a Swiftie looking for an autograph. Karla reminded me so much of my Aunt May: the keeper of traditions, the one who could solve any problem with sweetness of all kinds.
Inka is never shy about reminding me of our shared Jewish heritage — Karla was born Jewish and then forced her identity under costume through the aftermath of WWII and the Communist regime in Czechoslovakia. As Karla frequently said, she survived WWII, the Communists, the Russians, and a near-fatal car accident. Post accident, she baked from her wheelchair, often directing as much as mixing, but always the strong songs of love. My Aunt May would sing, in some semblance of keys and rhythm, but a necessary chorus to the clanging of bowls and mixers and cooling racks.
A woman of valor, in every way.
Karla and May were each just one generation removed from the Jewish Pale of Settlement — my family took their food and slivovitz preferences and went east into modern Ukraine, Karla’s family stayed and put a sweet coating on their change in affiliations. She was an exemplar of how the Jewish people have survived and passed on their traditions through the steganography of food. We broadcast signals from our personal history and family secrets, hidden in the plain sight of sauces, roasting techniques and icing. If my grandfather traced his Central European heritage through plum brandy, am I wrong to find my own path rooted in gingerbread? Whatever my connection to these cookies, nature or nurture, I always felt at home a quarter of a world away.
Karla’s cookies were a melange of cutting, baking, assembly with fruit jam and decoration. They were a labor of love that mashed Willy Wonka and a Swiss watchmaker to produce cookies that were are almost — almost — too beautiful to eat. The hand-decorated trees had icing garlands and candy ornamentation; angels spread their granulated sugar wings; the snowmen shine with smiles and buttons.
You can taste the love.
I am reminded that we are related, by our love of cookies and our paths to sharing them. Our parallel family histories are intertwined, helping each other seek joy in a season of much more open, if not currently cautious, religious rejoicing. The retold stories echoed through Karla’s kitchen craft, harmony to her singing in the kitchen, a chorus to my Aunt May’s arias with mixer and spatula, a song of love.
May Karla’s memory be a blessing, for so many who loved her.