A Story from Slovakia: Cultural Meanings of Hot Buchtičky.
by Dickie Wallace, Instructor, Department of Anthropology,
Smith College, Northampton, Massachusetts, U.S.A.
Slovakia was still part of Czecho-Slovakia then. Independence was still a little more than a year away; it would happen on January 1, 1993. As an American living in Bratislava, the Slovak capital, I was finding that many Westerners seemed to think of “slovakia” as a suffix to the word “Czech”. I often was explaining that Slovakia was more than an afterthought to the Czech nation and that Slovaks were not just the Czechs’ country cousins, not just a bunch of quaint, barely literate villagers. Instead, they were a modern people who, as it would turn out, would create an independent nation-state sooner than almost anyone had expected.
Along with some other jobs, I was teaching English-as-a-Second Language. I’d gotten rather good at it because I was able to use my increasing knowledge of Slovak to explain the idiosyncrasies of English and was able pick and choose what ESL classes I wanted to teach.
Teaching doctors twice a week at Šmidkeho Hospital was perhaps an odd choice for a part-time job, but I had my reasons. I enjoyed teaching well-educated people embarrassed by their poor English skills because we would form an empathetic relationship and I’d get help in learning Slovak. Also, I was having knee problems and I thought it’d be useful to know some doctors at one of Slovakia’s best hospitals.
So there I was, sitting at the conference room table on the hospital’s 6th floor with a mix of English-speaking levels. My “ulterior motive” for taking the job was working out – I was making friends with the doctors – but I felt like I wasn’t teaching them much. The better speakers were dominating class and those with less English-language ability were feeling left out, so I was forcing some lesson plans on everyone in order that relative beginners could come away with a theme with which they could work.
On this day, it was regular and irregular superlatives. And, for more advanced students, I was reviewing the present perfect, past perfect, and such. We were discussing what people recently had had for lunch or were still having.
“Táňa, what have you had for lunch today?”, I asked of the radiologist on my left.
She answered in an almost apologetic voice, “Oh, I have been busy today. I have had only an apple, some bread and a piece of cold cheese”.
Martin, a gregarious surgeon, piped in, “Only that? You are too busy alone at your desk, Táňa!”
Táňa laughed, “Oh, yes, I had a cold carrot, too”.
Everyone sympathized with poor Táňa because she’d had a fast lunch on the run.
I turned to a usually quiet oncologist next, “Dušan, have you had lunch today?”
“Yes”, he replied, “I have ate dukátové buchtičky today”.
Before I could help Dušan with his verbs, others at the table were saying, “Mnamm… s vanilkovým krémom…” Others had been down in the canteen for buchtičky as well. Martin began explaining buchtičky to me: “Dickie, buchtičky are a special Slovak dish, steamed hot dumplings with vanilla crème on them…”
As it happened, I’d had buchtičky a number of times before. At workers’ canteens where I had sometimes lunched, I had tried to find viable vegetarian options instead of the fatty pork offerings favored by most Slovaks and had been served buchtičky as a vegetarian meal. A plate of buchtičky seemed less like an individual entrée and more like a family-size dessert. Despite being unable to eat more than a fourth of typical portion, I particularly liked a kind called parené buchty s makom: hot jam-filled dumplings covered in sugary poppyseed paste… …mnammmmm, indeed…
Bringing it back to English verb tenses, we discussed what we’d had, were having, or would have for lunch. Then I tried to introduce my superlatives lesson for the sake of students like Dušan.
“Whose lunch do you think was tastier?”, I asked of Táňa, “Your bread, apple, and cheese? Or Dušan’s buchtičky?”
“Oh, the buchtičky, were the tastiest!”, she replied.
“But Dušan hadn’t a cold carrot!”, Martin sarcastically added.
Then, hoping that Dušan was following, I asked him: “Dušan, what lunch was healthier? Your lunch or Táňa’s lunch?”
Dušan answered with good English: “My lunch was healthier”.
I hesitated a moment – Dušan had made this simple construction fine, but had he said that buchtičky were healthier? Maybe this oncologist didn’t know the English word, “healthy”?
I asked again, “Good, but what lunch was healthier? What was healthy? What was zdravý?”
Dušan looked disappointed, repeating, “My lunch was healthier”. He’d thought he’d spoken well and I was now throwing in some Slovak in order to clarify my questions as I asked him to repeat himself.
The ubiquitous Martin chimed in, then Táňa, then everyone else at the table, “Yes, Dušan’s buchtičky were the healthiest.”
Everyone looked at me quizzically.
I reciprocated the look: “You all say that Dušan’s buchtičky were healthiest? Táňa had bread, an apple, and cheese. And a carrot. And Dušan had dumplings covered in sugary vanilla crème? Ktoré boli zdravši?”
Everyone looked at me strangely – where was this disconnect? What was the argument? I suddenly was underconfident in my Slovak. “Zdrav? It means health? Zdravši? Alebo zdrávšie? Healthier? Healthiest?”
“Yes, Dickie, buchtičky are healthier.”
“Whaaa…? Apples and carrots have vitamins… and cheese has protein…”
“Yes, but buchtičky are hot,” said Táňa, “and my lunch was cold because I didn’t have time to get something hot!”
“But, buchtičky are just dough and sugar!”
“But, they are hot!”
“What’s that got to do with it?” I was a bit exasperated. Were they just winding me up for the fun of it? I pressed on, “What has being hot have to do with buchtičky being healthier than the vitamins of a cold apple, carrot and cheese?”
Silence for a moment. Then Táňa volunteered, rather awkwardly, “Aaaaaa….. yes, an apple, carrot and cheese have vitamins and that is healthier even if they are cold, not hot.”
Someone else agreed, then someone else. The irrepressible Martin contributed: “Yes, why are sugary dumplings healthier only because they are hot?”
A slow realization was coming over me. At some of my previous jobs, I had often been scolded for not going down to the canteen and getting a proper lunch… maybe this was why the motherly types at my first job in Bratislava had tssk-tssked my hurried cold lunches at my desk?
I asked: “OK, who says that hot sugary buchtičky are healthier than an apple, a carrot, and some bread and cheese, however cold?”
Everyone seemed to have big sheepish grins on their faces. Again, no one said anything for a moment. Then, Dušan, for the first time volunteering to speak in English without me calling on him first, slowly said:
“I know who says! Slovak grandmother… in the willage… tells that hot buchtičky is healthier!”
And, the table broke up with laughter.
I have told this story for years and I was always feeling a little uncomfortable about it – as I wrote before, I never wanted to paint Slovaks as rural bumpkins and this story is about doctors at one Slovakia’s leading hospitals with what I present as a folkish, or almost a “primitive” perception of nutrition.
However, the story also illustrates the ethnocentrisms I carried with me as I was taking my ideas about food to another culture. Was I being arrogant as I narrowly pushed my assumptions about nutrition without consideration for the local context, for traditional fare within the modern paradigm of “my all-knowingness”? While I will, to this day, generally hold to my contention that an apple, a carrot, and some bread and cheese are a more nutritious lunch than buchtičky, I have had to reflect on the meaning of hot buchtičky. I look back at how I won the doctors’ concession that day and I have to question my victory. I won the argument, but was it solely based on a kind of “vitamin math” idea of health? Was I bullying past other less apparent characteristics of “health” that day?
Perhaps, buchtičky, as “a special Slovak dish”, has a “symbolic health” for Slovak people, or a more embracing, a more ecological consideration of health. And, “hot food” perhaps indicates a hearth and home, my American upbringing tends to ignore as componential to health. “Slovak grandmother in the willage” may convey a kind of comfort, a “psychological health”, a healthiness that Táňa was losing by not going down to the canteen, not eating something prepared and eaten communally… …just grabbing an apple, some bread, not taking the time…
And, the tssk-tssked lunch I had had at my desk so many times – was I just a Westerner with my hurried manners, from a place where time was money, and where food was a mere health equation of vitamin-counting and calorie-crunching? Where was the culture, where was the social well-being in my equation of health? I’m not about to jump on a buchtičky or “all hot foods” diet plan any time soon, but I do find myself reconsidering what “healthy” might really mean in different contexts and different cultures.