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Culture Shock: One visit, five kilos

WITH an Italian grandmother on one side of the family and a Jewish grandmother on the other, I am no stranger to being told to eat. Jewish and Italian mothers and grandmothers have earned a well-deserved place in history as some of the world's worst nudges, pushing food consumption well past the alleviation of hunger, and making the overstuffed guest feel guilty for refusing that third slice of cake.
How can I break it to them, gently of course, that they have lost their title? Sorry Grandma; you've got nothing on the Slovaks!


YOU must eat!
photo: Ján Svrček

WITH an Italian grandmother on one side of the family and a Jewish grandmother on the other, I am no stranger to being told to eat. Jewish and Italian mothers and grandmothers have earned a well-deserved place in history as some of the world's worst nudges, pushing food consumption well past the alleviation of hunger, and making the overstuffed guest feel guilty for refusing that third slice of cake.

How can I break it to them, gently of course, that they have lost their title? Sorry Grandma; you've got nothing on the Slovaks!

I discovered the true caloric depth of Slovak hospitality during a recent visit with friends in Eastern Slovakia. In less time than it took for me to remove my shoes, a heaping plate of walnut koláč (cake) appeared from out of nowhere. A firm believer in 'dessert first', I pleased my hosts by digging right in. This would prove to be a mistake; I had forgotten the golden rule of being a guest in Slovakia: Pace yourself, there will be more.

Pacing is essential during any visit to a Slovak household. No matter how moist the bread, not matter how delicate the pastry, one must never, under any circumstances, overindulge during the first stage of a visit. The reasons for the rule are twofold: First, once a Slovak hostess has seen her guest devour one type of food, the same enthusiasm will be expected for everything else that follows. Failure to exhibit such continuous enthusiasm will be interpreted as dissatisfaction. Second, it is always in the guests' better interests to lead the hostess to believe they are simply incapable of consuming large portions, so that they may be forgiven for any subsequent failure to perform at the dining table. Once your hosts know you can eat, they will expect you to eat, and in staggering proportions.

Being far from a novice in this system, I should have known better. Already slightly full from the several pieces of koláč I had consumed with great gusto, my hostesses began to assemble dinner. The babka's (grandma's) arms strained under the weight of my heavily laden plate; which towered with enough potatoes and rice to feed a half-starved day laborer and was topped with at least half a well-fed chicken.

As I approached the precarious mountain of food, I wondered how I would manage to get a forkful without disturbing the delicate balance that kept this mass of protein and starch from overflowing the overburdened plate.


SLOVAK hospitality usually involves mountains of food.
photo: Ján Svrček

"Výborné!" (Great!) I exclaimed after the first bite. I meant it; it really was great. I enjoyed every bite - all 1,637 of them - but somewhere around bite 1,638 I lost steam.

I pushed my still half-full plate away from me and began to apologize, explaining truthfully that while the meal had been delicious, I was stuffed full and could not eat another bite. Babka glanced at her daughter, then back at me, and gave me a look so guilt-inducing that it would put my Jewish grandmother - who is no stranger to guilt-inducing looks - to absolute shame.

"You didn't like it," they said in unison. "I should have made pirohy (savoury turnovers)," said the babka, referring to the delicious meal I had gorged myself on during my last visit. "I can make them now," she offered. "It will only take a minute. Raz, dva ('one, two' - quick as a flash)."

"No, please," I said weakly, all of my energy absorbed in the task of addressing the bomb that had just been dropped on my stomach. We debated the question for an hour, during which I was somehow coerced into swallowing a few more pieces of koláč, each of which was protested loudly by a full belly that, if it could have, would have hung up a sign in large letters reading: No Vacancy!

In the three more hours of the visit, I was offered the following: A full plate of ham, a full plate of cheese, the half plate of food I had not managed to get down earlier, more koláč (three kinds) and fruit. Having turned each of these down, babka shook her head sadly and said, "But you'll be hungry." Hungry? How could they possibly think I would be hungry? I wouldn't be able to eat for the next week!

As I left, the family, disappointed that I was leaving them so clearly underfed, loaded me up with enough nuts, apples and koláč to feed a large village for a month. I rolled my newly expanded girth out the door, promising to come again during my next visit to Slovakia. It should be a few months until then; I think I'd better start fasting now.

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