I stood on the uneven cobblestones of a Prague sidewalk, looked at the shut face of an ornately carved wooden door and began to cry. The vegetable market was closed. The market where, on my way to a lecture two days prior, I’d spied the first heads of fresh green lettuce I’d seen in the weeks since I’d arrived in the city. I’d resolved to return, to find my way back to that lettuce at a time when refrigeration was nearer to hand. But now—closed. I hurried back to the tram stop, wiping at my face, hoping bystanders would think my eyes were watering from squinting into the sunlight. A middle-aged man stared kindly in my direction. I glanced away, wondering how I’d ever explain in my few words of Czech that I was crying because the lettuce market was closed.
I love lettuce, I do. I’m infatuated with the endless varieties, their different colors, flavors, textures. I eat a meal of fresh salad every day when it’s in season. But of course I wasn’t crying over my lack of lettuce. No, though I’m ashamed to admit it, in this vast city whose history and culture I have barely begun to understand, I’m homesick. I miss sunrise over the oak in the eastern fencerow, the trickle of the spring in the woods behind my house, the fireflies rising out of the evening fields, the cool dark earth in my hands. The word “ungrounded” has come to life for me in a new way. Away from the ground I live on, live from, the earth that has become a part of my body as I have eaten plants grown from its soil for so many years, I hardly feel like myself.
I’ve been surprised at how much of this journey has been about food, how I’ve both sought out “traditional” Czech foods as a way of connecting to the new culture in which I find myself and felt a deep craving for more familiar foods as a means of self-comfort and connection to home. Musing upon the many roles food plays in my life, I came across an unusual cookbook in an English-language bookstore: “In Memory’s Kitchen: A Legacy from the Women of Terezin.” Terezin, a city not far from Prague, was transformed by Hitler in 1941 into the concentration camp Theresienstadt. According to the book’s foreword, 144,000 Jews were transported to Theresienstadt; 19,000 remained alive there at the war’s end. Many were moved to other camps like Auschwitz. Of those that remained in Theresienstadt, many died of malnutrition-related illnesses or starvation. The originator of this cookbook, Mina Pachter, was among them. Before her death, she carefully copied down her recipes and asked a friend to smuggle them out to her daughter, who had escaped to Palestine.
The image of Mina Pachter starving as she wrote down recipes she knew she would never again make in the vague hope that they would somehow reach her daughter haunts me. Of the many sights, sounds, and ideas I’ll bring home from this journey, this is one of the primary. I’ll return with a new appreciation for my food culture, a new awareness of the role food plays in my emotional life, and a resolution to think of Mina and savor each bite.