Cover Story Special Plant Life On Fitness Northwest Living Taste Now & Then


A Czech Bounces Back
No distance seems too far to find food from Bohemia

At The Little Prague Bakery and Deli, Maria Makovicka serves her sassy poppyseed strudel on traditional Czech china.
I HAVE A recurrent dream in which I walk for miles in search of the Czech food of my grandmother, of my childhood. Christmas dinners of roast duck, dumplings with gravy, sauerkraut, creamy Bohemian Pilsners and the inevitable Vanocka, a sweet Czech Christmas bread. Forever thwarted, I wake up feeling an aching emptiness.

I left my native Chicago 20 years ago, trading the good, solid, central-European peasant food of my boyhood for Seattle's salmon and Pacific Asian delights. An exchange that shines less bright as my memory grows more sentimental with age.

Many catalysts drive us to journey great distances, and food is perhaps the least acknowledged. Yet I think more expeditions have been launched, miles covered and discoveries made in quest of something good to eat than for politics, love or glory. Need proof? We remember Marco Polo for bringing back spaghetti but not much else.

Witness the odyssey of a loaf of that Czech Christmas bread called Vanocka (say "Vanoshka").

True and trusted friends make a pilgrimage through an old Chicago neighborhood to Vesecky's Bakery. For more than 70 years Vesecky's has been providing culinary cultural treasures to that once predominately Bohemian-Czech immigrant neighborhood. Baked goods with names that sound like ancient mystical incantations: Kolac. Houska. Rohlik.

From this ancestral homeland, bags of steaming fresh breads and pastries are transported to the hinterlands of my retired parents' home in Wisconsin.

Paul Schmid and his father, Allan, exult over their hoard of kolacky, rye bread and Vanocka on Paul's last pilgrimage to Vesecky's Bakery in 1994.
Plans are made, tickets bought and a single golden loaf of Vanocka is carefully packed by my mother in a suitcase, readied for its final journey to Seattle.

At the airport I greet my parents with raised eyebrows and a simple query.

"Well?" I say.

"Yes. And some nice Bohemian Rye."

Good 'ol Mom.

It's a wonderful thing to grow up in a family with such a deep ethnic weirdness as to drag a loaf of bread 2,000 miles. Or maybe it's just being Bohemian. They're nuts about food, especially bakery stuff, and for good reason: Bohemian baked goods make cloying American donuts blush with shame. Want a sophisticated pastry fit for an adult? Try a poppyseed strudel. You'll meet the black, spicy density of poppyseed within a famously light, flaky crust. Brightened with a touch of cinnamon, the delicate yet sassy flavors mingle to perfection.

If good bakery is an example of human artistry then Vanocka must be its champion. A beautifully braided, buttery loaf; golden raisins scattered within, slivered almonds crusted on top. Slice it thick; a little butter, and belief in the greatness of mankind is restored. But alas, when the last crumb is greedily devoured, what am I to do 'til my family's next visit?

On a recent business trip to Chicago I unapologetically abandoned my colleagues to their hotel food and dove into my old haunts. Sausages called and I answered. I reveled in potato dumplings, swooned over sauerbraten. Once back in Seattle the yearning dreams returned with a fury, and Seattle seemed more a gastronomic Mars then ever.

Then a small note appeared in a West Seattle newspaper; no winged escort for this news:

"Marie Makovicka has opened a bakery and deli specializing in goods from her native Bohemia in the Czech Republic."

Right in my neighborhood! In no time at all I was pulling up to the front of a small storefront — made even smaller by sharing space with, of all things, the Waikiki Luau catering company. Peeking shyly through the steamy window is a sign for the "Little Prague European Bakery and Deli." I enter to the warm smell of my grandmother's house. Roast pork, Bohemian-style sauerkraut (slow cooked and sprinkled with caraway seeds). For a moment I imagine I'm again being cruelly vexed in my dreams when, from the back room, dusting flour from her hands, emerges my savior.

Bohemian bakery

Marie Makovicka's Little Prague European Bakery and Deli is at 6045 California Ave. S.W. in West Seattle (206-935-7237). Look for an awning for the Stuffed Shirt Catering Co. Hours are Monday-Friday, 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Saturday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Sunday, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Home-cooked lunches and dinners need 24 hours' advance notice. Makovicka's lunch and dinner menu is extensive, but only two or three of the selections are available at any one time, so it's best to call ahead to reserve a meal.

We talk of the finer things: prune kolach, apple strudel, bread dumplings. I ask about Vanocka. She laughs delightfully. No, she doesn't have any yet but will be taking orders in a few weeks.

I gasp at her menu: In addition to the baked goods are staunch Czech dinners such as Svickova (pronounced Sweechkova, marinated beef pan-roasted and served with sour cream gravy) and mouth-watering accessories like sauerkraut soup, homemade pickles and Czech potato salad.

For 17 years Makovicka has lived in Seattle, but she opened up the bakery and deli only 10 months ago after being persuaded by friends who marveled at the delicious treats she brought to the bank where she worked. Now she has almost more business than she can handle, fueled in part by Seattle-area Czechs who spread the good news in a flurry of e-mail. Now grateful patrons are finding their way to this tiny haven from all over the area.

Makovicka shakes her head in wonder at the distances people have trekked for her simple Czech cooking. I think of my traveling loaf of Vanocka and smile.

Paul Schmid is a Seattle Times news artist. Barry Wong is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff photographer.

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