Day 102: Slovakia
Well everybody, it looks like the day has finally come. After 102 consecutive days of eating a different country’s food, I’m out of options. I could do one more drive down to San Diego, try my hand up in San Francisco, or of course, go to New York— but those all, at this point, seem just a bit unreasonable. So barring some unforeseen developments, this is in all likelihood the final true meal of Man Bites World. Considering there was a point where I was concerned that we wouldn’t even make it to Thanksgiving, I’ve got to say I’m pretty happy about how it all turned out. If this is indeed the final meal, I’ll be putting out a postmortem in the coming days, in which I’ll try to sum up my thoughts, give some rankings, list some favorites and even hand out a few awards. But for right now, it’s time to focus on where the heck I found Slovakian food.
Peter Simon, a native of what is now Slovakia, escaped in 1984, when he was just 19 years old, then went on to get married, have a child, see something on the news about a weird guy eating Czech food, go to the guy’s website, e-mail him and then finally, invite him over for a true Slovakian dinner. Originally, Samoa was supposed to be the last day, but after some things went wrong and some options fell through— thankfully, things changed, and we can now close things out with a home cooked meal in Santa Monica. Peter’s wife, unfortunately, has to work and can’t make it tonight, but he and his lovely 6-year-old daughter Gloria have welcomed GirlfriendBites, Mr. Meatball and me into their home. Peter begins things by offering up shots of Slovakian schlivovitz (plum brandy), which comes in at a whopping 52% alcohol. He serves us some homemade rolls and sliced radish with a dish called bryndza— a sheep’s milk feta mixed with paprika and caraway. The sheep feta gives it a much more robust flavor and really offers that true European feel you don’t find in cheese spreads at your ordinary dinner parties. “The real stuff doesn’t have all the preservatives though and is much fresher. It has a consistency like cottage cheese. But this is the best we can do in the U.S.” Gloria hides for a few minutes from the new guests, but after getting comfortable, crawls under the table and tries to slide playing cards into our shoes. I hope that means she thinks we’re okay.
Next, Peter gives us some roasted chestnuts. “This is a typical street food in Slovakia.” Between the chestnuts and the schlivovitz, I’m feeling really warm and toasty inside (sitting by the fireplace also helps). Then Peter brings out the traditional Slovakian Christmas soup. Chicken stock, sauerkraut, dried mushrooms, pork sausage and some other pork meat fill the gorgeous pot, as he removes the meat (to be served on the side). While the soup cools, I munch on the tasty, fatty soup meat, popping a few chestnuts in my mouth and bracing myself for the Slovakian beer that looks like it’s about to join the party. We each lift a mug of beer, say “na zdorovia”, then knock back a big gulp. I start in on the soothing soup, which has my current favorite flavor combination in the world of savory and tart (with a little umami thrown in there for good measure). Gloria gleefully shakes her head “no” at the prospect of the soup, then performs some spin moves in front of the television as Peter says “You want pasta with cheese, right?” Gloria laughs, then smiles and nods. “At least there’s something she likes to eat,” Peter adds with a dry smile.
“I’d like to open a restaurant some day. I think that would be fun,” says Peter, while boiling the small homemade gnocchi. “Like I said before, the feta here is not the right consistency, so I add a little bit of this kefir [a yogurt beverage] to get it a little closer. It won’t be perfect, but it’s much better than without it.” After sitting out the last course (she doesn’t eat pork) GFB is eager to have these tiny homemade potato dumplings, which have been tossed with the delightfully tart (there’s that combination again!) feta sauce. “Should I add some fried bacon pieces as well?” Mr. Meatball and I laugh, wondering if there was any need to ask. I spoon the little fried bacon chunks, as well as some of their fatty juices, onto my plate of dumplings and suddenly, after taking a bite, I’ve fallen in love. “Some people don’t eat pork,” says Peter, just before Mr. Meatball adds “They should.” GFB gives me a shrug and half smile, as we have a silent conversation that basically amounts to:
Me: Pork is delicious.
GFB: Are we married?
GFB: Then I’m not eating pork, am I?
GFB: So we can drop it then.
Everyone at the table, including Gloria, scarfs down the immensely tasty gnocchi dish. Peter then offers us his final can of a very special Slovakian beer which can’t be purchased anywhere in the U.S. “This is my favorite beer. You guys like beer, so I want you to try it. If you were wine people, I wouldn’t bother. So, on my most recent trip to Slovakia, I bought a whole case of this stuff. This is the last can.” We urge him not to waste such a special product on us, but he insists and hands it to me— so I crack the can and pour it into three equal glasses (GFB is being the responsible driver tonight and Gloria, again, is only 6). The beer, which translates to “thirsty monk”, is wonderfully clean and crisp, leaving almost no aftertaste whatsoever. Peter goes on to serve us a very sweet poppy seed cake, then brings out a basket of Slovakian candies and gives one to each of us.
“Thank you so much for coming,” says Peter, “you’ve really made my day.” If there’s been a more backwards comment ever uttered, I haven’t heard it. Here is a man that I have never met before, who invited me into his home and cooked me a delicious and traditional working-class meal from a country whose cuisine I otherwise would not have been able to find in Los Angeles. But not only that, he also hosted what wound up being the perfect finale for what has been a truly amazing and humbling journey. So thanks to Peter, his wife who could not attend, to Gloria, and everybody else who has been so helpful to me along the way. People say stuff like “I couldn’t have done it without you” all the time— but I honestly and quite literally could not have. It really did take everybody for it to get to this point. So thanks very, very much to all of you— and please check back in the coming days for more info on what’s happening next. But for now, I’ll leave you with a video of the final liquor shot of the final meal of the final day. Cheers everybody.
*Food Breakdown:( Plum brandy, beer, 2 appetizers, 1 soup, 1 entrée
Distance From My House: 8.3 miles