Tuesday, March 8, 2011

My Delicate Childhood (Blue Trout and Black Truffles)

Joseph Wechsberg in Ostrava at 2 years old

        "The food in our home was distinguished only for its monotony.   The menu for the noon meal was planned for weeks ahead.  Every Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday we had consommé and boiled beef with vegetables (Monday: carrots; Tuesday: spinach; Wednesday: cabbage; Thursday: peas), followed by a dessert.  Friday we had fish and on Saturday a roast.

Hoop-Cheese Dumplings

Bohemian Dalken

        Today I know that the cooked Mehlspeisen of my delicate childhood are gastronomic delights.  I can think of nothing better than povidla-tascherln, hoop-cheese dumplings, Bohemian Dalken, Palatschinken (pancakes), Kaiserschmarren, Apfel im Schalfrock (“apples in dressing gown,” fried apple slices), Schusterbuben (“shoemaker’s boys”, a sort of potato noodles).  But at home I hated them.  I would have hated Sevluga caviar and Chateau Margaux 1899 if I’d had them five times a week.

Apfel im Schalfrock


        On Fridays we had fish and I was afraid of fish.  I’d almost choked to death on a carp bone, an episode known in our house as the-day-he-got-blue-in-his-face.  On Sundays the main dish was Wiener Schnitzel.  The religious split in town ran straight through the populace’s Sunday menu:  the Jews had Wiener Schnitzel, the Gentiles had roast pork with sauerkraut and dumplings. 

        It was customary to have five meals a day.   Breakfast was at half-past seven in the morning.  At ten-o’clock, children had their dejeuner a la fourchette, sandwiches, sausages, hard-boiled eggs, fruit.  Many men would go for half an hour to the beerhouse for a goulash or a dish of calf’s lungs and a glass of beer.  Between ten and ten-thirty little work was done in offices and shops; everyone was out eating. Two hours later, people were having lunch – at home, since eating lunch in a restaurant was unknown – and afterward they had a nap. Then to the coffeehouse for a demitasse and a game of whist or bridge, and back to the saltmines for an hour’s work.


        It was a strenuous life and around four-thirty in the afternoon most people were hungry again and had to have their Jause.  A genuine central-European Jause consists of several large cups of coffee, topped up with whipped cream, of bread and butter, Torte or Guglhupf (the bizarre Viennese variation of a pound cake shaped like a derby on which several people have been sitting), and assorted patisserie.  It is a feminine institution and my mother didn’t mind skipping lunch and dinner but she had to have her Jause.  She would often complain that she gained weight “practically from nothing”, but it couldn’t be the Jause, she said; you didn’t gain weight from the Jause.


Karlsbad Spa, 1910 postcard 

        What with appetizers and hors d’oeuvres and a sumptuous dinner, many people had to go to Karlsbad once a year to take the cure, lose fifteen pounds, and get in shape again for another year of arduous eating."

Text excerpted from Joseph Wechsberg, Blue Trout and Black Truffles. New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 1954

        Reader Note:  I have been aware of Joseph Wechsberg's memoir, Blue Trout and Black Truffles, and the affection that many people have for it, since I was very young.  The book was in my parents' library and my mother discussed it with me, but I had never read any part of it until recently.  It really is marvelous.

        The excerpt above, taken from the chapter My Delicate Childhood, appealed to me because it reminded me of things my friend Ulrich Pendl (who would have been one of the Gentiles living in the same area of German-speaking Czechoslovakia as Wechsberg, who was Jewish) has told me over the years about  aspects of his own childhood, particularly the happy times before the Second World War, which brought ruin, misery and permanent dislocation to so many.  The fond and detailed food memories -- the abundance, the richness, the elegance and the fantastic-sounding names of the various dishes -- inform the mind, delight the inward eye and lift the spirits.  (Readers' outward eyes will need to rely on enticing photographs like those illustrating this article, including the food and the "exotic" travel photos below, for their uplifting and delight.)

        Wechsberg's biography is fascinating and instructive also.  Schooled and qualified as a lawyer in Czechoslovakia, with solid and serious musical training (and eventually owning a Stradivarius violin and a Peccate bow),  Wechsberg came to the United States ahead of World War II  following extensive travels in Asia during the 1930s.   After fulfilling his ambition of securing a journalist's berth at the New Yorker magazine, where he wrote on a variety of subjects, he served with distinction in the United States Army and later on the U.S. War Crimes Commission and in OSS intelligence. In some ways, Wechsberg's life brings to (my) mind Casablanca (Paul Henried, Claude Rains, Humphrey Bogart and all), The Third Man and foggy and sunny Central Europe.

        Wechsberg also wrote The Murderers Among Us: The Simon Wiesenthal Memoirs, considered important for the early details it provided about how much of the Nazi political machine was preserved in Germany, and also through asylum overseas in Argentina, Chile, and Paraguay.

         Joseph Wechsberg's work and his life story fills corporate mouse lawyers like myself with admiration, a little jealousy and a lot of appreciation.  I suggest that you visit the excellent Joseph Wechsberg tribute website to gain a fuller picture of the man.

Masarykplatz, Ostrava, 1910 

Djibouti marketplace, 1930 

Washing an elephant, Colombo, Ceylon, May 1930 (click on photo to enlarge)

Der Bund, Shanghai, June 6, 1930

Oran, Easter Sunday, 1939 

"Theodore Kaghan (l.) and J.Wechsberg meet furtively in a dark corner of Arlberg-Orient Express before Wechsberg’s departure for Budapest and Bucharest where he was invited by Red Rumanian government. Content of conversation was not overheard. Presumably further strategy was being discussed. Kaghan has admitted to living for nine months with known Communist (male), in early thirties. Wechsberg admits to like Malosol caviar and boeuf Stroganoff, in early fifties. Picture was snapped by State Department’s “mystery” photographer. "

With Clark Gable

With Henri Soulé (middle) and Mr.O’Connor, manager of the Ritz Carlton, prior to a party given for the publication of Dining at the Pavillon in 1962


  1. Beautiful! A fitting rebuke to Wechsberg's fellow Austro-Hungarian Wittgenstein, who said, "I don't care what I eat so long as it's the same thing every day". Makes me think of Stefan Zweig's "The World of Yesterday", and Ludwig Bemelmans.

  2. This was sort of aimed at you and yours. I thought you would like it. It makes me think of Bemelmans also and the parts of Zweig I've read. It summons up various German "comfort-sounding" words and reminds me of what people could and did achieve before television robbed them of the motivation. Luncheon completed, it's back to the saltmines. Curtis