The Coq Au Vin of Destiny

The Coq Au Vin of Destiny

It takes just the smell of cheap red wine bubbling in a braise of chicken and bacon to transport me back nearly 30 years to 1991 and one of my most memorable meals.  I was done with college, and clutching the money awarded to me for my thesis paper (The Mildred S. Binyon Award for Excellence in the Humanities for the sake of detail) I decided to wander about Europe.  My wandering did not last all that long for I found myself in Prague — at the time the mythical land of cheap beer, cheaper cigarettes and rent-for-pennies. I decided to stay.

1991 was an interesting time for Prague. The Berlin Wall had fallen, the “Velvet Revolution” threw out the Communists. Havel was president.  Foreign investment from Europe and the US flooded the city, and whole blocks were restored with pristine paint-jobs and extensive sand-blasting. High-end restaurants, expensive French groceries and fast-food joints seemed to open on a daily basis.  These new facilities provided a stark contrast to the relics of the Communist economy that were still transitioning to private ownership: The state-run food shops were grim as a prison commissary with lines to match. They offered no competing brands (and the accompanying graphics of competition), just staple items: Bread (chleb in Czech), cabbage, rice, milk.  The state-run restaurants offered little joy as well.  Menus were terse (Meat with Brown sauce and dumpling.  Meat with White Sauce and dumpling. Stew with dumpling) and the wait-staff, completely dismissive of the concept of a service economy, often sat together at a table, chain-smoking and resentful of any intrusions (such as actually taking an order). The food, while dirt cheap, was sad and hostile, fish left an after-taste of kerosene, meat was gristly, the dumplings leaden. Vegetables were scarce.  Russian shoes, apparently made out of plastic scraps, old chewing gum, cardboard and saw-dust, lay piled up and dusty in vast empty state-run department stores.

The young Czech people I met were at a cross-roads, happy to be free of the oppressive Communist regime, but not so sure they had signed up for the excesses of Western Style free-market Capitalism.

As for me, I lived a life of total irresponsibility. I hung out with my Czech friends, DJed hip hop every now and again at small clubs; bartered English lessons for dinners and haircuts and just enjoyed the beauty and strangeness of the city itself — the way blocks would transform from  Medieval to gilded, Hapsburg-era opulence and end in decrepit housing blocs courtesy of Soviet Era Brutalism.  I discussed the politics of the Frankfurt School with a gorgeous Czech actress in the smokey confines of an old bunker that sat underneath the base of a long destroyed Stalin statue.  I took psychedelic mushrooms in a walled city long rumoured to be a center of 14th witchcraft. I joined the Roma Brotherhood in pitched street battles with Nazi Skinheads from the former East Germany.  I drank sparkly, sour “new wine” out of plastic Sprite bottles in a country bar plastered in pornography.  I imbibed endless beers in a balustraded basement where my companions shifted from young Americans deep in money-making fantasies to the most dead-eyed Russian gangsters, making fortunes from currency exchanges, telling me in earnest about their love for Yuri Gregarin.  15 year old Czech prostitutes popped out of alleyways as I walked home whispering “Business? Business?”  I spent a day and night in the country-side with a rowdy group of Czechs for a “Ram Party” which consisted of dismembering a ram, left skinned and bloody on the front lawn, cooking it over open coals, while drinking a never-diminishing supply of rum, red wine with Coca Cola and more of that delicious beer. My clothes saturated in ram fat, I watched Madonna’s Truth Or Dare in perhaps the most ornate, elegant movie theater I have ever been in.  All along, the ghosts, the blood, the unbearable violence of the escalating Yugoslav War trickled across the borders in the form of shell-shocked refugees and terrified reporters.

My great luck in  Prague was becoming roommates and best friends with a Dutch photographer who was doing a year of study in a local art school.  Annoyingly, because he was Dutch, he could become fluent in any language in about two weeks — the impenetrable consonants of the Czech language, which hurt my tongue, flowed freely from his intellect. He was in his early 30s at the time and the oldest friend I had up to that point.  It made me feel quite sophisticated to be friends with, to be worthy of interest to someone in their 30s.  He was smart, funny as all hell, curious, talented, very gay and always willing to at least try to have a good time.  We spent endless hours exploring the city, finding edible restaurants, drinking home-made Slivovitz and  making up stories about the lives of the Soviet-era Czech musicians and actors that we found postcard sets of in the older state-run stationary stores.

Around Christmas, he got a giant package from his family: dutch cheese, apples, chocolates, a bottle of Calvados and multiple images of the incredibly racist “Shwartza Pete.” I was feeling a bit lonely around the holidays with no family and living in a strange city.  It was also cold there in Prague.  The sun seemed to set with an inky finality as early at 3pm.  The black dust of burning coal would often plug my nose and I suffered from want of vegetables — I feared scurvy.  Given all of that, we decided to have a Christmas party of sorts.  My job was vegetables.  My Dutch friend was in charge of the main feast.  We would collaborate with the wine.  I spent the day (and much more money than I should have) waiting in lines at the French vegetable store to buy tomatoes and green beans, and waited in another endless black-market que for bananas and pomegranates. Finally I ended at the public market where I bought onions, garlic and a variety of root vegetables and cabbage. We met up at the wine store, located in the cellar of a particularly ancient block.  It was filled with barrels and the proprietor proclaimed the great virtues of the “Moravian vineyards” as we filled coke bottle after coke bottle with red wine, a lightly effervescent white wine called Borchuck and finally flooded some sort of huge, plastic jug encased in beads with a fragrant red wine that was secretly shipped in from the Soviet republic of Georgia.

My Dutch friend produced a freshly plucked, whole chicken.  It looked like a tough, old rooster.  He also managed to procure a huge slab of smokey bacon with a few bristly hairs intact,  a handful of fresh herbs and a paper bag full of recently foraged wild mushrooms.  In a huge and ancient pot that looked more like a chafing dish than a piece of cookware, he set about making a Coq Au Vin. Layers of bacon, onion, garlic, root veggies, mushrooms braised in red wine along with that athletic bird.  We drank the wines of Eastern Europe, praising the bountiful vineyards of lands that I had never heard of, we ate a crumbly aged gouda that had hints of butterscotch  off the rough Czech bread.  We made hard-boiled eggs with pickles and paprika and followed them with that fizzy borchuck as the chicken slowly bubbled away.  We tried to teach our Czech friends to dance like Dee Lite and discussed the original breaks sampled in De La Soul is Dead.  Our Czech friend Jana, smiled with teeth stained red, and told us of clandestine parties in her high school where they would listen to Punk Rock tapes smuggled in and endlessly duplicated.  Tapes, that if found, could possibly spell out a prison sentence. We toasted to the memory of that son of the city, Franz Kafka, to the Golem ensconced in the old Synogauge, to Good King Wenceslaus, the Patron Saint of Prague.  We heard stories of the secret police rounding up uncles; how the Nazis razed a whole town, killing every man, woman and child in reprisal for the assassination of Heydrich. We drank deeply in honor of the brass nose of that mystic astronomer Tycho Brahe.

Finally, the chicken had relented and those wound-up muscles bowed to the tenderizing power of the braise.  We heaped plates full of Coq Au vin, mashed potatoes, green beans, turnips and fresh sour cream.  The bird had an edge of gaminess, lathered in smokey bacon and richness of red wine.  We ate down to the very bones, swiping up the last bits of sauce with torn pieces of mealy bread. We made a desert of squares of Dutch chocolate, apples and pomegranate and toasted afresh with shots of calvados.  I thought of the crumbled gravestones that littered the old synagogue and of the dark absence of all those Jewish lives that once enlivened the city.  I looked around at my friends, gathered in the security of our little group, and could feel the precariousness of it all — Jew, Homosexual, humanist.  A whole group of people who the 20th century had ground into the dirt, had pulverized into thick blood that would stain the gutters for centuries to come.  And yet, here we were: bellies full of chicken and chocolate, eyes bleary from red wine, throats raw from cigarettes and laughter.  We were the survivors, perched atop the rubble of a bloody century — the echoes of the Great War still playing out just hours south of us.  In our broken English and scattered Czech, fingers still greasy from our old bird, ears filled with the scarred beats of New York hip hop, we could taste the new century perched there on the horizon; we could only hope it held as much promise as our friendship.

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