1950s Archive

Vursty and Knedliky

The Sausages and Dumplings of Prague

Originally Published January 1953

Historically, there has been bitter antagonism for centuries between Vienna and Prague, but gastronomically the two cities have complemented each other well. Vienna was the citadel of boiled beef and strudel. Prague was the stronghold of roast pork and dumplings.

French gastronomes often look down their noses at fresh pork, which is considered a dish of the cuisine bourgeoise, something you eat only at the family table. No French de luxe restaurant of reputation puts pork dishes on its menu. But, in Prague the good restaurants—and the best of them were very good—featured a dazzling variety of pork dishes: carré of pork, pork shoulder, pork tongue, pig's snout, pig's feet, pig's ears, pork chops—breaded, grilled, fried, à la charcutière, with sauce piquante, sauté with caraway seeds, with paprika, with mustard sauce—pork goulash, pork ribs, pork schnitzel, and so on.

Pork was the common denominator of all classes of the populace. The poor people ate cheap cuts of pork, and rich ate whole suckling pig, but everybody loved pork. Some of my friends would eat pork twice a day, for lunch and dinner, hot or cold, and between meals they would fortify themselves with hot pork sausages at their favorite uzenarna.

A Prague uzenarna—the word can be translated only inadequately as “smoked-sausage shop”—was a unique gastronomic institution. Some of them were combined with a butcher shop; sausages, hams, and smoked meats were sold in the front room, fresh meat in the back mum. But the best sausage shops would not demean themselves by selling fresh pork, to say nothing of beef or veal.

In the happier prewar days, when food and drink were far more important to the Prazak, the native of Prague, than the platform of one of the seventeen political parties which he'd voted for in the last election, the social standing of a man was often determined by the sausage shop which he patronized and the kind of hot sausage which he ate there. A sausage eater never switched allegiance. There were two main varieties of hot sausage: the lean ones, either short or long, called parky, which looked somewhat like frankfurters and wieners, and always came in pairs; and the fat, short ones, called either vursty, klobasy, or taliany, which were sold in strings like pearls. Taliany, “Italians,” were white and very fat, larded with pieces of bacon and garlic; klobasy were somewhat bigger, fatter, and thick skinned; and vursty were juicy and less fattish, the feminine species of the hot-sausage family, and mostly eaten by men. Women preferred parky.

The most popular hot sausages of all were vursty and bursty, after the German word Wurst. They were two and three-fourths inches long and were eaten with the skin. To leave the thin skin of a vursty on the plate was like putting fresh water into vintage wine. The quality of the vursty was tested by pricking it. If the vursty was fresh and properly made, the juice would spout into the eater's face. Vursty eaters recognized one another by the fat stains on their ties and lapels. They wore them proudly, like campaign ribbons.

The making of vursty was perhaps the most closely guarded secret of Czechoslovakia's prewar economy. Vursty addicts would discuss for hours whether the products of Chmel or Zemka or another large sausage producer were better than those of the small makers or of the neighborhood sausage artists. The question was never settled.

All hot sausages were eaten in the sausage shop, where they were kept steaming all day long in special containers. The customer announced at the counter what he wanted, and a salesgirl, wearing a nurse's white coat, would fetch the parky or vursty with a big wooden fork out of the steaming pot and place them on a hot plate. Raw or cooked sauerkraut, potato salad, Russian, French, or Welsh salad were served with it. but orthodox sausage eaters had nothing but mustard or horseradish with vursty and bread or rolls. Along the wall across the counter ran a long, breast-high marble counter for hurried customers who ate while standing, and a back room with small tables accommodated guests who preferred to sit down. The sausage shops were white-tiled and had stone floors. They were cool even in summertime, and their red-cheeked salesgirls even wore sweaters under their white coats.

The sausage shops opened at eight in the morning, and the first customers came in almost immediately. They were the ones whose breakfast consisted of vursty instead of coffee. By ten thirty most places were crowded with people who pretended to be in a hurry but always had time to stop in for a couple of vursty. A second rush hour started around noon, when many people stepped in for a couple of fat vursty as New Yorkers step into a bar for a couple of dry Martinis. Both seem to have the same relaxing and invigorating effect after a few hours of hard work. Other people came into the sausage shops after lunch and had a couple of hot sausages instead of cheese or dessert, and many came in later in the afternoon. Around dinnertime the shops were crowded again. Many families dined there. Young men would take their dates for hot sausages before they went to the movies.

Sausages were also sold uncooked and cold, but few people took them home. At home they never tasted as good as they did in the shop: Perhaps it was the steaming containers, or their freshness, or just plain imagination. In the early days of our marriage, long before my wife became an accomplished lady chef de cuisine, at dinnertime she would often send our maid-of-all-work downstairs for hot vursty. There was a sausage shop on the premises, right next to the entrance door of our house. There was one in almost every block. There was a rumor that owners of buildings housing a sausage shop often charged higher rentals because of the convenience. It was convenient, all right. Our servant would dash down and shortly thereafter would return with half a dozen steaming, delicious vursty. They were good, but not quite as delicious as if we had gone down ourselves and eaten in the shop.

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