Bohemian Fruit Dumplings

Suzanne Caithamer

© Copyright 2020 by Suzanne Caithamer

Photo by Kelly Neil on Unsplash
          Photo by Kelly Neil on Unsplash

I’ve always thought my mother-in-law was kind of a character, but I never realized how much until I started writing about her. I don’t get to see her much nowadays, as she lives so far away, but she has had a profound impact on my life in many ways.

The first time I met my future mother-in-law, she was standing at her old electric stove in her tiny suburban Chicago kitchen, making Bohemian fruit dumplings.

Imagine if you will, a hot baseball, dripping water, rolling around your Corningware plate like a giant wayward pinball. This is a fruit dumpling – a whole stone fruit, such as an Italian plum, or a peach, encased in dough and boiled like a bagel in a large stockpot of bubbling water. Then it’s all hands on deck to subdue this doughy orb using just a fork to hold it steady and a dull butter knife to cut it open. The brightly colored fruit-flesh emerges from its pasty robe; cut through the circumference to the pit, and pull apart the two halves. The fruit is hot, the dough a little chewy; al dente might be a good way to describe it. Some recipes I’ve seen since call for a yeast dough, or incorporate a soft cheese like a farmer’s cheese. All recipes have you pit the fruit before encasing in dough, but this step is skipped at my mother-in-law’s house.

Your toppings of choice include sour cream, powdered or cinnamon sugar, and/or pecans “sauteed in butter” (never margarine – she grew up in the great dairy state of Wisconsin, after all). I wanted to make a good first impression, but I had never seen nor heard of anything like this. I wondered just what I was getting myself into – not just with this indelicate delicacy, but in fact with this entire family. You can tell a lot about a son’s mother by what she feeds you upon your first meeting. A Bohemian fruit dumpling is a test. I wanted to pass.

My mother-in-law, Marjorie, or Marge as she is called, is Polish. The fruit dumplings, or ovocné knedliky, were a nod to her husband’s Czech heritage. Over the years I would be introduced to many Eastern European specialties, most of them hearty, starch-heavy dishes, such as šunkafleky (a noodle and smoked pork butt casserole – pork from the pig shoulder, not the other end, as I thought for years), kluski (a starchy noodle, usually served with meat and gravy), and pirogi, a filled dumpling, none of which I had ever eaten before. I’d never heard of these things, growing up in a homogeneously American small town in Indiana and with a health-conscious, vegetable-loving mother, where salad showed up every night and gravy was made once a year, to go with the Thanksgiving turkey. When I finally married their son (having passed the fruit dumpling test) our rehearsal dinner was a Polish buffet. Delicious, but terribly filling, and not exactly food you want to be eating when you need to fit yourself the next day into the nicest, most expensive dress you’ve ever worn, and not act like all you need is a long nap on the couch.

Over the years I had many meals at their old, Craftsman-style house on Garden Street; I began to learn that Eastern European food was a necessary cushion against the cold blows of a savage Chicago winter, like a lumbar support bolster in your favorite armchair that was uncomfortable without it. A light meal of salad or soup was not going to cut it, ever. My father-in-law, Bob, was a master of what he called the “Double-R B”, or Rip-Roaring Breakfast, which he had often made for my underweight husband-to-be before a tough day of classes at community college. The centerpiece was usually a giant, expertly-flipped omelet, filled with salty lunch meats and slices of cheddar. Other days, pancakes made with baking mix and water might grace the table – what I imagined eating a Styrofoam disc might be like – but the array of toppings offered more than made up for lack of flavor. The buttered pecans made an appearance again, plus aerosol whipped cream, thawed sweetened strawberries, powdered sugar, and of course pancake syrup. The sugar high, and lack of protein, ensured one was ready for another big meal in a couple of hours.

I was fascinated by Marge’s kitchen, which seemed to me to be impossibly tiny, especially for cranking out three meals a day for five people as she and Bob raised a family. The small space naturally lent itself to creative cooking and storage practices. Before her industrious husband fashioned an additional counter along one side of the room, the space she had to work in was literally about two feet long, a bland beige Formica rectangle between the sink and the stove. She had a walk-in pantry off to the side, like a short hallway, with a narrow wooden countertop on one side. Heavy drawers that took two hands to open were below, glass-fronted cupboards above. The volume of dishware, cooking utensils and accessories, washed-out jars, recycled plastic containers and hoards of foodstuffs she could fit in this area, some even piled on the floor, was astounding. However, much of it was expired by years. I once found a box of cereal that had expired seven years previously. The freezer was absolutely packed with glass jars and baggies, much unlabeled, so it was anyone’s guess what was inside or how old it was. If you brought in a pint of ice cream, you had best grab a spoon and eat the whole thing, whether you planned this or not, as there was no room for anything new to fit in the frost-coated depths. She could not throw things away. The same dusty boxes of tea and oatmeal kept their spots in the pantry for year after year, long after her children hit milestone anniversaries and began to welcome another generation into the family. I always thought she just didn’t notice, but once she admitted that she hung onto the past by hanging onto things. Even, I guess, stale cereal.

Marge also would hang on to what she deemed the countless injustices in the world, which would often prompt her to “get on her soapbox” and spout off to anyone who would listen, usually me if I was in the house. I was fascinated with her strong opinions about everything from crooked Chicago politicians (if Rod Blagojevich came up in conversation, she would literally spit on the ground before launching into an impassioned speech regarding his many shortcomings) to egregious grammatical errors: if a store flyer advertised a “Grand Re-Opening” she would practically shout “It should be a RE-Grand Opening!” while waving said flyer in the air, blue eyes sparking in indignation, short bob of a haircut swinging as she shook her head in disbelief. Her husband and son sat mute, having heard it all before. Whereas I, new to the family, represented an audience that might commiserate with her opinions with the proper coaching. Sitting at the big square farmhouse table in the kitchen, wide-eyed and appreciatively tucking into my Double-R B, I likely inadvertently egged her on.

Sometimes, those Rip-Roaring Breakfasts would include Danish Kringle, which soon became a favorite of mine. While obviously not Polish in origin, nor Czech, Marge made an exception for this delicious pastry made famous in her hometown of Racine, Wisconsin. One of Racine’s claims to fame was O&H Bakery, and every late fall Marge would drive the hour or so north to fill the back of her Chevy Cavalier wagon with a variety of flavors of this official pastry of the state, to give out as Christmas gifts to fortunate friends and neighbors. While the traditional kringle is an almond-filled pretzel shape danish, at O&H they are oval, 14 inches long, and filled with a variety of flavors, from cinnamon to raspberry to pecan. They feed a crowd, are buttery and rich, and fantastic at any time of day, always accompanied by a cup of strong coffee if you happen to be visiting the house on Garden Street. They are now sold at my local Trader Joe’s, one flavor at a time, and every time I see one I think of Marge.

My husband is bookended by two sisters, one two years older, one two years younger. The day I met them both was deemed special enough by Marge and Bob to warrant a trip to “The Riverside,” a favorite Czech restaurant near the southern Chicago suburb of Cicero, where Bob grew up. This cash-only, no-fresh-vegetable-in-sight family restaurant served big portions of hearty, gravy-covered meats, cabbage in several forms, dumplings (both the aforementioned fruit, under “specialties” on the menu, and also bread dumplings, which always looked to me like slices of pale sponge. I kept this to myself). All dinners included the option of soup or tomato juice, a choice I found perplexing. I can’t stand tomato juice, so I opted for the perpetual soup du jour of beef barley. One other soup was offered daily, and Thursdays and Sundays it was liver dumpling, which looked like a meatball in broth, but wasn’t.

After eating out, coffee and dessert would follow at home. No reason to pay good money at a restaurant for dessert when Marge could throw together a Baked Alaska at a moment’s notice – somewhere in that packed freezer must be a Sara Lee pound cake and a carton of ice cream, hopefully in the original packaging to assist a quick identification. I think my own mother made Baked Alaska precisely once, likely for some mid-century-modern dinner party event, and it must not have turned out perfectly for she never made it again. Marge, on the other hand, truly rolled with the punches. Her culinary motto, and in fact what could be considered her life slogan in general, was something along the lines of “it’s good enough”. Meringue burnt? Scrape it off, it’s good enough. Ice cream overly soft? Eat it anyway, it’s good enough. Cake had freezer burn? No one will notice, it’s good enough.

One year Marge sent all three of her children and their families boxes of Omaha steaks for Christmas. The ease of buying the same thing for everyone and having shipping taken care of by the company was a strong selling point for her, I’m sure. No matter that her youngest daughter was a vegan at the time. “It’s good enough,” I can see her saying to herself. That was Marge in a nutshell. Why knock yourself out?

Bob left us in 2002, his funeral procession and graveside service at Clarendon Hills Cemetery followed by a luncheon in his honor at The Riverside. He had worked four decades as a radio engineer, often traveling to radio towers in surrounding states for inspection. Marge chose an image of an oil tower to be etched into his headstone, the only option remotely resembling a radio tower. (Close enough. It’s good enough.)

Marge has since moved from her old Chicago area house, where she spent almost 40 years, to a Minnesota apartment to be closer to her older daughter. She doesn’t cook any more. She gets Meals-on-Wheels, which I can pretty much guarantee doesn’t offer dumplings of any kind, Czech or otherwise. I miss those hearty dinners, those Eastern European specialties, and that tiny kitchen with the big farmhouse table that held those delicious meals as we held hands around it. Those meals opened my eyes to a world of new foods, and opened my heart to a family I am proud to be a part of, soapboxes and all. It is more than good enough, and it always was.

Suzanne Caithamer received a B.A. in English and Journalism from Indiana University and a B.S. in Food and Nutrition from Purdue. She works in a school cafeteria, which leaves her plenty of time to pursue projects in nutrition and food writing. She has been published in Today’s Dietitian, local newspapers, and Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Forgiveness Fix.

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