Off the Cuff
This Little Piglet Went to Prague
by Jessica Shepherd
One of the best ways to get to know another culture and country is through its past, its history…and its food. Jupiter is the planet of travel, and Jupiter’s exaltation in Cancer illuminates the fact that any trip is made better for exploring both. Food and adventure fit together like fork to spoon so comfortably, that it is here where my journey to Prague begins.
My husband and I are traveling by train from Vienna to Prague for a quick weekend rendezvous. At this point in time, I call myself vegetarian. For any vegetarian traveling nationally or internationally guided only by hunger and an unfamiliar lay of the land the usual unimaginative veggie fare of iceberg lettuce salads, pasta, cheese and cheese and pasta (did I mention cheese and pasta?) presents problems. Since I’m one of those vegetarians who actually choose leafy greens and variety over sticky gut goo I’m posed with the following dilemma: go native or starve? The latter leads one to a less flavored experience of the country, while the former poses a certain encounter with meat. Unfortunately, the guidebook offers little solace for my gastronomic quandary stating: ‘For vegetables, a traditional Czech meal consists of salad, or dumplings.’ Dumplings aren’t vegetables. This could be a problem.
In an advance effort to tackle certain food dilemmas, we did a little online research at happycow.com to discover while there are always some veggie restaurants in every city on earth the creative veggie restaurant is a rare restaurant indeed. When we wind up with another reservation for what could be an iceberg lettuce and nachos dining experience, I get to thinking: I’ll have no idea what a Czech dining experience is, unless I have one. I’m sensing that my impression of Prague hinges on authentic eating. Gastronomically emboldened in a way that only travel can, I boldly declare, I’m ready for a taste of place.
At the mere mention, my husband abandons vegetarianism altogether (which he does quite easily), adventuresome streak thoroughly stoked. Food is an adventure, and one made more exciting when it’s something completely and radically different from what he’s ever done before.
He’s in luck. The hotel clerk refers us to the ultimate authentic Czech dining experience – a traditional restaurant that guaranteed to offer a real taste of place. As we bundle up, and hurry down cobblestone streets in the blustery November wind, huddled together, the ominous Prague vibration foreboding and mystery is enhanced by towering gothic spirals, and the fluttering of birds’ wings, just out of sight. Arriving at the restaurant, we open the ancient looking doors and walk up the staircase, speciously noting the unusual choice of wallpaper. Hmmm. Little piggies with wings, little piggies playing harps. Like choirs of angels, beatific little piglets are serenading our way into the restaurant.
“What’s going on with all the piggie angels?” I ask my husband.
“I don’t think they’re angels. I think they’re in piggie heaven now.”
The restaurant, every table filled with well-to-do travelers and locals, has a warm, hearth-like quality to it. It’s the spit-fire, casting a romantic light and heat about. When the waiter arrives, we inquire into the house specialty, as we’ve been known to do, When in Rome…
He replies, “Roast suckling pig. It’s a favorite.”
No. Yes. We did. We ordered the pig.
While settling into that decision, images of piggie angels swirl like sugar plums dancing in my head. When my swinger vegetarian counterpart says, “I just realized we ordered a young baby pig…” my regret begins. Then, as a scientific mind will do, he breaks down why they call it young suckling pig in thorough & informative bites. I’ll spare you the factual details.
Needless to say, I am becoming unnerved. My hunger is replaced by this balling up feeling in the pit of my stomach. My thoughts immediately travel back in time to our first trip to Vienna in 2007. I wanted a taste of place then, too. And I got it, with a veal schnitzel the size of a dinner plate. Oh, how I wanted to eat it, tried to eat it, but about four bites in, the restaurant went blurry (I think I went into shock). I stumbled back to the hotel in a daze, recalling a long ago Anatomy & Physiology lesson with new regard: the nerve center really does reside in the stomach. It took this déjà vu moment to re-experience the following epiphany, a year long in coming. While I had uneasily digested this meat-eating adventure long ago but I had yet to digest the experience.
Meanwhile, John is having his own second thoughts. From where he sits, the “hearth fire” casting a romantic glow on his rosy cheeks, he views piggies twirling on spit-roast. I glance over my shoulder warily. The pigs are no longer dancing; it looks like those little angels are in the flames of hell. We break bread, and share our mutual crisis of conscience. Had we, by crossing international borders, crossed the fine line between embracing a new culture and betraying a personal truth? And how true was it to begin with – really? Sure, I had intuitively known that at some point my taste of place travel credo would no longer hold water to the fact that I’ve become a vegetarian, with everything that brings. I just didn’t know the little piglet from Prague would play the role of teacher.
I am a student at this. At the time of this writing, I am only two years a vegetarian. During the meat eating years of my life, which are almost all of them, I insisted that some people (me) need to eat meat for good health, for adequate protein. I still think this way – despite currently eating (mostly) vegetarian. Still, I’m no vegetarian vigilante; if asked, I will staunchly defend your right to eat meat. Sometimes a girl’s gotta eat what a girl’s gotta eat. However, today brings new awareness to light. A new vegetarian awareness has been creeping in slowly, but growing clearer by the moment: I now strongly dislike the idea of eating animal – especially when I’m the one doing the eating.
This pig woke me up. I could no longer divide my values into this or that: eat a piece of bacon one day and groan at horror at eating a suckling pig the next. It was all the same. At least for today. And if I really thought I could handle being a meat eater I had to run with the big dogs, err, big pigs. I had to be willing to go all the way. And I wasn’t.
By the time the pig arrived, in solidarity, we had both decided this would be our last meal of meat. At least while in Europe.
Digging in, with newfound awareness of my limits, I dryly choked down a few pieces keeping my gastric attention focused on the fresh potato chips. When the waiter collected our plates and inquired into our meal, we responded with a somber look and just stared at one another. This unexpected dining experience had shocked us into a vegetable state.
Then, like a funeral procession or a symbolic act commemorating our shock and resolve, two waiters walked by, one on either end of a huge silver platter which carried a spit roasted pig the size of a small child. They disappeared into a private party room, a celebratory party squealing with laughter, only to return a few minutes later with bed of lettuce – absent one pig.
Another piggy has arrived in piggy heaven.
© 2008 by Jessica Shepherd.