Gardens, Kitchens and Fasnacht Donuts

In their little bungalow on S. 15th Street in Emmaus, Pennsylvania, my great grandparents, Thomas and Anna Miklencic, created a fusion of the old world they left behind and the new world they greeted, and shaped, in the United States.

My mother doesn’t have any photos of Thomas, but I remember him even after all these years. I’m sure that I spent time with him in the winter months, but most of my memories of him are associated with the outdoors and with summertime. He had a farmette behind the house where he grew vegetables and fruit, and he would walk me through the gardens pointing out the different varieties and trying to get me to enjoy the gooseberries that grew on a vine and that I would spit out. I preferred the plums. I recently looked up their house on Zillow.com and noticed that someone had built a rather large barn directly behind the house. I don’t remember that being there when I was a child, and I hope it means that whoever lives there now has kept up Pappy’s agricultural interests.

When I was born in 1965, Thomas was 71 years old. “Pappy” was a large, powerful man, at least in my memory. When he was outdoors, he covered his bald head with a straw or wool hat and he dressed in a kind of old world formality that included baggy, black wool suits and starched white shirt sleeves. He wore thick-soled black shoes with white socks and a slight limp caused him to shuffle when he walked. He spoke with a thick Czech accent—“steak,” for instance, his favorite meal, was pronounced “stek.” Pappy smoked fat cigars—even in the house!—and if he wasn’t smoking, he was chewing the ends. The left side of his nose was scarred and indented, and I always imagined that he accidentally turned a lit cigar around the wrong way and burned part of his nose off. He had a kind of old world formality about him and a shyness that might have been a manifestation of never being fully comfortable with the language of his adopted country. He would yell at Memi and his kids—they bickered constantly and I think most of them were kind of afraid of him, but he was always kind and patient with me.

If he wasn’t outside tending his garden, Pappy, would be next door in the living room where he sat in a soft leather arm chair facing a small television set in the opposite corner of the room. Next to his chair, was a wooden drink cart with a glass-top where Pappy kept a glass of whiskey and an ashtray that Memi obsessively emptied. I still have that drink cart.

Anna—we called her Memi—was diminiutive and round. My mother was able to find this photo (circa 1950) of Memi, my mother, Cheryl (on the right) and her sister, Beverly:

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Memi’s English was not as good as Pappy’s which makes sense as her world was private and tribal while Thomas’ was public and open to wider possibilities. I don’t recall many conversations with her except when we would watch pro wrestling together and argue about whether it was real or not. She was adamant that it was real and got frustrated with me when I argued back that it was staged. I guess I Memi to thank for my life-long suspicion of artifice.

All of my memories of Memi exist in her kitchen on 15th Street. I’m sure she had a bedroom that she retired to in the evenings, but it seemed to me that Memi lived entirely in that tiny space where she whirled up old world recipes to the delight of anyone else who happened to be sharing that space with her.

The kitchen, in and of itself was a wonder, combining the tastes, sounds and smells of the old world with the mid-century American décor and mementos. It couldn’t have been more than 10×10, and it was free of accoutrements save a crucifix that hung on the wall next to a print of an oil portrait of John F. Kennedy, a calendar from St. Anne’s Catholic Church in Emmaus, and a 1960s style dinette set that included stainless steel chairs with red vinyl padding and a small table covered with a checked oil cloth tablecloth. There were times in that kitchen when four generations hovered about each other—Memi and my grandmother, Anna, hustling to and fro, my mother and her sister Beverly, sitting at the table and my sister and I darting about or sitting on our mom’s or aunt’s lap.

It’s a funny thing . . . my mother was always thoughtful and creative in the kitchen. She had loads of cook books and she saved recipes from many of the places that we traveled to when I was young. She would cook elaborate dinners—for holidays or just because–and she resurrected colonial and regional recipes she discovered—like Martha Washington’s peanut soup. Still, I can’t remember the kitchen at our house in Minor Street in Emmaus (where we lived when I knew Memi and Pappi) half as much as I remember Memi’s kitchen. Part of it might have been what Memi produced in that kitchen of hers–fasnacht donuts, for instance.

Fasnacht Day is the central European version of Fat Tuesday. On Fasnatch Day in Germany, Austria and Switzerland, people empty their cupboards of all the forbidden Lenten foodstuffs–sugar and jellies, mostly—add some flour and prepare, cook and fry what became known as Fasnacht donuts. Fasnacht is “fast night” in German, hence, the beginning of the Lenten, or fasting season.

It’s curious to me, though, how Memi, a Czech immigrant (who may have been born in Hungary) picked up this German and then, Pennsylvania Dutch tradition. Memi and Pappy were devout Catholics so perhaps Memi took on Fasnacht Day after she immigrated to eastern Pennsylvania in the early twentieth century? The Czechs and Germans were obviously not strangers to each other in Central Europe, but all signs point to a rural, and brief, time there for Memi (she left when she was 17). Was her mother of German or Austrian heritage and did she celebrate Fasnacht Day. Eastern Pennsylvania has deep Pennsylvania Dutch/German traditions (my mother married a Pennsylvania Dutchman herself), so maybe this was Memi’s way of acculturating to her new environment?

However that all worked out, the outcome of these traditions were these rich-tasting, crispy-on-the-outside/soft-on-the-inside cake-like donuts that were sprinkled with powdered sugar. I remember trotting into her kitchen on those bright spring days as Lent approached. The windows were flung open, the screen door was ajar, Memi bustled from one end of the kitchen to the next, and the place smelled like it had been baked, rolled in butter and topped off with powdered sugar.

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