Tag Archives: Bohemian

Czech New Years Herring

Informant: “When I was growing up, I remember every year my parents, my mother and father and I, we would always eat herring on New Years Eve. I remember it was supposed to bring good luck for the whole year. Specifically, you were supposed to get a can or jar of pickled herring, though it’s actually hard to find in the Northwest, though I still go out and buy some Herring, in fact this year, I happened to call my Aunt [M] who is also Czech, and we joked about how we had both gone out and made sure that we had our can of pickled herring for the New Year, and we laughed about the importance of, you know, getting our Herring.”

Collector: Was there any specific reason for the herring as opposed to any other sort of fish?

Informant: Well you know the Czech Republic, where this tradition originated from… actually I think it started in Bohemia, and then it became a Czech tradition… but both [of those countries] are landlocked and so fish tended to be hard to get because they had to transport it all the way from the sea coast. And herring was always a big deal, always a special thing because it was more expensive, and it showed how prosperous you were to be able to afford herring! And in order to keep the fish to stay fresh and task good after they transported it from the sea to inland, they would pickle it and preserve it. Actually, the other fish people ate a lot was carp, which is in the same family as goldfish, and wealthy people in the Czech republic would raise carp in ponds on their estate, so that was also a very special fish to eat because it was also a sign of wealth. Also, most [Czech people] were catholic, which meant that they had meatless Fridays, but you know they could still eat fish.

The informant is a 77 year old retired anthropologist living in Portland Oregon. Her grandparents immigrated to the United States from the Kingdom of Bohemia (in the modern day Czech Republic) in the 1890’s to escape the economic turmoil within the country in that time period. She was born and grew up in Chicago, Illinois, and studied anthropology at Stanford University, during which time she became interested in learning more about the traditions of her heritage. She has on several occasions traveled to the Czech republic to visit relatives there.

Collector Analysis: This particular tradition is but one of many New Years traditions around the world. In this case, the consumption of Herring, an expensive fish at the time, was supposed to bring one good luck for the following year. One idea which the informant brought up was that by eating expensive herring on new years eve, it would alter your luck to make you more prosperous so that you could eat herring more often!

Smorum (Bohemian Breakfast)

Smorum is a pancake like breakfast dish that my grandpa has cooked for me and my cousins since we can remember. It is a flour based, pancake like breakfast dish. It is his signature dish, and every time any of his grandkids are staying at his house, you can find him in the kitchen at 8am making smorum. I know of no one outside of my family that has ever heard of smorum. I remember in first grade we had to do a project on a family tradition and I did mine on smorum and couldn’t find the correct spelling anywhere because it was only passed down by the performance. It is unclear how to even pronounce or spell the word. My grandpa makes it so much that he doesn’t even use a recipe at all, he knows how much to put in of everything and makes it the same very time even though his measurements might not be exact. The context of this collection is the same as my entries about the world’s smallest church and James McCone except this collection took place in the kitchen as I watched my informant prepare the breakfast. The best way I can describe the process is that it was very casual. He cracked some eggs, tossed some flour loosely into measuring cups and poured it into his big mixing bowl and let it stir while he talked to me. He poured out the mix into a frying pan so it took up the entire pan. After a few minutes he flipped the smorum up in the air, caught it in the man and allowed it to cook the other side. He cuts it into little squares with his spatula, walks over to the kitchen table, and pours the steaming smorum into the big glass bowl sitting on the table. This performance is tradition in our family. Not only is how my grandfather cooks the meal important, but the set up of the table, and how the food is presented to us is tradition. The large white, glass bowl contains the fresh hot smorum, the little tea plates are set out to eat the smorum, and old plastic cups are used to drink either the grape or orange juice that is already set on the table as well. Smorum is always served with syrup, usually homemade by my grandmother.


Grandpa: “We always had shmudum for breakfast! Poor people’s breakfast. We never had cereal you know in our day. We just made shmudum.

Rebecca: What are the origins of shmudum?

Grandpa: Well in the Spillville cookbook it is spelled smorum, but that’s not how I pronounce it, so I don’t know.

Rebecca: How do you spell it?

Grandpa: S-m-o-r-u-m.

Rebecca: But that’s not how you spell it?

Grandpa: I would have spelled it shmudum. But I couldn’t find the recipe anywhere, I can’t find the spelling anywhere…So I don’t know.

Rebecca: So where did you learn to make it?

Grandpa: From the Spillville Church Cookbook

Rebecca: didn’t you learn it from your mother?

Grandpa: I never knew how my mother made it.

Rebecca: So your mother made it for you?

Grandpa: Yep. She made it for me every morning

Rebecca: what made you want to make it then?

Grandpa: because I tried to once at our house and the grandkids just loved it. And it was a whole lot cheaper than cereal. When we were in Jacksonville (FL) last month, Kenny made it one morning and it was very good. Just like I made it

Rebecca: I heard Kenny is good at it, but its hard to make it just like you. My dad burns it every time. Its not the same if you don’t make it

Rebecca: do you know where your mother learned to make it?

Grandpa: From her mother probably. I’m sure that was handed down for 10 generations or more.

Rebecca: From where? Is that Bohemian?

Grandpa: You know, I thought it was Bohemian but I’m not so sure if it wasn’t German. But I call it Bohemian. You know the Germans infiltrated Bohemia at that point on the border. About 1/3 of Bohemia was German. My dad was Bohemian and my mother was German. Well my mother was both, Bohemiam and German. So I never knew for sure where anything came from. But I always call it Bohemian. And whatever I call, wasn’t anybody going to dispute. (laughter). Because nobody has… support.

My informant learned this dish from his mother, and ate it growing up. It has developed into a huge tradition in my family, and we don’t go a family get together without having smorum in the morning, and my family gets together quite often. It also amazes me how smorum never gets old, no matter how many times I have had it. Smorum is also something that my father and my uncles have tried, but no one can quite make it like my grandfather does. He cooks it just the right amount without burning it, which is often what happened when my father tried to make it. The performance has been adapted since my great grandmother made smorum for my grandfather. My grandfather adapted his performance for the grandchildren. As a grandchild, smorum is very important to me and is an association I make with my grandfather. My grandfather performs it as a sentiment to his childhood, but also for his grandchildren. He continues on the legacy of what his mother made, but adapted it to be a treat for the grandchildren. Smorum started out as a cheap and easy breakfast on the farm, but now is a unique thing that my family all shares.