A Venezuelan Czech in Texas

When my 14-year-old was in preschool Montessori, he had a classmate whose grandmother's last name was Tugendhat. I knew it sounded familiar, but couldn't figure out where I'd heard it. Then on a playdate, Marcia asked about my Czech background. She, too, had a Czech background, and I realized where I'd heard the unusual last name.

Many people who've been to the city of Brno in southern Moravia in the Czech Republic have visited the Villa Tugendhat. It is considered a masterpiece of modern architecture, designed by the German architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and built between 1928-1930. The residence is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, reopened in 2012 after restoration. The fascinating story of the house can be read on the Villa Tugendhat website. Even though I've been to Brno three times, I've never visited the house.

The Villa Tugendhat. Brno, Moravia, Czech Republic.
It was built for Fritz and Grete Tugendhat, who were my friend Marcia's grandparents. As Jews, they fled Czechoslovakia for Venezuela in 1938 with their children, including Marcia's father (photo below, taken in Brno.) They eventually ended up in Sankt Gallen, Switzerland, though, which is where Marcia and her immediate family would visit them. In fact, the family was truly scattered by the War, with members ending up in Australia, Canada, Ecuador, Venezuela, Switzerland, Brazil, and the United States. Marcia grew up in Venezuela and came to Texas by way of college in Massachusetts, meeting her husband there, and then moving to Austin for his job.

Grete Tugendhat and her son
- the father of Austinite,
Marcia Tugendhat.
Marcia shared some memories and some recipes with me when I realized her family's background. She wrote "The recipes that I have of my grandmother's (Grete Tugendhat) are more Austrian than Czech, like marillenknodel (apricot dumplings). I haven't made the knodel, but when we were kids and visited our grandmother we had contests to see who could eat more of these incredibly rich delights. And then there is my grandmother's unbelievably awesome sacher torte recipe. I especially love this now that I don't eat any gluten. The cake is made with ground almonds."

"We ate schnitzel when I was a kid because it was a tradition from my father's family, but I don't think there is such a thing as a written recipe. I make it pretty much like Milanesa. In Venezuela we made it with thin pieces of beef (veal was too expensive) and pounded them thin and then breaded them with flour, egg wash and bread crumbs. Now I make it with thin pork. My family ate it with a squeeze of lemon. Here, it is eaten with ketchup or BBQ sauce. :) We also grew up eating a lot of things with a cream dill sauce... boiled potatoes or meat."

Palatschincken/palacinky made by me. 
Though the recipes seem Austrian by name, they have equivalents in Czech cooking. Sacher torte and schnitzel are easily found in Prague restaurants and cukrarna (bakeries/sweet shops) today. Marillenknodle (boiled apricot dumplings) were actually made by Texas-Czechs, too, and you can still find recipes for them (or prune dumplings) in some community cookbooks. The recipe below for palatschincken is basically the same as for palacinky (in Czech) and they are a favorite dessert in the Czech Republic as well, though I've never seen them or a recipe for them in Texas.

Marcia shared these lovely memories, too. "In the 1950s and 1960s traveling from Caracas to St. Gallen, Switzerland was a huge deal. We would go for weeks at a time; food and walks were the central organizing principles of the day. These delicious pancakes were endlessly interesting as they were filled with fruits such as apricot or plum (delicacies for children raised on tropical fruits) or better yet chocolate and schlag (whipped cream). "
Grete Tugendhat’s Palatschincken
(Passed on by Hanna Lambek to Marcia Tugendhat) 
Makes 6 pancakes 
2 eggs
1 cup milk
½ cup flour
pinch of salt 
Mix batter until the consistency of runny yogurt. Add butter to a pan over medium heat. Tip the pan to spread batter thinly in the heated pan. Flip when ready. Cook on the second side. Fill with preserves or fruit. Or simply sprinkle with sugar.

This recipe could not have been easier, cheaper, more accurate or more delicious. My son helped crack the eggs and my 1940s hand-held egg beater mixed the batter smooth as silk.  I was so proud of how the palacinky turned out that I ate three, which was one too many, but I didn't care.  I thought I'd burn or destroy the first few, but every one was perfect... light and soft and glowing golden with melted butter. The secret, I think, is a lot of butter and a non-stick pan. I used a generous teaspoon of buttter per pancake to coat the pan before pouring the batter in 1/4 cup at a time.

Cook the pancake until it's a bit browned in spots. 
When the pancake was ready, I laid it on a plate, spread half with a spoonful of my mom's homemade plum jam or orange marmalade, folded it in half and then half again, and sprinkled the top with granulated sugar (though powdered sugar would be just as pretty.) This would be an elegant, but easy dessert to make for dinner guests, using two pans at once. Each guest would have to wait while their dessert was custom made, but entertain the cook while they waited. My four-year-old was not so good at this, but ate two palacinky in succession and was very complimentary to boot.

I obviously could not have written this post without Marcia's contribution of recipe, photo and precious memories, for which I am sincerely grateful. I hope her grandmother would be proud.


  1. In 2011, while in Brno, I visited the Tugendhat Villa, and I googled it to find out what happened to the family. I was interested to learn that one descendant lived in Austin, Texas. I lived most of my life in Dallas, Texas, and my son went to the University of Texas in Austin. I have been there many times (a granson was married there) and it is a lovely ciry


Post a Comment

Popular Posts