In the mid-1990s our little family moved to Prague, Czech Republic. While Dad worked in his office with a team of translators, Mom (me) foraged for food and took care of our two children. One needs to learn the skills of a domestic engineer quickly in a foreign country and I did so with the help of ex-pats who paved the way. The International Women’s Association of Prague was a fabulous way to get started, and by the looks of their website, they are still going strong. They showed me how to navigate the shopping, bill paying, child care, schools and the afternoon glass of wine.
Grocery shopping had its own unique challenges for Americans. In addition to learning the Czech words for things, amounts in grams or liters had to be reckoned with. In no time, I could ask for a deset deka, point to the deli ham and get 100 grams of sliced ham (about a quarter of a pound).
The experience felt like a scavenger hunt with the list in a code that didn’t match the items in the store. The unpredictability of the inventory often made a list useless anyway. Stores would be out of things that Americans take for granted, like chicken. Or eggs. If you were lucky, you happened upon cans of Ninja Turtle Spaghetti-Os and you snapped up as many as you decently could because you may never see them again, because how did they even get there in the first place.
I managed to scrounge up the most basic of meals which was fine for my kiddos, and frankly, even for my husband. Since cooking really isn’t my jam, I doubt they even noticed a difference. Did I mention there were several McDonald’s locations?
After a year or so of life in Prague, we got our hands on a pirated Sky TV box (a European satellite system). The kids got to enjoy Cartoon Network in English and I discovered a British game show called Ready, Steady, Cook. Under typical circumstances, I don’t watch cooking shows, but this one gave me a way to cope with living in a strange land.
The show had two contestants who supplied chefs with a mystery bag of ingredients. The chefs then had 20 minutes to whip up several courses aided with supplies of basic ingredients. The contestant got to do the tasting, and then the studio audience voted for their favorite by holding up a red tomato paddle or a green pepper paddle.
The kids and I adapted the game show to work for us and it helped me unleash what little cooking creativity I had. Winning meant we had a reasonably edible meal on the table, quickly. The bar was set pretty low. We would stand in front of the pantry and yell “ready, steady, cook” and then start pulling out random things that might possibly, if we were lucky, go together. I say “we” but the reality is that it was just me doing the selecting and the cooking. The kids hightailed it out of the kitchen after the yelling of the catchphrase.
After choosing the ingredients, I would skim cookbooks I had brought with me and, in the words of reality TV guru Tim Gunn, “make it work.”
Dinner was served! While I still didn’t enjoy the whole grocery shopping, cooking experience, playing this little game with myself did take some drudgery out of the process. I still do this today, even though we live 5 minutes from a supermarket and suffer from the First World problem of too many choices. Shopping and cooking from my pantry can be satisfying. And I am almost always reminded of the lesson that we don’t have to continually buy more here in the land of the plenty. We often have just what we need right in front of our noses.
Ready? Steady. Cook!