Sunday, August 9, 2009

"Czech Books"

"Now that's Klas'sy"!

Some people might say that books and food don't go together.  You know, like what your mother or grandmother used to tell you as a child: "get that book off the table while we're eating!"  I know I've heard some variation on that theme in my life.  But what is perhaps less expected is that you have a restaurant that is not just unique in its own Slavic branding, but has a history, cool vintage furnishings, patrons who have been coming to the place since Truman was in office (and call waiters as if they were still living in the Truman administration), and yes, last but not least, it is a restaurant that has display cases filled to surfeit with central European trinkets and Czech language books!  Books are everywhere, as we find daily in this blog, and as I recently told a friend--even in a Bohemian American Cuisine restaurant in Cicero, IL.  This was in many ways a surprise to me, when I visited Klas Restaurant this weekend, and shared a lunch with an old friend.

This "Klas" act is none to rag at.  This bone fide eatery is not just one of the oldest Bohemian style restaurants in the country, it is also one of, if not the biggest in the country, and located on the 5700 block of Cermack in Cicero, IL--a suburb of Chicago.  Interestingly, Cermak Road is named after the late Chicago mayor Anton Cermak (which in Czech is "Antonín Josef Čermák").  Oddly, the original pronunciation was "Ch-" at the beginning of his name, but somehow it devolved into a "Ts-" sound, as Chicagoans now pronounce it ("TS-ermak" not "CH-ermak").  Cermak was assassinated by the Italian immigrant Giuseppe Zangara in 1933, who is believed to have been targeting the then presidential candidate Franklin D. Roosevelt.  But Zangara caught Cermak instead with his assassin's bullet.  Of course, there have been many speculations about what the motives were and who the bullet was intended for, whether FDR or Cermak.  The latter was said to be pushing organized crime reform in the city, which was the territory of Al Capone and friends. 

Card Games and Bloody Names

Capone was a fixture, so it is said, at the Klas establishment in the 1920s and 1930s, and clearly knew Mr. Klas.  So it is no surprise that among Chicago area townships, Cicero is known for its tender "mob'osity" (or, let us say "connections.") Perhaps not much has changed in a hundred years; the town is probably still best known for its former mayor, Betty Loren-Maltese, who was de facto "boss" of the township and ran the place with Benito-style circus tactics.  Just look at a pre-trial, pre-conviction piece from 12 years ago, which details the fun stuff you can find in a town bearing the name of one of ancient Rome's greatest legal minds:
(  But back to business, the likes of Capone and his paesani were to be seen often in the Klas compound.  In fact, when my friend and I entered the restaurant, the proprietors told us to go upstairs and check out the room where Capone played cards.   We did: the angular staircase decorated with proto-Moravian stencil and folk-deco design led us up into a large squat room, whose ceiling was no more than 7-feet, or so it felt.  Circular amber-cast glass cuts, set into lead casings let in the shallow light on this rainy day and reflected off the deeply stained timbers of the fireplace mantle and wood floor.  "They played cards in here!" I exclaimed.  But I couldn't see much.  The lights were off.  So I went back downstairs.  In one of the displays, you  will see above, there was a photo of Capone and his Klas(sy) friends, but also the very cards he and the locals used in this restaurant.

Czech Books: Good Soldier Schweik

For those not familiar with Czech literature, this will seem like one of the most bizarre and odd tales, but The Good Soldier Schweik (often spelled three different ways) by Jaroslav Hasek is one of the great (unfinished) novels of the 20th century to come out of Central Europe.  It is a shame that this nugget of black humor has not seen a greater, wider, brighter audience than it has, but it surely should be something on any sensible adult's reading list.  And perhaps that is why it is in the Klas Restaurant display case.  In short, it is a WWI era absurdist novel depicting the antics of the malingering soldier Schweik, who in his civilian days was a dealer in stolen dogs!  As you can imagine from this brief description, it is quite an adventurous story, something most American teen-agers would be baffled at in their Intro to Lit classes; but surely, might make more sense than a spoon-feeding of Queequeg, Ahab, and the metaphoric 
orgies of 10th grade.

Czech Books: Identity and Passport Books

Among the other books that I came upon in the display cases was this identity booklet and passport.  It appeared to belong to one of the former owners.  Whatever the case, it had symbolic meaning in its artifactual essence: just look at this thing and you want to scream: "Austro-Hungarian Empire!  Get me outta here!"  For many years, Bohemians (the "real" Bohemians, not the Parisians who feigned Czech-ness and lazed around on cafe benches writing pulp novels to confound 20th century French school children) made up one of the largest immigrant populations in Chicago.  Only the Germans were larger in the early years of the post-incendiary ashes of this city.  And according to the archives of the Chicago Public Library, Czech (or, "Bohemian") language books made up the largest part of the CPL collections after German language books.  Still, there are other parts of the city named after Czech lands and cities, such as Pilsen (Plzen), which is now a Latino neighborhood.

Welcome to the Old Country

I'll leave you now with images from the inside of this fine establishment: cuckoo clocks, bear skins, dear heads, and stuffed falcons.  I must admit that some folks might turn a sick stomach from this stuff, but for me, it was an afternoon curiosity with a fine bit of potato pancakes, fried cheese (Smazheny syr), and a pork schnitzel.  Sometimes you never know what you're going to find in your neighborhoods, and Chicago is full of them.  And of course, I had the luck of discovering books, yes books! this place.  What a pleasant surprise.  After I finished my meal and toured around the place a bit more (you can see my fine posing in the photo here, picturing the entry way and grand hallway reception area of the restaurant), I returned to my table and exchanged pleasantries with an old couple next to my table.  

"You come here often?" I ventured.
"59 years," the man said with lamb-chop pride.
"What!?" I said shockingly.
"That's right.  Hasn't changed much.  They can't change it."
"Wow!" I gaped like a kid wanting to rot my teeth with a Baby Ruth.
"Barney...and Adelei."
"Nice to meet you!"
"Looks like the food has done ya well!"
"I like the bread," he said...and wrapped it up to go.

I'll surely be coming back here.  But not for another 59 years.  I can assure you that.  So can my arteries.

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