My husband’s salads

The art of slicing carrots and arranging greens

I didn’t marry my husband for his salad-making ability, although it was one of the things my mother pointed out to his advantage during his first trip to the US many Christmas’s ago.

In the middle of the pre-Christmas dinner hubbub, Radek wandered into the kitchen where the female family members were gathered and asked if he could do something. I don’t know if Mom was trying to test her houseguest from the Czech Republic, or if in her haste, she said the first thing that popped into her mind, “Why don’t you make the salad?”

She dumped the ingredients on the kitchen counter. Without asking for instruction, Radek set to work. He rinsed the bagged lettuce and arranged it in an oblong wooden bowl. Then he chopped carrots and cucumbers. He sliced strawberries and alternated them with blueberries in a symmetrical pattern on the top of the greens. Next, he added spring onions and crumbled feta cheese. He topped the lot with toasted slivered almonds. It was a salad worthy of a picture. In a family that appreciated the details, he made his mark.

Flash forward fourteen years later.

Radek picked my mother up at the airport and dropped her off at our house. I was waiting in bed, recovering from knee surgery. “There’s a small salad in the fridge,” he called out over his shoulder as he headed back to work. Mom went into the kitchen and came back carrying a plate wrapped in plastic foil. “Is this what he meant? It does look like one of Radek’s salads. It looks almost too pretty to eat.”

In the art of food preparation – making salads, decorating birthday cakes, rolling out sushi – as well as other aspects of domestic life that require detail work – repairing chain links on a mountain bike, trimming children’s toenails or gluing hundreds of crepe feathers onto cardboard angel’s wings  – my husband is the master.

I am lucky to have him. Working alongside “the master,” however, is enough to drive any sane person crazy, at least if the person’s standards in the kitchen tend toward the “good enough” to move on and get something else done. While waiting for him to finish mowing and trimming the lawn, I’ve been known to feed and bath the children and feed myself, plus fold a load of laundry, having learned from experience what “just give me 5 more minutes” really means.

Five-year old Samuel put it into a kid’s perspective. One night when Radek was getting ready to bake, Sam asked, “Mommy, can’t you make the muffins, not Daddy?” When I asked him why, he replied, “Well, Daddy never wants me to help because I make things messy. And then he has more work to do from me.”

Unlike my baking style, which welcomes help from little hands but is apt to leave a trail of flour and drippy batter, my husband is precise. He likes to cook from a recipe, preferably one that’s gotten good reviews. He isn’t big on substituting ingredients to the point that he’d rather go without than improvise.

In other aspects of life, though, my husband is laid-back. He is the one who lets eight-year old Oliver whittle in the backyard with his pocketknife. He thinks Anna Lee, at 11, is old enough to walk alone from school to the city library and wait for us there. And he has no problem with Sam driving the electric 4-wheeler in circles through the field near our house as long as he’s wearing a helmet. When Sam had his first spill with the 4-wheeler, overturning both the vehicle and himself, Radek watched from a distance until Sam picked himself up, dusted off and righted the 4-wheeler.

Ask Radek if you can help him make a salad, however, and you’ll see another side of the man all together. Pre-dinner conversations at our house run like this:

Him: Would you like chicken or egg on the salad, baby?

Me: What about both? Or we’ve got some goat cheese in the fridge? We could have that too.

Him: Goat cheese doesn’t really go. I don’t think we need it. We’ve already got grilled veggies and asparagus, so how about chicken?

In our house, making a salad requires prewashing, then spinning the greens to dry, chopping the cold vegetables and finally sautéing or grilling some extras (mushrooms, peppers or a piece of meat). Our typical base consists of arugula, baby greens or field greens. Often, we mix the three. When I can find it, we use fresh spinach. We don’t use pre-cut baby carrots or already washed apple slices not because we don’t want to, but because they aren’t available at our local grocery.

How I cut an onion (which knife I use and how large I slice the pieces) used to be a bone of contention in our marriage. It was right up there with how I repeatedly forgot to say “si” and “se” in the conjugation of certain Czech reflexive verbs (Don’t ask me which ones, please.)

My husband’s desire for a salad to be agreeably presented runs over into his general feeling on how one should present oneself to the world (which includes using correct Czech grammar to the very best of your ability). Why would you offer your guests or your family a salad made from ingredients that have been thrown together, when you could take your time and choose to do it right?

If a salad ever needs spiffing up, however, Radek turns to me for help. My special dressing is a combination of olive oil, balsamic vinegar, garlic, mustard, honey and lemon juice. It is the antithesis of his perfectly prepared salad. There are no set proportions. Radek wouldn’t try to replicate it because it doesn’t come with instructions.

In the same way that my husband has a feel for placing julienned carrot wedges alongside marinated artichokes or boiled eggs, I like to think that I have a sense of how much sweetness or tartness the dressing needs to complement the salad.

In truth, I make more of the salads for our dinners than he does, mainly because I’m finished with work sooner. And, I have a confession to make. He’s rubbed off on me. While I’d like to proclaim that I’m still of the “good enough” camp, when it comes to salad making, I now like mine to look pretty too.

Mom and I ate every bite of the salad that Radek left for us. We appreciated the presentation, the colors and the flavor. We both knew it tasted even better because we hadn’t had to make it ourselves.

Perhaps, the only thing better than knowing how to make a gourmet salad, is finding someone to appreciate it.







School entrance exams – effort or result?

When your child’s best doesn’t make the cut

In late April, after the snow thaws but before the lilacs bloom, thousands of Czech students aged 11 – 14, sit for half-day school entrance examinations in the subjects of Czech, math, logic and general knowledge. The results of the tests will determine whether these students will be accepted at a Czech gymnasium program. The tests aren’t mandatory and many students choose not to take this route. However, for those that attempt to make the cut, it can be a stressful process.

This year, my eleven-year old daughter decided she wanted to prepare for the entrance exams to an eight-year gymnasium program. The eight-year program was started about twenty years ago to encourage motivated elementary school learners who knew early on they wanted to attend a university. Until that time, only four-year programs existed. If you liked school and enjoyed studying, chances were, you’d get a spot.

But times have since changed, and the entrance exams today at the best Czech gymnasiums are a competitive process that weed out all but those who score in the top 10th percentile. Many parents and educators are against the system, saying that it “ruins a child’s childhood,” and puts unnecessary pressure on students to perform. Results for the country’s nationwide leaving exam Maturita, furthermore, show little statistical difference between four-year and eight-year graduates.

Recently, the Czech news also has debated the validity and future of eight-year gymnasium programs, claiming that the entrance exam and preparation process favor motivated parents rather than talented children. The children who are likely to be accepted at the top state schools are those whose parents who place a premium on their child’s education and are financially able to foot the costs of all the practice tests, private tutoring and preparations materials necessary to succeed.

As it turned out, about one-half of the students in Anna’s fifth-grade class were planning to apply to an eight-year gymnasium. As parents, we agreed we’d support them, come what may.

We were warned the competition would be tough. Most of the eight-year gymnasiums opened one or two classes of up to 30 students a year. For the better gymnasiums in recent years, applications numbered more than 450 for up to 60 spots. About one out of every ten students was accepted. I spoke with friends whose children had attempted the exams in previous years and hadn’t been accepted. For the most part, the kids were bright and had done well on the exams, but there just wasn’t space.

We knew the risk was high of Anna not getting a spot, still she wanted to try. Like other families, we visited open house events in November and early January. Each child could only select two schools. The exams were specific for each given school and results couldn’t be transferred to any other school.

Anna trained at home for the exams, working a little most nights from October to mid-April in addition to her regular schoolwork. Our neighbor gave us her daughter’s old workbooks, and Czech mothers of older children recommended practice courses and trial tests. We invested time and money in the process, reduced her extra activities and set aside weekend family time for practice.

Sitting together on Anna’s single bed, we’d pore over multiple choice logic questions and try to figure out where her thinking had gone awry. For the math problems, she’d often discover a simple mistake in metric conversion or misreading the question. The Czech language and literature sections gave us both the most trouble.

When we were stumped, we called in our lifelines. We asked Anna’s Czech father or our Czech school teacher friends. Once we put a question to my son’s twenty-some-year-old guitar teacher. Sometimes our lifelines didn’t know the answer either, or at least, they had to think about it for a while, use a dictionary or check online.

By March, Anna had spent more time and energy preparing for the exams than she had on any single thing in her life. She decided to apply to two of the best state schools in Prague, which also happened to be the most convenient schools location wise. I thought about encouraging Anna to apply to a school with an easier application process, or trying one of the private gymnasiums that have become popular as the trend in the country shifts toward more integrative, Western-style education. But deep down, I believed in the Czech state education process. Plus, I didn’t want to pay for a private program.

As for Anna, she wanted to shoot for the moon. And I stood beside her. Her father, who claims that he has gotten where he is in life, in spite of (rather than because of) his attitude toward formal school education, chose to let us lead the way. If Anna got into a gymnasium, he promised her a new mobile phone. I wondered about the wisdom of the deal, but left it between the two of them.

Finally, the first test day came. I joined hundreds of other parents with grim but hopeful faces. We left our sons and daughters, some of whom were tearful, others jittery, at the doors of the gymnasiums they had chosen. Both days Anna was nervous and teary-eyed. I wondered if someone from the school would call to say that she hadn’t been able to handle it.

But she went in. She took the tests. She did her best. When she came out, she didn’t talk much about the tests. Instead, she told me about her new friend from Russia who had the prettiest bag Anna had ever seen. They had exchanged numbers and planned to keep in touch.

We received the results four days later. Anna had done well on both sets of tests, missing only 1 question in the Math section, but still, she fell shy of the mark. She wasn’t accepted at either school. When she found out, Anna burst into tears and declared that she’d wasted a year of her life studying.

I admit, a part of me was thinking about all those times that she could have gone to bed earlier, read aloud in English just for fun or spent a Saturday afternoon goofing off instead of learning logic in a classroom. But I knew that she’d come a long way, in terms of scholastic knowledge, but more importantly in her sense of independence and self-motivation.

So, my daughter wasn’t accepted at gymnasium. It hurts. And it doesn’t seem fair. But, the truth is, if I had to do it over again, I think I’d let her do the same thing.

Sitting together on Anna’s bed, both trying to understand a concept that seemed totally foreign. The glimmer of light when we thought we’d come upon a solution and the total flash of clarity when something finally clicked – yes, I’d do it all again. Would she?

After the disappointment had worn off a bit, I mentioned to Anna that I was sure glad the studying was over, but that I’d miss learning together with her. Anna agreed.

In two years, Anna can take the gymnasium exams again. Chances are high, she’ll be successful. She knows the process and she knows how to study. If she’s not; we both realize, it’s not the only way forward. In the meantime, it’s clear that she feels a sense of relief. She’s started learning the 50 US states by heart (her idea not mine). She’s reading the Harry Potter series again (one book in Czech, the next in English) and she’s perfecting her front flip on the trampoline.

She’s still trying to convince her dad to buy her the phone, based on her effort not the end result, but that’s one battle I’m not getting into.