How do you eat your rohlík?

What is so special about the Czech rohlík?

Babies cut their teeth on them, school children snack on them and Czechs of all ages can be seen munching on a párek v rohlíku (hotdog in a bun) when they need a fast-food fix. What is so special about the Czech rohlík that makes Czechs buy it daily by the dozen at their local bakeries, supermarkets or green grocers?

If you haven't ever seen one, a Czech rohlík looks like a tan-colored, double-edged bullet. When fresh, the exterior is usually crisp like a baguette. Unlike a baguette, the inside of the rohlík is as dry as a puffed cracker. Eating a rohlík without a drink handy is a legitimate choking hazard. Allowing your children to eat a rohlík in the car is just plain crazy, unless you have a penchant for vacuuming.

The tops of rohlíky can be sprinkled with salt, caraway or poppy seeds, adding a little zip to a roll that tastes about as bland as a roll can taste. Perhaps for this reason, dry rohlíky and black tea are typical post-operation hospital fare. Czechs save stale rohlíky to feed ducks, birds and small domestic animals. Since the rohlíky sometimes feel (and even taste) stale to begin with, they turn into brick-and-mortar bullets overnight.

Bread shopping is a daily task here. In a Czech bakery, a variety of flours, seeds, nuts and grains are mixed into bread choices. Supermarkets have plastic gloves in addition to bread tongs so that Czechs can be intimate, yet still hygienic, about their bread choices. While Czech bakeries do offer Italian-style rolls topped with melted cheese, French-style chocolate-filled croissants and dark, dense German-style seeded bread, it's the plain, white-flour rohlíky that get the largest bin in the bread section. At a cost of seven-hundredths of one penny per rohlík, it is, not surprisingly, the cheapest bread on the market.

If you ask foreigners living in the Czech Republic, you'll be hard-pressed to find one who'll tell you that a rohlík is the tastiest example of Czech bread. Ask a Czech who's living abroad, however, and you'll get different answer.

When my next-door neighbor's seventeen year-old daughter flew to the U.S. last week to visit Czech family living abroad there, her mother called me up to ask for help. While we were chatting, my neighbor casually mentioned that the Czechs in the U.S. wanted a few food items from home that they couldn't get abroad. Did I think it would be a problem for her daughter to bring a dozen or so fresh rohlíky in her suitcase? If I hadn't been living in the Czech Republic for ten years, I would have thought she was joking. She wasn't. They would buy the rohlíky the morning of the flight, so they would be fresh. They would stick in a few long-life tins of classic Czech meat spread, too. Her relatives liked American cream cheese, but they hadn't ever been able to get used to the American bread.

Among Czechs there is ongoing discussion about how to cut and spread a rohlík. Because of its thin, oblong shape, a rohlík isn't ideal sandwich material. When rohlíky are served at breakfast, I struggle to find a way to hold the rohlík steady without mashing it to crumbles as I slice it lengthwise. Spreading butter, jam or cream cheese afterward is like putting sunscreen on a squirmy child. I've seen some Czechs, my husband included, take the rohlík and turn it upside down. With the flat bottom side on top, they forgo cutting and put spread on the flat side. Problem solved. Eaten with cottage cheese, meat spreads, sauces and soups, the rohlík is used to soak up the flavorful food. Seems a spoon would also do the job, but that’s not what Czechs use.

There are multigrain, wholegrain and cheese variations on the traditional white-flour rohlík. There is even a pivní rohlík (beer roll), which is longer, thinner and saltier than the traditional rohlík and served at pubs.

Although I like to buy the grainier versions of rohlíky, my children stop at the enormous bread bins and beg for a plain rohlík. On the occasions that I cave, their delight is evident. Using a pair of disposable gloves apiece, each child selects his or her own version of the perfect rohlík. Sometimes they even bag them separately just to make sure no one eats someone else’s rohlík.

Once home, Anna slices her rohlík and spreads it with cream cheese and ham or butter and honey. Oliver hollows out the inside dough and rolls it between his fingers into a ball. He leaves the flaky outside on his plate. Samuel, the youngest, holds the rohlík in his fist and gnaws off bite after bite until it's gone, and he asks for more. If someone had told me years ago that I could satisfy my children’s desire for a treat by buying them bland, white bread rolls, I never would have believed them.

Beyond the rohlík's role as a daily carbohydrate staple, now there's an online supermarket in Prague with the name Do all your food shopping online and promises to deliver it to your door within 90 minutes. I haven't tried it yet, but I have wondered if their rohlíky are fresher than the average. There is also a Czech kids' punk music group started in 2007 that goes by the name Kašparek v rohlíku. The band serves up punk music wearing costumes as crazy as their name – Jester in a hotdog bun.

Now I'm waiting for a day when my children call to ask if it would be too much trouble for me to send a small package with some fresh rohlíky, just a dozen or so, because the bread in the country where they are living doesn't taste like home, do I understand?

Surprisingly, I do.

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