Is that my great-uncle’s play in your catalog, sir?

I have a large, untidy pile of intriguing genealogy research questions I mean to figure out someday. One involves whether my mother’s uncle Georg Rudroff  copyrighted a play in 1909.

My mother always said her Uncle George was a character. He was my grandfather’s older brother, the one who left home first. He emigrated to New York City from Kottweinsdorf, Germany in 1896, 30 years before Grandpa did. My mother described him as a tavern keeper, the occupation listed on his 1940 death certificate. At other times he was a drug company clerk and a Brooklyn Rapid Transit motorman.

He also was a bit stage-struck, according to Mom. She was a little vague on this point, although she once mentioned that he wrote songs and tried to shop one of them to Kate Smith, who was not interested.

A few months ago when I was supposed to be working (shhh!), I got bored and plugged my mother’s maiden name into this search engine at the Library of Congress. Four results popped up, one citing an unpublished play in German by Georg Rudroff. (Two of the others involve genealogical works in German by Arno Rudroff, an expert on all things Rudroff.)

You never know who might turn up in the Library of Congress.

I emailed the Library of Congress to ask how I might go about reading this play. It’s in manuscript form and I’d have to go to Washington to take a look at it. So for now, I don’t know whether my Georg is the author, if it’s possible to be certain of that.

What is certain is that in 1909, someone named Georg Rudroff copyrighted a play called  Schwer Erkämpft (militärisches Volksstück in 4 akten). That roughly translates to Terrible Struggle (a military play in four acts).

Using “play” for “Volksstück” isn’t very helpful, because the Volksstück is a theatrical form with no real equivalent in today’s American theater. It was a populist work in which dialect was used to score dramatic and satiric points. A Volksstück might use a country-bumpkin character to poke fun at hoity-toity types, or trendy fashions. I can only imagine how a “military Volksstück” might look. Maybe Georg’s play was a forerunner of Catch-22?

Until we go on our oft-discussed trip to D.C., I’ll just have to keep wondering.

In the meantime, all I can say is: Try a surname search in the Library of Congress catalog. You never know.

“Franconian Siberia”? Sheesh.

Every so often on YouTube someone puts up a video from the Fränkische Schweiz, the part of Germany from which my grandparents Johann Rudroff and Eva Forster emigrated back in the 1920s.

This video is particularly informative, with excellent footage of the twisty rock formations for which this area is famous.

It even makes a stop at my grandmother’s ancestral village of Oberailsfeld (starting at 4:31).  Oberailsfeld  is described as a  “challenging place to live,” with a climate that earned it the nickname “Franconian Siberia.”

Tough-sounding place. No wonder Grandma left …

Treasure Chest Thursday: Ancestral Decoupage

Postcard + log = decoupage, a classic 1970s craft.

This treasure sits at the crossroads of 1970s kitsch and family history. I have had it since the age of 14, when my parents and I acquired it on a visit to Oberailsfeld, the chief village of the district in which my German grandparents grew up. They were christened at St. Burkhard’s, the church whose tower dominates the villagescape.

One of my great-aunts gave the plaque to my mother, who said I could have it as a memento of the trip. And I have had it ever since.

My plaque has survived my many interstate moves, just barely. It was actually intact right up to my last move, the first time I switched states with a tiny child in tow. It kills me that I left it to the mercy of the movers — I knew better, believe me — but somehow my powers of concentration and organization weren’t what they used to be (imagine that!).  And indeed, the plaque had a rough time. It lost some birches and a piece of the sky. But the village is still intact:

Oberailsfeld, a little closer up. See the church?

Decoupage on random bits of lumber is a faded art, I’m afraid. Once upon a time, you couldn’t graduate high school without doing a decoupage project, either by choice or force. And craft shops overflowed with them.

I don’t see a lot of decoupage around these days, except at church jumble sales, so I assume it’s fallen out of fashion. But I still love my plaque, chips and all. It started out as a connection to an ancestral village, but now that my parents have both passed away, it’s also a connection to a long-ago time shared with them.

A word about my German ancestors

One of my German great-uncles and his wife at their farm in the village of Kottweinsdorf.

I’ve been feeling guilty because the majority of my ramblings so far have originated with my research into the Irish side of the family. And as we know, there are two sides to every story. In my case,  a German side and an Irish side.

So to balance things out a bit, I added this information about my German ancestry. If any of it rings a bell for you, feel free to get in touch!

Ancestral Dish: When is a Goulash Not a Goulash?

Answer No. 1: When it doesn’t have paprika in it.

Answer No. 2: When we say it isn’t. Take that, Answer No. 1.

I do understand that the classic Hungarian dish must contain beef, onions, tomatoes, sweet paprika and peppers, or else it gets its citizenship revoked. The same goes for its classic German cousin, Rindergulasch, which is very similar to the Hungarian version.

Nevertheless, ”goulash” is what we called the delicious braised beef my mom made, which has neither peppers nor paprika nor tomatoes. And I can’t call it anything else. It’s in the genes.

Now, there is a grand old North American tradition (according to Wikipedia) of slapping the name “goulash” upon any dish made with “miscellaneous leftovers.”

But there is nothing miscellaneous about Mom’s goulash, although it is extremely simple. Here is one way to make it for four people. If you have more people, add a half-pound of meat here, a carrot or two there, another slug of beer. Honestly, this dish won’t mind.

Basically: Take a pound of stew beef cubes (or beef chuck roast you cut up yourself) and brown it in a heavy ovenproof Dutch oven in 3 tablespoons of oil. Season the meat as you brown it with seasoned salt and pepper. When the beef is browned on all sides, add 2 cups of liquid, which can be water or beef broth, or nice, dry Belgian ale, or any combination thereof. Then add 1 to 2 diced yellow onions, 5 to 6 diced carrots, and a big bay leaf. Cover and bake about 2 1/2 hours in a 300-degree oven, until meat is tender. Serve over hot cooked egg noodles.

Years ago, I got into the habit of sticking it into the oven; I don’t remember why. But this beef can also be braised on top of the stove, which is how my mother did it. In this version you use less liquid — about 1 cup — but you have to keep checking it from time to time to make sure the bottom doesn’t burn. If needed, add more liquid.

Either way, at the end of the cooking time, the liquid in the pot can be boiled down to make thicker gravy, or it can just be served as is. As kids, we liked it whichever way Mom chose to make it, as long as there was enough for seconds all around.

OK, so it’s not classic goulash. But it’s simplicity itself, and perfect midwinter comfort food.

(Another post in an occasional series of Ancestral Dishes.)


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