Saturday, July 19, 2014

Texas Czech Foodways: A Cultural Legacy (Part 1)



Last month I had the opportunity to give a talk to the Texas Czech Genealogical Society (TCGS) at their meeting called "From the Ship to the Plow" in Temple at the SPJST Home Office. The presentation took so much work, I thought I'd break it up and offer it to my blog readers, slightly modified. Here is part 1 of 4. Please comment and let me know what you think. I love feedback. And you can read an article and listen to a KWBU radio piece about the meeting and some of its participants here

I am very passionate about food and have to thank Charlene Hurta of the TCGS for inviting me to talk with a captive audience about it. My presentation was very visual with lots of photographs. Please know that all of them were taken by either me or by Lori Najvar of PolkaWorks unless otherwise noted.


You might be wondering why someone would be talking about food at a genealogy meeting. At the earlier TCGS meeting in Caldwell in February, I heard Charlene Hurta talk about genealogy work not just being about finding names and dates further and further back in history, but about fleshing out the story of our ancestors, presumably to create a more personal connection. I can think of no better way to do that than through the subject of food. Everyone, since the beginning of time has eaten food; hopefully every day.

My great grandmother and family members. 
First, I want to share two quotes with you. The first is to stress the connection between food and culture…  Culture itself is the product of our search for food. Most of our time on earth is spent in obtaining, preparing, and consuming food.” --  Charlie Camp, American Foodways. When you realize that, the “obtaining, preparing and consuming” becomes much more interesting.

The second quote is a reason to seek out and to share personal stories about food with your family and your community. “In the presence of grandparent and grandchild, past and future merge in the present.” -- Margaret Meade, American anthropologist. That’s such a beautiful thought.

These two quotes reflect my goals for  the talk I gave and these next four blog posts… the first is to convince you that what you eat and what your ancestors ate and the way they ate is worthy of your attention and interest. The second goal is to inspire you personally and to inspire the Texas Czech community at large to put more effort and resources into documenting and preserving traditional food. That could mean, on a personal level, cooking more with your grandchildren, for example. And on a community level, it means creating more opportunities for food-focused events and interests. As much as the Czech language or polka music or dancing the beseda, traditional foods are a cultural legacy.

Almost any Texan can tell you what a kolach is, but if you grew up eating them at family events, learning to bake them, or growing the fruit that filled them, you're probably a Texas Czech. Baking kolaches, butchering hogs, growing poppies for seeds, gardening, eating in fellowship at a church picnic... these activities and so many more have been part of the foodways of Texas Czechs from the mid 19th century right up to the present day. I think they deserve to be researched, documented, and fostered.


I’ve used the word foodways several times – what does that mean? Foodways are all the activities and beliefs around acquiring, preparing, eating and cleaning up after a meal. It’s not just what people eat, but why and when they eat, who eats, and how they eat.  Foodways encompass everything from farming practices, religious celebrations that include particular foods, expressions of hospitality, gender issues, economics, and family dynamics and more.


These are the very things we want to know about our ancestors, and they are things your descendants will want to know about you. I don’t just want to know what foods were eaten at my grandparents’ wedding, for example, but where they came from, how people decided what to serve, who did the cooking, who did the cleaning, and how did my grandparents feel about the meal.

George and Anita (Morkovsky) Kallus' wedding meal. July 6,1937 in Hallettsville, Texas.

So, what do we know about the foods Texas Czechs eat – now and all the way back to when people first began immigrating? When I was younger, all I knew about Texas-Czech food was from dishes my mom made that could be considered traditional, from family reunions, holidays at my maternal grandparents’ house, church picnics, and from travelling in Fayette and Lavaca counties. As an adult looking for more scholarly information, I realized that there is not a lot of scholarship out there, which is why I’m did not give an hour long lecture on the history of Texas Czech foodways since the 1850s. No one has done that work, actually.

My great-great grandmother.
Immigrants came to Texas from Moravia, Bohemia, Slovakia and Silesia with distinctive tastes and preferred cooking methods. They adapted these to the new crops and conditions they found in Texas. They were also influenced by the food traditions of their new Texan neighbors - Anglos and African Americans from the South, Mexicans, German immigrants and others.  Their Central European cuisine slowly evolved into a unique Texas Czech cuisine.

To be continued in part two. 


Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Můj Milý Dědečku

Yesterday was my father's 71st birthday and we celebrated him last Sunday with a lunch at his house. He asked to have beef stew (recipe below), corn bread and lemon pie. There's nothing traditional about these foods except that my mother's been making them fantastically for years. But on this occasion, I did revive a tradition from my childhood for my kids and my Dad.

George Kallus, my maternal grandfather, died in 1979 when I was about 12.  For much of my childhood before that, my parents, brother and sister and I lived out of state… Ohio, Georgia (twice), New Jersey, Connecticut. So, I don't have strong memories of my grandfather and the ones I do have…  well, we know how memories are. They could be accurate or not.

My dapper grandfather, George Kallus.
My grandfather was very tall. He was kind. He had a sweet smile and a dimpled chin. I have no memories of him anywhere except in his home in Hallettsville which he and my grandmother bought in the late 1930s; the home she lived in after his death for another 30+ years and that her children still own. This is strange because when he was going through chemo in Houston before he died, my grandparents stayed with us each time he came for a treatment. My mother remembers him sitting in the backyard watching my siblings and me play, but unfortunately I don't.

I think I know more stories about my grandfather than have actual first-hand memories.  As for those, there was my grandparents' 40th wedding anniversary party. There was his gumball machine. There were packed family Christmas celebrations where my grandparents held court in the living room over their very substantial, but loving brood. There were also birthday get-togethers during which our family had a special ritual.

On my grandfather's birthday, his grandchildren, including me, would line up before him. In turn, we would each recite a little poem in Czech to him and give him a kiss. For this sweetness, he would give us a dime for each year of our life, i.e. a 10-year-old would get 10 dimes. We would say…

Můj mily dědečku,
rada vas mam.
Hubičku vam dám.*

Which means…
My dear grandfather,
I love you.
I'm giving you a kiss.

My son, my father and my nephew.
It only took a few coaching sessions for my 5 year-old to learn the phrases and be able to say the whole thing with no prompting to his grandfather. In fact, he was so excited to say it that he whispered it in my father's ear at an unassuming moment and didn't even care about getting the dimes in exchange. I honestly don't know if he's even saying the whole poem correctly, though it's the way I learned it and my mother says it's the way she learned it, too. She thinks that "hubicku" might actually mean kiss on the cheek specifically, as opposed to just a kiss in general.

video

A video of my son reciting the poem.

When my mother was a child, this same scene was enacted by her and her cousins for their grandfather, Alois Kallus, though it may of been for his name day (date on the Catholic calendar when the person's namesake saint's day is celebrated.) I was actually reminded of the ritual when showing the photo below to some relatives at the last Kallus reunion and one of them said "That looks like grandfather giving out dimes to the grandchildren!" Of course, they actually called him dedeček because their generation spoke more Czech words and phrases, even if they didn't learn how to speak the language fluently. Granchildren and great-grandchildren would line up and either recite the poem in Czech or some had a few other things to say. Dedeček would ask how old they were and then give them a coin for each year, either nickels or dimes.
My great-grandfather with some of his grandchildren
in front of his house at Wied in the early 1940s.
My great-grandparents - Alois and Teresa (Migl) Kallus
My father says that his paternal grandfather Orsak did the same (gave coins out on his birthday), but the amount was not age dependent and the children would simply tell him Happy Birthday or some other wishes.

My father's birthday meal was very Texan, reflecting his love of comfort food, the particularly rural roots of his family in South Texas, and the fact that it's been ridiculously cold in Texas this winter. Our cornbread had jalapeños in it. The appetizers were chips and guacamole and salsa. And my brother shucked a dozen raw oysters, which are a favorite of my dad's (and were for my grandfather, too.) My mom made both lemon meringue pie and an apple pie from scratch for dessert. My sister forgot the salad in her refrigerator at home, but luckily, like the loaves and fishes story, my parents fridge and pantry can yield whatever is needed for salad for 18 people just by needing them to. It's the magic of my parents' kitchen.

The recipe below for my mother's beef stew fed 11 adults, 7 children under the age of 10, and there was almost 2 quarts leftover, so make it for a crowd.

Beef Stew (Betty Orsak)
  • Cut 6 pounds of beef (1/2 rump roast and 1/2 top round roast with any fat trimmed off) into 1 1/2" cubes and season it to your liking with salt, pepper, garlic powder and onion powder
  • Dice 3 thick slices of bacon 
  • Peel and cut 3 large baking potatoes into 1" cubes.  
  • Peel and cut 1 pound of carrots into 1" chunks 
  • Dice 2 large onions and 2 large cloves of garlic
  • Fry the bacon in a large skillet until the fat is rendered; then remove the meat.
  • Brown the beef in the bacon fat; then transfer it to a large pot.
  • To the pot, add the bacon, the onions, garlic, 2 quarts of beef broth and 1 cup of red wine.
  • Cook the beef at least 3 hours until it's tender.
  • Add the potatoes and carrots and continue cooking until they're tender. The potatoes should start to break up a bit and help thicken the stew.
  • Adjust the seasonings, if necessary and add some chopped parsley for color. 
My brother shucking oysters… we were all workin' for the man (my Dad, that is.)


*If anyone would like to send me the correct my diacritical marks for this text, I would be grateful! 

Thursday, December 26, 2013

St. Nicholas Day 2013

My son lining up the chocolate coins St. Nicholas
left in his stocking.
Celebrating St. Nicholas Day (December 6th) has been a tradition in my family since my grandparents were small and, one can assume, since their parents and their parents and their parents, etc. were children, too, in what is now the Czech Republic. My younger son's anticipation of St. Nicholas coming, shopping for what goes in the stockings, and watching my sons open them are highlights of the Christmas season for me. So is the feeling that I kept a cultural tradition alive for at least one more year, hopefully strengthening it's memory in my children's minds.
My niece with the fake moustaches she
got in her stocking.

I wrote about some of my memories of St. Nicholas Day and what my sons get in their stockings in a blog post in 2012. This year was no different, though I found candy cane-flavored Pop Rocks to add (not Czech but really fun) and blown glass ornaments from the Czech Republic.

The devil and angel (Andrea and Jacob
Pustejovsky) and St. Nicholas
(Father Paul Chovanec) at the Czech
Center Museum Houston.
I attended the December meeting of the Travis-Williamson Czech Heritage Society chapter and queried the group about how many of them have grandchildren that get a visit from St. Nicholas. Only one person raised their hand, though a majority of chapter members remembered the holiday themselves from childhood. There were a couple of really fun and creative ways that their parents had incorporated the event into the whole season, like having children leave their letters to Santa Claus on the mantle for St. Nicholas to deliver to him.

For a sweet recollection of how many older Texas Czechs enjoyed the Christmas season, read the Czech section of an article called "How We Make Our Sprits Bright" from the December issue of Texas Co-op Power magazine.

I spent the evening of St. Nicholas Day at the Czech Center Museum Houston (CCMH) where they've hosted a Christmas celebration dedicated to the original Santa Claus since 1995. With close to 200 people attending, including a great number of children, it had to be the liveliest celebration in the state. Many of the children were Czech (not Texas Czech, but actually Czech), so the squeals of "Svaty Mikulas!" were delightful to hear. Father Paul Chovanec, dressed as St. Nicholas, greeted guests, stood for photos, asked children if they'd been good, and handed out treats. He looked so much the part, too, wearing my great uncle Bishop Morkovsky's mitre, which had been donated to the CCMH.

Bob Suttie of the Texas Legacy Czech Band and his sons.
Bob Suttie and his sons played lovely music together on accordion, trumpets, guitar, violin - including one of the Czech carols I know, Narodil se Kristus Pan, which was written in the 15th century. It's one of the two Czech carols my family always sang with my grandmother at her Christmas gathering. It was a beautiful way to start the season... to think about my own childhood and of the traditions and customs that helped make me who I am. I take to heart the reminder of Saint Nicholas as a symbol of one who gives unselfishly and is a friend to children and those in need.

Children receive treats from Saint Nicholas
and his angel assistant (if they've been good.)
If you'd like to incorporate Saint Nicholas into your holiday season, the website www.stnicholascenter.org has wonderful ideas, activities, poems and information about how the day is celebrated all over the world.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Top 10 Food Moments of Czech Heritage Month


It's the last day of Czech Heritage Month. I went to so many events that, between them, I was too busy taking care of 2 boys, a full-time job, fundraising for the Texas-Czechs exhibit, and life maintenance to do any blogging about them. To je skoda because it was a banner month for Texas-Czech food in my life. Any one of the events that I mention below deserves it's own blog post (and they may still get it), but in order to feel caught up culturally, I thought I would recap the whirlwind 31 days of October with my Top Ten Favorite Food Moments of Czech Heritage Month 2013.  Hang on for the ride.

10. Pickled Beets in my Inbox
I got this email and the photo below from my parents on the 26th... "Just finished 18 pints & 1 quart. Aren't they beautiful?" In a phone conversation the next day, my mother told me that after putting up one batch, they were so pleased, they bought more beets and put up another. Now there will be plenty for the Thanksgiving and Christmas tables, on which they are a family tradition, along with pickled cucumbers, okra and squash (if there's any left from the summer.)  And plenty for us children to have in our pantries over the winter.



9. Sitting in My Ancestors' Kitchen
On the way to the Migl reunion on the 19th in Praha (Migl is my maternal grandfather's mother's maiden name... confused?), my older son and I stopped at the Texas Czech Heritage and Cultural Center in La Grange to walk through the Migl House. I wanted to at least try to foster some connection in him with the people he was about to see at the reunion, 99% of whom he'd only met once as a baby at a past reunion. I'm not sure if it made much difference, but I loved being in the kitchen of my great-great grandparents, Frantisek and Johanna Migl. I'm sure the room looks much different than it did a century ago, but it was a comforting feeling to be there, imagining the meals and conversation.


My son, Dougal, sitting on the porch of his great-great-great grandparent's home.

8. Frying Yard Eggs
I was invited to speak (with co-producer Lori Najvar) at the McLennan-Hill Counties chapter of the Czech Heritage Society on the 13th about our Texas -Czechs exhibit. Not only did we leave West with full stomachs from the delicious potluck lunch AND pleased that we got the opportunity to connect with another group of Czechs, we each took home a gift of a dozen yard eggs from John Blaha (his own chickens, of course.) Lori and I have both been eating them for breakfast to enjoy their intense flavor in all its glory. Thanks, John!


This morning's breakfast! Look at those yellow yolks.

7. Tex-Czech Food Inspiration
On the 7th, I attended a Board meeting of PolkaWorks, the nonprofit through which Lori and I are producing the exhibit. Since the exhibit is on everyone's mind right now, Lori made Texas Czech food for our shared dinner. Lori is a creative salad maker, combining all kinds of interesting, unusual and inspired ingredients. This time, she drew on her own heritage for a cucumber salad that included dill, cherry tomatoes, onions, carrots, rice vinegar and mayo. We ate it with smoky pork sausage from Kolacny's in Hallettsville that had been boiled and brown rice on the side.



6. Happy Birthday to Me with Poppyseed Cake at the Kallus Reunion
This year's Kallus reunion fell on my 46th birthday and I was happy to spend it with family in the little hall at St. Mary's outside of Hallettsville. I decided that the poppyseed cake on the dessert table would be my birthday cake and ate a great, fat piece. I was sad to see how few people came to the reunion this year, but was happy to see canned goods, yard eggs, and homemade beer in the silent auction. It was about quality, not quantity. 



Kallus descendants of all ages going through the potluck lunch line.

5. Enjoying Sausage and Noodles at the Moravian Club's 100th Anniversary
On October 13th on the way to West, Lori and I stopped in Corn Hill for the Moravian Club's celebration of their 100th anniversary and the 75th anniversary of their hall. The meal served by the club ($5 a plate!) was green beans with bacon, sauerkraut, noodles, homemade fresh sausage (not smoked), pickles, white bread and tea. I got three of my favorite comfort foods in one meal... with live polka music to boot in a sweet, old hall; homemade desserts were $1. It was the very best deal of the month.


Moravian Hall, Corn Hill

4. Seeing Druha Trava at the Mucky Duck
in Houston on the 10th
Photo by Betty Orsak.
OK, this favorite moment has nothing to do with food except that I was eating dinner during the show. Druha Trava are a band of stellar, award-winning musicians from the Czech Republic. I don't know if they planned to tour Texas during Czech Heritage Month, but it was perfectly timed. My parents took me for my birthday and I was such a groupie, I drove there from Austin after work and then left the next morning at 6am to get back to work at 9. It was so worth hearing them sing in Czech and, just for a moment, feel like maybe, if I wished hard enough, I could walk out the door of the club onto a street in Prague.

3. Kolaches Go Nationwide
Photo by Lori Najvar.
As hopefully everyone now knows, kolaches aren't just Texas-Czech. Eating them is apparently the birthright of all Texans. John T. Edge did a great job letting the whole country know in his New York Times article on kolaches on October 7th. On the 25th, I gave a talk as part of a trio of food historians to the annual conference of the women's culinary group Les Dames d'Escoffier. My co-presenters were Mary Margaret Pack and Toni Tipton-Martin. I talked about Texas-Czech food (including kolaches) and its influence in Central Texas and treated conference attendees (who came from all over the country) to kolaches and klobasneks I baked that morning. I wanted the attendees to know what a home-baked kolach was like and also to prove to myself that I could bake a double batch for an 11am presentation. I did it. (My apricot kolaches rising in the photo below.)

















2. Watching Sarah Vitek Make Strudel at the Travis-Williams County CHS Meeting
Sarah Vitek is a strudel-making machine... so accomplished at what she does. She shared her skills with her local Czech Heritage Society chapter on October 20th in Taylor. She is a true "tradition bearer", learning from within the community (from her mother-in-law Edith Bohac Vitek), sharing her skills, cooking regularly, and she's seen by the community as a master of traditional recipes. She's exactly the kind of person we're trying to highlight in the Texas-Czech exhibit.


This photo cannot convey just how good Sarah is at rolling a strudel. She has honed
her craft so well so that she uses the right cloth on which to roll out her dough, the right amount of flour so the dough doesn't stick, the right amount of filling (including placing all the apple slices the same direction to they don't poke through),
and the right angle at which to lift the cloth on one side so that the whole strudel
literally rolls itself up from gravity and her guiding hand.
It was a thing of beauty to watch.

Sarah's finished strudels.


1. A Sugar Coma at Cesky Vecer
My very favorite food moment of the month was walking upstairs in the Onion Creek Country Club in Austin, turning to the left, and being dazzled by the sight of Pavla Van Bibber's dessert spread. The colors, the lighting, the mirrors, the decorations! It made me proud to be Czech and I didn't even have anything to do with it's creation. It was the Austin Czech Historical Association's annual Cesky Vecer on October 5th this year and the event's food was entirely Pavla's creation. Czech pastries included four kinds of strudel, kolaches, and pusinky, but also on the table were lemon curd tarts, bread pudding, build-your-own shortcake, brownies and many kinds of cookies and tarts I couldn't name. From my four year old's head-high view, it had to have looked like he'd landed in Willie Wonka's factory or had just entered the wicked witch's edible gingerbread house. We both indulged.


A secondary favorite moment from Cesky Vecer was watching my son polish off
a plate of roast pork, roast duck, dumplings and sauerkraut, also by Pavla. Czech boy!

The evening certainly cemented for me how important Pavla is to the Central Texas Czech community. Her energy, passion, and generosity continue to help keep people connected to their Czech roots through food. We are so lucky to have her.

------------------------ 

If you love that Lori and I are attending and capturing so many events in film and photographs for the exhibit Texas Czechs: Rooted in Tradition, please make a donation to help us continue the fieldwork. It costs money to travel to events statewide... gas, admissions, and photographers plus editors later to sift through the material, just for a few examples of our expenses. We have a crowdfunding campaign up until November 8th and we would greatly appreciate your support to produce a professional exhibit that will travel statewide and beyond. See our campaign here... http://igg.me/p/516317/x/4629155. Thanks so much. 

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

It's Czech Heritage Month in Texas


Happy October! Counties all over the state are once again proclaiming it Czech Heritage Month in Texas. This type of official recognition of the importance of Czech influence and history is always validating. However, it will never take the place of individuals and families prioritizing activities that support or actively pass on Texas-Czech traditions to their children. If the community wants to be recognizing anything other than history during this month in a generation or two, we members have to be deliberately and consistently making Texas-Czech traditions a part of our daily (or weekly or monthly) lives.

I challenge you to celebrate your Czech-ness this month by taking these words to heart. And, most importantly, remember that recognition and innate love of heritage starts at home... early. If you act like it's important, your children (and grandchildren, nieces, nephews) will, too. If you don't have children, support activities and attend events so that they continue for the whole community.


Here are some ideas:
  • Play tarok - find someone in your community to teach you. I'll help you!
  • Bake something, even if you do it poorly. 
  • Visit the Czech related museums in La Grange, Schulenburg, Temple, Houston, San Antonio.
  • Go to a polka dance, even if you sit on the sidelines visiting. Keep yourself up to date by subscribing to the fantastic PolkaBeat email list.
  • Patronize your local meat market or bakery.
  • Attend an event this month (a few highlights below.)  Check out the calendar on Chris and Edita Rybak's website and there are others. If an audience doesn't show up, the church picnics, cultural festivals, and baking contests will stop happening.
  • Tune in to a polka radio show - they're all over Texas and on the internet, too. 
  • Join your local Czech club, heritage, or genealogy society. I consistently hear from clubs statewide, "How do we get younger people involved?"  
  • Enroll your children in Sokol, if they're interested in gymnastics. There are Sokol units in Corpus Christi, Houston, Dallas, West, and Ennis.
  • Recall those Czech phrases you learned as a kid - speaking a few words, a prayer, even cursing in Czech will help keep the culture alive a little longer. That's right, I'm advocating cursing in Czech, if that's what it takes.
AND...

... please help support the production of Texas Czechs: Rooted in Tradition, the multimedia, traveling exhibit that Lori Navar and I have been working on for a year. The exhibit will document and celebrate the traditions and activities of 21st century Texas Czechs.

We are in the middle of a crowdfunding campaign to raise $15,000 for the exhibit - the link is here.  You can watch a fun, three-minute video about the traditions we're documenting and a synopsis of the project. PLEASE look at the campaign page - we promise you'll be inspired.

This exhibit is a labor of love for Lori and I; a legacy project, if you will. We want to inspire YOU. We hope the practical results of a successful 3-year tour of the exhibit will be: increased attendance at polka dances and church picnics; increased sales of poppyseeds and dried prunes around the state; more entries in tarok tournaments; schools having to add Czech classes because of demand. We're thinking big! Won't you help us?











October 2013 Texas Czech events of note:
  • 4-6th - Oktoberfest in Fredericksburg has some Czech bands playing
  • 5th - Cesky Vecer dinner hosted by the Austin Czech Historical Association
  • 11 and 12th - Heritage Festival and Musiky at the Texas Czech Heritage and Cultural Center, La Grange
  • 11 and 12th - acoustic band Druha Trava from the Czech Republic plays in Dallas on the 11th and Winnsboro on the 12th
  • 12th - Second Saturday Program for kids age 5 to 10 at the Czech Heritage Museum and Library, Temple
  • 13th - 100th anniversary celebration of the Moravian Club in Corn Hill with homemade sausage!
  • 20th - Czech Heritage Festival sponsored by the Bexar Co. CHS, San Antonio
  • 23rd - Czech Day at the SPJST Assisted Living and Nursing Center at 2pm, Taylor  
  • 26th - Czech Oktoberfest at the Czech Center Museum Houston.
  • all month - visit the Czech Muzika: Texas Style exhibit at the Czech Heritage Museum and Library, Temple
  • all month Sts. Cyril and Methodius display at the Doherty Library at St. Thomas University, Houston
  • all month check out Czech displays at St. Louis School and Windsor Park Library in Austin
Did I miss an event? Please send me the information and link and I'll add it to my list and Tweet it.


The photos in this post are all from Czech events I've attended in the last month... Westfest in West, The Caldwell Kolache Festival, Victoria County Czech Heritage Festival, and the 50th Annual Slavic Heritage Festival in Houston.
 

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

They're Almost All Gone



Today in the mail I received my copy of the latest newsletter of the Texas Czech Genealogical Society publication, the Cesky Stopy. My father signed me up as a member of the organization and though I don't take advantage of the conferences they hold or resources they make available, I enjoy reading the Stopy four times a year. My dad has really become interested in our family genealogy in the true sense of the word - researching one more generation back in the family line, then another, then another.  He's serious about our heritage, both Czech and Polish. See his brand new custom made boots at left with both country's flags and, below them, the earliest date our ancestors immigrated from each. He's a proud man; there's no way I, the oldest child, could not be affected by his love of history and of Texas. My dad was recently moved to write the article below, which I was pleased to  turn to on page 12 of the Cesky Stopy edition that arrived today.  

I'm cheating on my blog tonight by offering my father's article, though you'll find one of his aunt's recipes at the end, added by me. My Dad's writing illuminates a bit my own need to chase down a recipe and my obsession with things like letters and memorabilia my grandmother saved for upwards of nine decades.  I also inherited my father's (and mother's) strong sense of family and family history and all the activity and obligation that accompanies that. I'd like to say "damn you, Mom and Dad!", but what I really mean is "thank you." 

THEY’RE ALMOST ALL GONE
by Steve Orsak

Steve Orsak, age 3. 
I recently turned 70 and it caused me to reconsider life’s different phases and experiences. Family history began to seem more important.  As my aunts, uncles and closer family members slip away, childhood memories of visits to their farms and homes are taking on a new significance. I  am realizing that we are shaped by even these small experiences. 

For example, tasting an olive for the first time at Aunt Pat Rippamonti’s apartment after she married my Uncle Tommy Orsak.  Then later finding out that her grandfather had come from Italy to drive stakes on the railroad from Victoria to Houston for Count Von Telfener. Or being a farm laborer loading watermelons on trucks that were bound for Chicago from Cuero for Uncle Ben Parma.  I earned a quarter per hour.

The humbling experience of being third in line for a bath behind 2 cousins...  humbling because it was on their back porch and we all used the same water.  Losing nickles and dimes to uncles who learned the art of poker on the pitching decks of destroyers in the South Pacific during WWII. 

Listening to war stories around the kitchen table at Grandpa Steve’s farm house and noticing that Uncle Tullie (Alvin), who had served in WWII and the Korean conflict, never said a word.  He had won the Silver Star for holding his platoon together while forcing the communists to retreat at Hangye, Korea, killing nine Chinese in the process.  I followed him out on the porch where in the night air he simply said “No more killing”. 

I had seventeen aunts and uncles who served in WWII and they all came home safely. Whether I realized it or not at the time, their sacrifices kindled a desire to serve my country,  as most of my cousins and friends did also.  On the whole, I don’t see that kind of desire anymore in young people. Maybe it isn’t necessary.

When my wife and I got married,  we were blessed with having a total of 76 aunts and uncles between us.  Yes,  76.  The stories about them are endless, but two traits common to all four families were working hard and having fun whenever possible.  Some of the events and traditions that have kept our families close are still celebrated.

The Morkovsky family on my wife’s side still gathers once a year to make over 1,000 links of sausage.  It isn’t the act of sausage making that holds them together, though - it’s getting together as a family that counts.

Morkovsky family sausage making event.
Photo by Lori Najvar. 
Being part of a large family means a full time commitment and responsibility to be somewhere, other than your own home, almost every weekend. Birthday parties, family reunions, anniversaries, baptisms, weddings, graduations, engagements parties, and of course funerals keep everyone close.  If not there in reality, people’s presence is there in our minds.  The experiences keep rising to the surface of our lives as glue to bind them together.

I used to make fun of visiting my relative’s homes because there was never a place to put down a cup of coffee.  Every inch of available flat surface was covered with pictures.  I now realize that the pictures were more than a remembrance.  The pictures kept the family alive in my relative’s minds.

Sundays were always mandatory “visiting” day in the family.  It was usually to visit grandparents, but you got to escape that crowd by leaving with cousins in some beat-up old truck for a swim in 12 Mile Creek or the Tres Palacios River.  You knew when to head back because at 3:30 both grandmothers served afternoon snacks.  “Svacina” is both a Polish and Moravian Czech tradition.     

My father's parents - Joe and Irene (Zielonka) Orsak.
My grandmother's still dancing at 93. 
Of the 80 aunts and uncles (counting our parents), there are only four left - two on the Orsak side, and two on the Zielonka side, including my mother.  The loss of a whole generation is mind numbing.  The rich variety of family experiences we used to enjoy can’t be made up by today’s technology that takes away afternoons and free weekend days.  Visits to grandparents' and relatives' homes cemented family ties.  Experiences that should be made easier by today’s transportation seem to get tougher when we have the choice of watching TV instead of making the sacrifice to visit family and friends.

I have truly been blessed to have been from such a large family. What used to be considered an obligation is now a blessing.  It took a lot of work and effort, but the laughter, tears and smiles were worth every minute I spent in someone else’s home or on their farm.  I have learned and been loved so much that words cannot express, and I hope, after reading this, that you take some time to think of the family that has shaped you. 

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Spiced Pickled Beets (based on Steve's Aunt Pat's recipe)

3 cups water
3 cups sugar
My parents' canning -
Aunt Pat's spiced pickled beets in the center. 
1 1/2 cups pickling vinegar
1 1/2 cups apple cider vinegar
1/4 teaspoon allspice
1/4 teaspoon cloves
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

Boil whole beets in water just to cover until a fork can barely pierce them. Cool slightly and slice or quarter.

Mix vinegar, sugar and slices in a large kettle. bring to a boil, add beets and simmer for 10 to 15 minutes. Pack beets in hot, sterilized jars. Pour hot vinegar mixture over beets to within half inch of rim. Seal tightly and cover with a towel until cool. 

*For plain pickled beets, simply leave out the spices.