Wednesday, June 3, 2015

How to Cook Local in Hallettsville

Me and my mom in her mom's big, open, comforting kitchen.
Photo: Stephen Orsak
Last weekend, I was in Hallettsville with my parents and brother and, with the chance to all cook together, I wanted to take advantage of any local products I could find. My parents buy produce from local farmers in Lavaca County for canning... cucumbers, beets, tomatoes. And the noodles for my extended family's Christmas gathering have often been bought straight from the noodle maker on her front porch.

Hope Shimek of Triple S Traditions.
But what about cooking for a Saturday night dinner or Sunday breakfast for just four people? My mom knew there was a farmers market starting that Saturday on the square, so we headed there first. We were disheartened seeing only two tables set up, but those two tables yielded a wide assortment of products... and both farming families were Czech. From Greg Hermes (Hermes Farms), we bought his last dozen eggs from White Longhorn chickens, zucchini, soup noodles made that week, raspberry-fig jam, and cucumbers. From Triple S Traditions (Paul, Lisa and Hope Shimek), we bought yellow squash, jalapenos, tomatoes including heirloom Romas, and kale. If we'd been more ambitious in the kitchen, there were also dewberries for a lattice-crusted pie.

Second stop was to Novosad's BBQ & Sausage Market because they had a handmade sign in the window for head sausage. My mother is not a fan of this, but my friend Lori and I are, so I picked up a link for baking in Austin and serving with bread and molasses. We could have picked up barbecue, of course, too, but had a plan to make fried chicken, so passed on what Texas Monthly has named one of the Top 50 barbecue restaurants in the state.  There were other city slickers in Novosad's when I was there; all of us had cameras out, which must amuse Nathan Novosad.

Hoffer's local veggies selection. Just dig for what you want. 
As we drove back to my grandmother's house on Alt 90, we stopped last at Hoffer's (small grocery store AND laundromat) to see what local produce they had (they always have a mix of local and things bought wholesale, so you have to ask which is which.) On this trip we bought Swiss chard and yellow beans, but someone had also brought in cucumbers, zucchini and patty pan squash. We also picked up a six pack of Shiner... with the Spoetzl Brewery only 14 miles away, it was local enough for me. Earlier in the day, my parents had also run into Janak's Packing Company further out on 90, which is a meat processor, but also sells all kinds of canned goods, and they got jalapeno mustard. With our local booty, we started planning dinner.

Our local booty... eggs, veggies, sausage, jams, mustard, beer.
The sides we decided to make are just natural combinations of flavors and colors and ingredients embedded in us, not necessarily Czech, but informed certainly by that cuisine and several generations of Texas Czechs doing what they could with what they had and making it tasty. We didn't need recipes. We boiled the beans with some new potatoes and simply buttered and salted and peppered them. The cucumbers got sliced up with tomatoes and added to some onions and then it was all dressed with a 1 to 3 ratio of white vinegar and oil, again salted and peppered. We could have added garlic or fresh dill if we'd had them. The salad tasted like summer to me.

At home in my third floor apartment with nothing but houseplants the next week, I ate sauteed Swiss chard with fried eggs on top for breakfast. For dinner, I made a small squash casserole and thought about the bounty around Hallettsville. My family and I talked about when the pecans in my grandmother's front yard would be ready and hoped the two family reunions we'd come back for in June timed perfectly with the unusual white Mustang grapes being ripe in the pasture (for jelly and maybe even wine this year.)

I did not grow up on a farm and, in my adult life, I've had my pick of anything and everything at any time from the grocery store in the urban areas I've lived in. But at what sacrifice? I'm trying to now align at least a small sliver of my life with what grows locally and at what time and tie that into my cultural heritage. I'm trying to come full circle back to, not the hardships or limitations of my ancestors, but rather the bounty and the seasonal pleasures. Yes, cooking local is now a lifestyle choice and, frankly, should be a priority. Yes, I recently read Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life by Barbara Kingsolver, which definitely informed the writing of this post. And I am grateful to those who've come before me for giving me the ability to indulge in this way.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Kolache World Domination starts with D.C.

Republic Kolache Co.'s Five Spice Cherry kolache. Photo lifted from their website. 
My sister-in-law directed me to the recent Houstonian article titled "Consider the Kolache: Is Our Beloved Czech Pastry Poised for World Domination?" My answer would be "I don't know," but someone who might give a tentative "heck, yes" is Spring, Texas native Chris Svetlik. His new bakery Republic Kolache Co. is poised (launching in D.C. in the next 6 to 8 weeks) to at least dominate our nation's capitol.

The subject of kolaches has put me into contact with everyone from Chris in D.C. to Autumn at Brooklyn Kolache Company, John T. Edge writing for the New York Times, to reporters in Prague, which is fun. This may be some evidence that perhaps kolaches are poised for world domination. Chris, who I'd never met, was in Austin last week and contacted my Texas Czechs exhibit cohort Lori and I to "chat Czech-Texan heritage (as well as pick [our] brain a bit more about research on the kolache and the general Czech culture/cuisine front)." My favorite subjects. We met at ABGB and drank, what else, their pilsner style beer. 

Me and Chris Svetlik, soon to be the Kolache King of DC.
Chris, who is only in his 20s, has great insights about the pastry and the culture as anyone placing faith in their sell-ability outside of Texas should have. We talked about traditional flavors vs. what might sell (i.e. honoring the past vs. business is business), price points, and the fact that most cultures have ingredients wrapped in dough... how hard could it be to sell a kolach? Will his customer base be Texas expats on the Hill or adventurous foodies or both? One very interesting point in our discussion was how Texas Czech traditional could become D.C. exotic (prune and poppyseed for example, as opposed to the ubiquitous cherry found in convention breakfast buffet Danishes.)

Even as young as late 20s, Chris has the family background to imprint the taste for traditional on his palette. His grandmother Svetlik made kolaches, his father makes kolaches (and bread, strudel and vanocka!), and he traveled back and forth from the Houston area to Lavaca County growing up to visit relatives. It's hard not to absorb the pastry-sausage-noodle-pickle-strudel-beer menu into your being with experience like that. If kolaches are poised to dominate the world, we can only hope it's Texas Czechs leading the charge. 

Sausage, egg and jalapeno klobasnik. Photo lifted from RKC's website.
Chris was here in Texas visiting his father near Moulton and doing a self described "sourcing and recon trip", i.e. sausage fieldwork. (We should all be so lucky to have that job.) Lori and I made some recommendations and he had some ideas already of processors that might ship their product to DC to be baked into Republic's klobasniky (yes, Chris knows the difference.) There's Maeker's in Shiner, Prasek's in Hillje, Slovacek's in Snook/West, City Market in Schulenburg, Kasper Meat Market in Weimar, among others. Chris reported that he'd packed strategically, leaving "sausage room" in his suitcase so taste testing could take place back home. His business partner is not Czech, so must be educated, of course. Hard work.

Of course, Lori (being the eternal documenter of stories and culture) got Chris to stand for a little interview we'd done with hundreds of people over the two years of research for our Texas Czechs exhibit. We're always fascinated by how people got connected to and stay connected to their Czech heritage. Ironically, Chris' dad had attended the opening of our exhibit Texas Czechs: Rooted in Tradition at the Lavaca Historical Museum. Find out a little more about Chris and his background in his video below and visit Republic Kolache's Facebook page. And seek out Republic Kolache Co. on your D.C. family vacation this summer.


Saturday, May 9, 2015

Texas-Czech Cook Joe Novosad

I first met author and family historian Joe Novosad of Inks Lake by telephone. We are both members of the Travis-Williamson Counties Czech Heritage Society and Joe had submitted several very traditional recipes for the Society’s 1996 cookbook. I was told that Joe was a wealth of information about Czech food and that I should just call him out of the blue and he would be happy to talk. He was! I had no idea how important Joe’s experiences and generosity in sharing them were to a history of Texas Czech food.

Joe is a second generation Texas Czech, born in Frydek, Texas in 1928. He graduated from Sealy High School in 1946 and married his high school sweetheart, Helen Remmert, in 1947. He served in the Marine Corps, studied electronics and engineering at the University of Houston, and worked as an electronics instructor at Houston Community College.

Joe’s parents were Joseph, born in Live Oak Hill, near Ellinger, and Louise (Kutra) Novosad, born in Sealy. They were sharecroppers, eventually buying a small farm in Frydek, near Sealy. All four of Joe’s grandparents were born in Moravia in what is now the Czech Republic. After his father died, Joe’s mother (pregnant with him) and his 2-year-old sister moved in with Louise’s parents. Louise’s mother, Anna (Veseli) Kutra, who Joe called Starenka, did the cooking, since his mother worked in the fields.  Anna was born in Velka Lhota, Moravia, and was 9 years old when she came to Texas. Because her knowledge of cooking came directly from Moravia and Joe’s memories of family meals are so rich, his information about food is a real treasure.

Though Joe did not help much with cooking, he certainly absorbed much information about ingredients and preparations. His jobs instead focused on the fields – planting and picking the cotton and corn the family sold for cash. He remembers maybe helping around the kitchen on Sundays, gathering eggs, milking the cow, bringing wood in for the stove. (His family got a kerosene stove sometime when Joe was in school.)

Weekdays were busy. For breakfast, they would have homemade bread and jelly and everyone drank coffee. Joe’s grandfather, Staricek, might have cracklings (preserved in lard) with syrup. Coming home from the fields at lunch around noon, the family had a sandwich, black eyed peas, Texas chili (no beans), or bread and a gulas-style soup of beef and potatoes flavored with paprika. Svacina would be something sweet like cookies or a kolach. And weekday dinners were lighter meals, like leftovers or bread and jelly again. 

The Kutra-Novosad farm was self-sufficient. They bartered with other families in the area and did not even buy seeds for corn or cotton until later in Joe’s life with the help of county extension agents. There was also a tiny grocery store in Frydek to which their family sold most of their eggs. Every Saturday, cream from their cow was sold to the creamery in town and a beef bone was bought for about fifteen cents with the profits.

For personal use, the family had 4 or 5, 100-foot long rows of poppies grown for seeds.  They made their own butter and cheese and brewed beer. In the family’s garden were green beans, watermelon, cucumbers, beets, tomatoes and turnips among many other fruits, vegetables and herbs. Dewberries grew around fence rows and were ripe around Mother’s Day. They were used for jelly or malinak. Malinak was made by flattening a large circle of kolach dough into a pie pan, pushing the bottom down and the sides up. The center was filed with dewberries mixed with sugar and then the malinak was baked. (Malina is the Czech word for raspberry.)

The Novosads belonged to a beef club and hunted for dove or rabbits. (Once Joe killed two rabbits with one shot.) There was also a pond on their property.  The family butchered their own hogs and had a smokehouse. For zabijackas (hog butcherings), Joe’s job was to catch the blood and clean the head. Like most Czech farming families that butchered, many types of products were made from the pig. Joe remembers lard sandwiches, smoked sausages, jelita, jitrnice, and svickovice (pork loin smoked like sausage.) When he gets nostalgic for foods from his childhood, he thinks most of svickovice, as well as bozi milosty, ruzicky fried in lard, and kraple (a baked sweet of many alternating layers of 2 different kinds of dough drizzled with powdered sugar icing.)
This recipe by Joe Novosad is perfect for a weeknight dinner – you can prepare everything the night before and then cook the potatoes quickly. I served it with fried patties of ground venison.

Moravian Potatoes
4 large potatoes
1 tablespoon caraway seeds
1 small onion
Hot water  
1 teaspoon salt
pepper to taste (optional)
2 tablespoons butter
Peel and slice potatoes and layer them in a heavy kettle. Sprinkle top with caraway seed and salt (pepper, optional.) Dot with butter. Pour small amount of hot water over potatoes (just enough to see, but not enough to cover.) Bring to a boil, then simmer for 15 minutes. Makes 4 servings.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Texas Czechs: Rooted in Tradition

Me and my baby... the Texas Czechs exhibit
at Museum of the Coastal Bend in Victoria.
Celebrate Czech Heritage Month with me! It's been over two months since my last blog post because, in the interim, my friend/co-curator  Lori Najvar and I finished and installed the exhibition we've been researching and designing for the last two years--Texas Czechs: Rooted in Tradition. What better way to announce it to my blog followers than on the first day of Czech Heritage Month in Texas.

Vic Patek and Friday's ruzicky (rosettes.)
The exhibition opened September 11th at the Museum of the Coastal Bend (MCB) in Victoria, Texas with a reception that featured Czech foods like kolaches, and sausage and sauerkraut. See photos of the event on PolkaWorks' Flickr account. In partnership with the Victoria County Chapter of the Czech Heritage Society of Texas, the exhibition will be on display until December 6th this year.

Though my passion is traditional food, Texas Czechs: Rooted in Tradition captures the full breadth of activities and traditions in the Texas Czech community in the 21st century. It's comprised of photo-montage panels, photographs, artifacts, and short documentary films shown in a multi-media “station.” The topics of the panels and films do include food, but also taroky, (a Czech card game), music, church picnics, language, community celebrations, food, Sokol, folk singing and more. Lori, the PolkaWorks team, and I traveled the state interviewing, researching, photographing, and filming people and events since fall 2012. No wonder we're worn out!

Tex-Czech-Mex panel discussion at MCB. Photo: Lori Najvar.
We are doing several programs for the public at MCB in conjunction with the exhibit. On the 18th, I moderated a panel discussion on local food traditions with Texas Czechs Vic Patek and Joe Janak and Mexican Americans Margaret and Mary Elizabeth Rubio. There were fascinating parallels and differences explored... from Catholicism's influence on Christmas eve dishes to butchering techniques. Vic Patek, who owns Friday's in Shiner, brought beautiful ruzicky for event attendees to sample (photo above). The icing-coated pastries (rosettes) are not Czech, but have been so adopted by the community that they're a staple at church picnics and family celebrations.

There are other public programs planned in conjunction with the exhibit, all free:

  • October 9 - Gather-Capture-Share: Documenting Family Stories in the Digital Age
  • November 6 - Texas Czech music program
  • December 6 - St.  Nicholas' Day Christmas program
Won't you celebrate Czech Heritage Month by going to see the exhibit? While in Victoria, we're displaying Alfred Vrazel's first accordion. That piece of Texas Czech musical history is worth seeing by itself! If you can't make it to Victoria, watch my blog or Twitter feed (@svacinaproject) for notice of where the exhibit will be next.

Panoramic of the exhibit at MCB. Photo: Dougal Cormie.
The exhibit is supported by Humanities Texas, KJT-Catholic Union of Texas, KJZT-Catholic Family Fraternal of Texas, and in Victoria by the Victoria County Czech Heritage Society, the Spoetzl Brewery, and MCB.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Part 2 - Texas Czech Foodways: A Cultural Legacy

Texas Czech cooking is rich and simple and, like other ethnic cuisines, it has its emblematic dishes – sausage and roasted meats: baked goods like kolaches, buchty and strudel; dumplings and egg noodles; pickles and sauerkraut; soups, picnic stew, and fried chicken; and homemade beer and wine.

There is no shortage, especially in the last couple of years, of articles by food and travel writers about kolaches or sausage. And there is general information about the most common foods eaten by Czechs in books like Krasna Amerika and Sean Gallup’s Journeys Into Czech Moravian Texas.  Those books and a few general Texas cookbooks include small sections on food that cover the basics. They talk about sausage, beef clubs, kolaches and strudel, noodles and beer. But there is so much more to Texas Czech food. The most interesting information lives in primary sources like oral histories, diaries, memoirs, letters and newspaper recipe columns. To tell the full story of how Bohemian, Moravian and Slovakian cuisine morphed into Texas-Czech cuisine, much more research needs to be done.

Here are a few examples of writing about foodways from primary sources like that. Notice how each illustrates cultural history or values.

The upcoming cookbook from the Texas Czech Genealogical Society has some wonderful introductions to recipes that are little gems of foodways information. Here’s one from Danny Leshikar…. “When I was growing up, the Adamek side of my family had several very large family reunions at my grandmother's farm in New Mexico.  Family members would come from all over, but mostly from Texas and stay for a week.  My grandmother would cook for weeks prior to their arrival and as everyone would arrive, they would pitch in helping with cooking and other chores.  In true Adamek Family style, it was an enjoyable week with never an argument but plenty of visiting and domino playing. “

Robert Skrabanek’s 1988 memoir We’re Czechs describes family and farm life growing up near Snook. In it, he writes “Another thing our entire family worked on together was processing honey when we robbed our bees at least once each year. While none of the Americans had bees, we Czechs saw it as another way to produce our own food and also to makes some extra money.” 

The fascinating book Fertile Ground, Narrow Choices: Women on Texas Cotton Farms, 1900-1940 by Rebecca Sharpless is based on oral histories with women of many different ethnic backgrounds, including some Czechs. A woman named Mary Hanak Simcik of McLennan County is quoted with this story in the book about her and her sister-in-law helping out with preserving meats by smoking them. “They left the smoke to me. I had to watch it so it didn’t get too hot. We were supposed to smoke the meat; and we were playing cards together; (she says laughing) and we put, you know what kind of wood it is – resin, you know? And of course we didn’t pay any attention; and we put that under there all over the meat. It all tasted like resin. Boy did we catch it that time!”

Johnny Morkovsky and family
The following paragraph is from of an article called Hog Butchering Memories written by Martha Victorin of East Bernard. It was in the Spring 2013 issue of the Cesky Hlas. She wrote So we used the pig’s feet, the brains, the blood, the entrails, the skin, every piece that had any meat on it to make the different sausages, special delicacies and head cheese and as my Grandfather said, “The whole hog was used, everything but the squeal.”

Through their stories about foodways, all of these writers document the culture and values of Texas Czechs… frugality, strong families, working cooperatively and efficiently, and, of course, fun. This is what I mean when I say traditional foodways are a cultural legacy.

What will that legacy be for our great grandchildren? Certainly butchering hogs and growing poppies are not everyday activities for the majority of 21st century Texas Czechs. But still, Texas Czechs are cooking. 

In homes and community kitchens and commercial establishments across the state, they are pickling vegetables and putting up sauerkraut, making kolaches and kneading bread dough,  grinding meat, stuffing casings, and smoking sausages. They’re making cucumber salads or potatoes with butter and onions from home-grown vegetables or organic produce bought at local farmers markets. They’re cooking Sunday lunches with their families, for church picnics with their fellow parishioners, or at commercial bakeries. Today the kolaches look different than their Moravian frgal counterparts and sausages might contain jalapenos, but Texas Czechs are still fiercely proud of their traditional foods.

Texas Czechs connect with their roots through food at dozens of meat markets, barbecue joints, bakeries, wineries and restaurants throughout the state. Most Czech meat markets feature several types of pork or beef sausage, and some offer very traditional sausages like jitrnice, jelita or prezvurst. They cater to non-Czechs, too, with barbecue and other non-ethnic items, but selling these ethnic specialties helps them stay in business and keeps these traditional foods available to Texas Czechs.

Bakeries, many of them on major state highways, helped popularize the kolach — the iconic Texas Czech pastry.  Kolaches (and their sausage-filled relatives, klobasniky) have inspired billboards, T-shirts, festivals, bumper stickers, baking contests, candles, national news articles, and YouTube videos. Recipes for making them can be found in Czech community cookbooks from Dallas to Corpus Christi. They are, quite simply, the most recognizable symbol for Texas Czech culture.

More in part three of this series. RememberBez práce nejsou koláče.

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.

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.

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.