Sunday, October 4, 2015

Big Czechs/Little Czechs Family Day - October 10th, Temple

I spent the morning hand cutting 560 paper leaves for this coming Saturday's "Big Czechs/Little Czechs" Family Day at the Czech Heritage Museum in Temple. This is the opening event for the exhibit I co-curated, Texas Czechs: Rooted in Tradition. After a very successful 3 months at the Institute of Texas Cultures (ITC) in San Antonio, we moved the exhibit to Temple just in time for Czech Heritage Month in Texas (October). It will be on display there through January 9, 2016.

Sharon Mena dresses a girl in kroj pieces
at the ITC for fun and photographs.
"Big Czechs/Little Czechs" (1-4pm on the 10th) will be an afternoon of activities, mostly for preschool and elementary age, to help kids either connect with their own Czech heritage or learn about Texas Czech cultural traditions in a fun way. Bring your children and grandchildren - dress up in kroj with master seamstress Maggie Grmela, make PlayDoh kolaches, play an accordion, make a family tree (what the hand cut leaves are for), learn what "pupek" means. And, of course, you can see the Texas Czechs exhibit as well. The whole event is free.  

PolkaWorks (the nonprofit that produced the exhibit) staged this same day of family activities at the ITC in July and over 600 people attended. Folks enjoyed polka lessons, accordion music played by the Central Texas Accordion Association, a food matching game, sharing their first words in Czech, and playing kroj "dress up" with Sharon Mena. Sharon was completely amazing... not only wearing her own gorgeous, elaborate kroj the whole day, but patiently dressed little Texas Czechs (and big!) and anyone else who wanted to try on pieces of Czech national dress. We were privileged to have Sharon's daughter's kroj on display at the ITC as part of the exhibit. Check out Sharon's Facebook page called Czech Costumes. 

In Temple, we'll be displaying a kroj made by West's Maggie Grmela, who's been carrying the torch for kroje in Texas since the 1970s. Maggie will also be at our Family Day event with fund pieces for little folks to try on.

Czech culture has played an instrumental role in shaping the iconic Texas landscape and its sights, sounds, and tastes can still be found throughout Texas on any given day. Like many immigrant groups, Czechs brought dance, food, music, language, and other cultural traditions with them. The Texas Czech community maintains and passes on its sense of identity by continuing to practice those traditions and creating some particular to Texas Czechs.

The exhibit installed at the Czech Heritage Museum in Temple.

Texas Czechs: Rooted in Tradition highlights these activities on 11 photo montage panels, presenting a contemporary picture of the diversity and richness of Texas Czech culture today. It also includes photographs, artifacts, and short documentary films shown in a multi-media “station.” Topics include taroky, music, language, community celebrations, Sokol, and more.

Kids love the exhibit's films!
 A big thanks to our Temple exhibit sponsors: The Bell County Historical Association, Humanities Texas, and Extraco Banks. 

Save the date of November 7th for “Gather-Capture-Share”, a free workshop on collecting family memories on film, video, and audio, also produced in conjunction with the exhibition.

For more information about "Big Czechs/Little Czechs" Family Day in Temple or for the museum's regular hours, call the Czech Heritage Museum or me. 

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Food is Love

September 6, 1965 in Hallettsville, Texas
“Taught by family members in South Central Texas, husband and wife Steve and Betty Orsak have canned, pickled, and preserved foods together since the early 1970s. Their Czech heritage influences their choice of recipes and produce.” 

These words about my parents came from the program of the 2008 Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington D.C. where, with 10 other participants that summer, they represented Texas cooking to the world. It is an apt description since their 50-year marriage, their Czech heritage, and their creativity and generosity with food form the bedrock of love in our family. They celebrated their Golden Wedding Anniversary last week.

When my parents married in 1965, society’s expectation was that my father would be the breadwinner and my mother would be the bread baker (and the maker of everything else.) But growing, cooking, shopping for, planning around, preserving, and sharing food offered, over 50 years, opportunities for them to be and do things together and they took advantage. Of course, my stay-at-home mother did master the art of feeding her family day in and day out. She’s a fantastic cook who seemed to never burn, undercook, over salt, or otherwise ruin a dish.

Betty and Steve in San Fransisco in 1975.
Beginning in the late 1960s, she and my father started exploring “gourmet cooking”. They threw dinner parties and cooked for family, friends, and coworkers. They explored local cuisines on trips to Acapulco, San Francisco, and New York City and in places my father’s job transferred him to including Ohio, Georgia, New Jersey, and Connecticut. There was coq au vin, salade nicoise, strawberry tart, and flounder stuffed with crab. My parents collected Gourmet magazine for decades and have a cookbook collection that numbers in the hundreds.

Back in the Lone Star State by the late 1970s, my father was mastering those dishes Texas men learn to cook… chili, barbecue, gumbo, among them. He hunted deer, elk, duck, quail, dove, and fished, and my parents cooked what he brought home. His best friend, my mother’s brother Johnny Kallus, convinced him to enter a chili cook off because my father made a good pot of it at the deer camp. They won the cook-off and my father began a 40-year hobby. My mother helped as a bottle washer, stirrer, and chili taster. But when they began entering contests with multiple categories (sauce, barbecue, chicken soup, gumbo, beans, and even my mother’s beef stew) she became a full-fledged member of the team.

Garden in Connecticut in the mid-1970s. When we had an overabundance, my sister and I would pull a wagon
around the neighborhood, giving away what we could't eat and spreading the love.
They began gardening when we lived in New Jersey and, with natural green thumbs, their bounty had to be preserved. They started canning and haven’t stopped. On any trip to their house in Katy, I can leave with jam and jelly, pickled squash or cucumbers, barbecue sauce, and flavored vinegars from their canning pantry.

My Dad (second from right) and sister (far left); members of a winning
barbecue team at the 2013 AOS Cook-off in Houston.
Cooking for crowds became second nature as Betty and Steve fell into catering as a side job in the early 1980s. It began as my father cooked for Knights of Columbus events at their church in Katy, but expanded to weddings and parties for friends, cousins, and even their children. They catered my wedding and my sister’s wedding in the same year… bearing the emotional stress of giving away their daughters and feeding hundreds of guests at the same time. But what better way to send us off into adulthood with love, than cooking for our most important life event.

Betty and Steve Orsak doing a canning demonstration at the
2008 Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington D.C.
In the mid 1990s I began working for an organization that sometimes did public programs about traditional food. I used my parents as subjects… they did canning demonstrations, cooked for fundraisers, and my father represented Texas for the first time at the 1996 Smithsonian Folklife Festival. My parents were sharing their love for food, heritage, and each other in yet another way. Every food activity my parents have engaged in over their 50-year marriage has been passed down to at least one of their children, whether it’s canning, gardening, collecting cookbooks, or throwing dinner parties like a caterer.

My parents and we four food-lovin' children at their 50th anniversary party last weekend.
The food tradition dearest to our family, however, is the Christmas Eve dinner (Štědrý večer) my parents make and it is the only tradition they have not yet passed to us. They still make the meal themselves and we enjoy it at their house. The dishes for this meal are based on the traditional Czech recipes that both of my mother's grandparents brought to America with only a few modifications. My parents ate this meal at my grandparents’ house (see 1969 photo below of the Christmas Eve dinner table) and I and my children eat it at my parents’ house (see 2014 photo below of my parents' Christmas Eve table.) It embodies the love of food, family, and heritage that have characterized my parents’ 50 year marriage. 



Friday, August 28, 2015

Family Reunions 2015

My uncle holding his granddaughter, my first cousin, and
my grandmother (the baby's great grandmother)
at the Orsak reunion.

This summer I've attended two annual family reunions (Morkovsky and Orsak... at least my branch of the Orsaks - there a thousands of us in Texas!) and began helping to plan a third (Migl.) I have the opportunity to go to 4 reunions every other year and 5 in the years in between. At least I try to make them all.

The Orsak reunion was near Ganado on Lake Texana - a central location since many in our family still live in South Central Texas. I didn't just attend the reunion, it was my family's turn to host the event. 

The Morkovsky reunion was in Hallettsville in Lavaca County, where the family's patriarch and matriarch spent most of their lives. The oldest living member of the family reported that he thought this was the 80th annual reunion, which would make the photo below taken in 1936 at the 2nd annual reunion.

Morkovsky reunion in 1936 in Hallettsville. The house doesn't exist any more.
My grandmother, not even married yet, is fourth from the left in the middle row.
The children in the bottom row are now the oldest living generation,
and some of them have great grandchildren. Such is the circle of life. 
I tend to think about different issues regarding the reunions in different years. Sometimes I'm looking forward to seeing particular people; some years I'm focused on documenting the dishes everyone brought; sometimes I'm concerned about keeping my kids entertained, or nabbing homemade items at the silent auction, or wondering why the teenagers don't get to know each other. This was the first year in a very long time, I failed to write down every dish people brought to both reunions I attended. But below is a compiled list from both events of things I remember and things I did manage to write down. What fascinates me are the dishes that are ALWAYS brought, the surprises, and the ratio of homemade to store bought dishes.  

This would be a year that I could make 5 reunions (Migl only happens every other year.) But I'll have to miss the Kallus reunion in October in favor of the Texas Czechs exhibition I co-produced opening in Temple at the Czech Heritage Museum. Attending family reunions is one way I feel I'm helping to keep my Czech heritage alive for my children, but of course, so is the exhibition. 

Orsak reunion lunch spread.
Morkovsky reunion dessert spread. 

Salads and sides: squash casserole, okra gumbo, green beans, carrots, buttered peas, green beans with bacon, green bean casserole, baked beans, butter beans, sweet potatoes, buttered potatoes with onions, potatoes au gratin, corn on the cob, tossed green salad, spinach salad with strawberries and pecans, cannelini bean salad, 7-Layer dip and tortilla chips, pickled cabbage, garlic pickles, bread and butter pickles, fresh fruit, veggie trays with Ranch dip, deviled eggs, cucumber and tomato salads, pasta salads, loaves and white and wheat bread.

My father and my son at the Morkovsky reunion. 

Main dishes: sauerkraut and sausage, wedding stew, smothered steak with red potatoes and caramelized onions, pozole, ham with pineapple rings, baked ham, barbecued chickens, turkey and dressing, fried chicken, King Ranch casserole, sausage (both home made and commercially made), beef roast, pork loin, enchiladas.

Desserts: kolaches, brownies, Pina Colada pie and 7-Up cake, chocolate chip cookies and bars, apricot/cheese roll and poppyseed roll, banana pudding, cherry dump cake, chocolate cake, spice cake, iced cookies, lemon pound cake, angel food cake with strawberries and Cool-Whip, mini berry muffins, peanut butter/cream cheese dip with Vanilla Wafers.

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.