Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Klobasniky - You Gotta Do What You Gotta Do

Memorial Day weekend. My sister's new beach house in Galveston. Our whole family sleeping in one place and it's not Christmas. There's the beach to enjoy, HD televisions to watch, there are 7 children to tend between the ages of 8 months and 11 years. There are meals to cook, trips to make to the store for flip-flops and fishing lures, diapers to change, sunscreen to put on, visiting to do, packing and unpacking to do. Somehow my sister and I decide before the trip that we're going to have time to make klobasniky from scratch and bring all the ingredients (my mom even threw her KitchenAid in the car!?)

This says many things about us... we're overambitious, industrious, hopeful, love sausage, enjoy being in the kitchen together, wish we were the kind of women who made klobasniky from scratch, and really do want to stay in touch with our Czech heritage, especially through food. But did it happen? Well... yes and no.

It was clear as the morning unfolded that dragging the KitchenAid up from the car and spending the morning watching dough rise was not on anyone's agenda but my own. One nephew wanted to get involved but he's 5 and was just in it for the fun of playing with dough. When it came down to actually making it happen, I think my mother and sister just sort of shook their heads, like "Oh, Dawn, were you serious?" My sister (Martha Stewart, eternally ready for any occasion or happening) offered a conciliatory food gesture....

So, if by "scratch" one means my nephew and I had to put various edible components together into things that looked approximately like klobasniky and then heat them up, then yes, we made klobasniky from scratch. But, if by scratch one means that we couldn't use the canned pizza dough my sister offered from the back of the fridge, then no we didn't make klobasniky from scratch.

But several things were accomplished (one of them NOT being making the kind of hot, pillowy, porky, pockets of savory Czech-Texan goodness that I'd envisioned.) They were...
  • my nephew cooked in the kitchen with me (calls me Teta - Czech for aunt - which is a tradition I started with my first nephew and it stuck.)
  • the family maintained a tenuous hold on Czech food traditions by eating things that looked pretty much like and were called kolbasniky, even if I didn't make them from scratch.
  • I was reminded that my grandmother's and great-grandmother's lives were so very different than my own, which reinforced my appreciation of their skills, patience, time-management, and tirelessness.
Maybe I'll make klobasniky from scratch next weekend (or the weekend after that or the month after that.)

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Interviewing My Grandmother

Anita (Morkovsky) Kallus, about 1917.
Things never go the way you think they’ll go. As I was driving down to where my grandmother (D.) lives to interview her with my mother, I was thinking about food cooked by Texas-Czechs and how D’s memories and experience might contribute to what I know about it (and hope everyone knows eventually by writing a book.) And I was thinking, of course, that D is 94 years old (see photo left) and how I should have made this first trip years ago, wondering how much she’d remember; how much she’d be willing to share.

I met my mother at D’s house which is less than a mile away from the nursing home she now lives in. We were both excited about the prospect of interviewing D, but I think not wanting to get our hopes up too high for fear that she wouldn’t really be engaged or just not interested in talking about the past. Our fears were not unfounded as she’s not been that willing to talk about herself in the past (though did reluctantly.) We discussed the things we most wanted to know from D, deciding to attempt a timeline of sorts of major life events. My mother and I had each written down notes in the past after conversations with my grandmother and thought that putting the notes together with a timeline would help us decide for the next interview what topics to focus on. We decided to bring some old photos along with us almost as an afterthought.

My mom offers information to her mother delicately and is protective of her. She told my grandmother that we’d brought one envelope of photos for her to look at (it was more like 3), and repeated “one” several times in the opening conversation, I suppose so as not to overwhelm her. But, my grandmother loved going through the photos in a way that surprised us. I don’t know if she loved looking at them AND talking about them, or just talked because she knew it was expected. But she told wonderful stories.

D’s memory is amazing… people’s names, places in the town she’s lived in since 8th grade, details of events. Seeing her in a photo, she remembered the name of a woman, a teacher, who boarded with her family to teach at the local public school when my grandmother was in 4th grade. And the names of girls at a birthday party she attended when she was five in 1920. To not capture her memories of such a very different life in Texas would be terrible.

My mother and I asked D several food–related questions during the 3 hours we were with her and she did have some interesting things to tell. But as she looked at each photograph and satisfied us with some little detail or another, food became less and less important. A vague, sepia-toned picture started to emerge for me of D's early life.

She was a tomboy, more interested in being outside than inside. As the baby in a family of 11, I’m sure there were plenty of hands above her to take care of housework and kitchen work, leaving her more time to play. Her two sisters were years older, so she played with the brothers closest to her in age. We looked at a photograph of five boys sitting on a donkey. She remarked that the donkey would buck her off if he didn’t feel like being ridden. “YOU rode him?” we asked and got “Oh, yes!” as the answer. We saw another photo of her with a white dog. Looking at the photo she confessed “I loved that dog,” whose name was Poodle. She even remembered how he died – a heart attack just walking up some steps. We got stories of her hiding in the attic of her family’s house in Komensky to read the funnies; having a drinking contest with her brother Alphonse from the artesian well that fed a fountain in their front yard in Praha until they were both sick; sneaking into a neighbor’s house to run their player piano.

Partially as a result of not being responsible in the kitchen all the time, she says she didn’t know howwasn’t available for housewife-ish consultations. My mother and I wondered then, of course, how she did learn to cook. “Did your mother-in-law teach you how to make PawPaw’s (my grandfather’s) favorite things?” I asked. “Noooo,” she said, shaking her bent head as if to say “You’ve got to be kidding me!” (Apparently she’d always felt an unspoken criticism from my great-grandmother.) When pressed, she just couldn’t say how she learned to cook. My guess is that she simply figured it out as she went along, and maybe had a natural aptitude, so didn’t have terrible disasters to remember and relay to us. When asked about how she’s felt about cooking over her lifetime, she just replied that it was something she had to do.
to boil water when she married my grandfather in 1937 (wedding photo above.) To make matters worse, her mother died in a car accident 4 months after she got married, so she

She told us several times during the interview how much she was enjoying what we were doing and I could see it in her face. As we started to wind it up, I felt guilty that we hadn’t brought more photos and that I wasn’t staying longer. I realized that talking about food is only a way to brooch other topics with my grandmother. That she’s not the wealth of information about Czech food in Texas that I thought she’d be by virtue of her age and background. But that doesn’t matter. What I did realize is that I barely know about this amazing woman’s rich life. That I don’t know her as a person in the slightest… only as a grandmother. That she might have had as great a sense of humor as my own mom. And that she deserves to tell her story as much as she’s willing – life from in front of the stove, at the table, or doing the thousand other things she did in the last 94 years.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Eating Her Words

The interview with my grandmother was postponed. One of my aunts had the opportunity to go visit my grandmother and because my mother goes so often, she's happy to give another sibling the chance to visit. (Better than doubling up and then leaving my grandmother un-visited for a weekend.)

So, to tide myself over, I've been looking for recipes of my grandmother's.... clues to what kind of cook she was, what family meals were like, how she made 3 meals a day happen 365 for a husband and 8 children. As a side note, I keep meaning to read the following books, but haven't done it yet. Anyone read them?

  • A Thousand Years Over a Hot Stove: A History of American Women Told through Food, Recipes, and Remembrances ~ Laura Schenone
  • Eat My Words: Reading Women's Lives Through the Cookbooks They Wrote ~ Janet Theophano
Back to my grandmother... I found several of her recipes in a little book published by the Catholic Daughters of America (no publication date,) The recipes do not seem Czech-influenced, but rather 1950s American housewife, which she was, of course. My grandmother's contributions were stuffed steak, chocolate icing, lemon poundcake, baked fish, and something called garlic sticks. The recipes themselves aren't particularly telling, except that she possessed skill in the kitchen to be able to bake from scratch and cook a whole fish. And she wasn't averse to using Chex Mix and canned biscuits in the same recipe.

So, I queried my aunts and uncles by email about the stuffed steak recipe specifically because one of them had told me his family made it for their Christmas Eve meal. I got the following responses. The first thing the responses tell me - you can't do fieldwork by email.

"Jerrilyn [my aunt] always used a tenderized round steak for that particular recipe. She made stuffing using celery, onion and bread cubes along with chicken broth. She folded the steak over the stuffing and then laid slices of bacon over the top. It really was very good and was a favorite of my family. I will tell you how to make the hominy, although I am sure Datu [my grandmother] will share her recipe with you. Another dish that I still make on occasion is Swiss steak. I will be in touch.. " Aunt Alice

"The only one that I can remember is the stuffed steak. She always used round steak instead of tenderloin though. We have cooked this quite a few times, but not in the last few years. It is VERY good, but rich in fats and carbs, which I should avoid." Uncle Joe
"I definitely remember the stuffed tenderloin (one of my favorites). Your dad and I still make it occasionally. I also remember mother serving hominy, but I’d have to read the recipe to jog my memory. Paw Paw [my grandfather] loved baked fish (he went fishing a lot with his friends), so I do remember eating it baked (especially on Christmas Eve)." Mom
What I've written so far brings up so many tangents to write about... what I'm hoping to find when I look for recipes in print attributed to her; how the recipes don't mean much to me unless someone remembers eating them and can relay to me something about the context in which they were enjoyed (or hated); how a recipe lasts generations; and how one has to be talking to a relative in person (or at least on the phone) about thier memories to really dig deep. Which was the impetus for the class I proposed to UT about interviewing relatives about food memories.
The blog's already come full circle and I've only done 4 posts. More on what I was going to teach in the class in upcoming posts.