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Picnic Stew Part 1

"In the late summer and autumn what was known as Valachian goulash was cooked - a thin, almost soup-like mutton stew. As the name tells us, this was most popular in Walachia, a mountainous region by the Slovak border. It was cooked in a large cauldron. The so-called goulash parties meant good entertainment. Even today no one would scorn an invitation to a pot of good stew and fine songs accompanied on the harmonica."

The paragraph above was written by Dr. Jaroslav Stika in a draft piece called "Czech Folk Cooking" written for the 1995 Festival of American Folklife, in which the Czech Republic was featured.  Dr. Stika was the former director of the Wallachian Open-Air Museum in Roznov, Moravia, Czech Republic and, unfortunately died last year, so I can't talk with him about what he wrote. However, to me, he is describing the forefather of the picnic stew served at many Texas-Czech church picnics in late summer and autumn, especially in Lavaca and Fayette Counties. Stew is part of the menu served at the church picnics in Moravia, Praha, Shiner, St. John's, St. Mary's, and Hallettsville. I'm sure there are more.

Picnic stew production for the church picnic in Moravia, Texas. 2011

(A little background... Wallachia is one of the regions from which the majority of Texas-Czechs can claim their ancestors immigrated (as opposed to Bohemia or Slovakia). It is mountainous and in the 19th century, when most Wallachians came to Texas, sheep-breeding or sheep-herding was a major occupation. In the badly written English summary to Dr. Stika's book Lidova Strava na Valassku the translator writes (typos and all) "Vast mountainous area of the region was settled by the Wallachian colonists in the 16th and 17th centuries, by the herdsmen who came there with herds of sheep from the Carpathians situated farther to the east. Their culture which absorbed in different degrees the influence of Polish, Rumanian, Ukrainian and mainly Slovak etnic, gave the whole region its specific impress which made it different from other Czech regions.")

I've been thinking of picnic stew because of recently reading a 2010 blog post on by journalist Hanna Raskin. She theorized about the origin of the dish by searching out a "stew scholar" named Stan Woodward in South Carolina, who, and she quotes, "never heard of Texas stew." Though the subtitle of Ms. Raskin's blog post is"Czech Concoction Kicks Off Picnic Stew Season," she failed to search down the obvious road of inquiry for its origins... Czech foodways. I went hunting through my papers for some reference in Czech (not Texas-Czech) food and found the bit written by Dr. Stika above and had an a-ha moment. (A side a-ha moment was realizing I may never really be able to write the book I want to write unless I learn to speak Czech or raise significant dollars to pay for translations, as so much useful information about 19th century Moravian foodways is only in Czech.)

My goal now is to make the connection between the "goulash parties" Dr. Stika writes about and very early Texas Czech picnics (or other gatherings.)

In the meantime, I was curious about recipes I could find for goulash or gulas or picnic stew in Texas-Czech sources. The recipes in this post are from books by groups north of Austin. (More in my next post.) Some use vegetables, some don't. Some direct one to serve the dish over potatoes, noodles or dumplings, some don't. Some use beer and seasonings vary, too. I'm interested in regional differences in Texas, too, as a friend who was getting married near West had trouble finding a caterer who knew how to make what she was used to eating at Fayette and Lavaca county picnics.

I'd be grateful if any of my blog readers had comments about where I'm heading with this research... if you have memories of picnic stew at gatherings, have recipes or photos you'd be willing to share, could connect me with great stew makers, or if you've eaten the referenced Valachian goulash in the Czech Republic, let me know! Any info at all would be useful... I never know where a clue will lead.

(Pauline Blazek from Generation to Generation: Czech Foods, Customs and Traditions, Texas Style! by the Historical Society of the Catholic Czech Club of Dallas, 1980)

1 lb. boneless meat
2 tsp. lard or bacon drippings
1 onion
clove of garlic
1/2 tsp. caraway seed
1 heaping Tbsp. flour
dash paprika
salt to taste

Fry onion in lard until golden brown. Add meat, salt, garlic and caraway. Cook slowly until the grease from the meat evaporate out, 10-15 minutes. Add flour and brown. Add enough warm water to cover meat. Cook about 1 hour. Add as many potatoes as you like and cook until they are done. Sprinkle with paprika. Serves 4-5 according to amount of potatoes.

Goulash or Gulas
(This recipe from Willa Mae Cervenka appears in Czech Reflections: Recipes, Memories and History from the McLennan-Hill Chapter of the Czech Heritage Society, 1994 and also in the Czech Heritage Cookbook from Travis-Williamson Counties Czech Heritage Society, 1996. However, in Czech Reflections, Ms. Cervenka credits the recipe to Vladimir and Katerina Adamek, Czechoslovakia.)

2 T. bacon grease, lard or oil
1 1/2 lb. cubed beef or pork (or 1/2 of each)
1 1/2 lg. onion, chopped
1 T. paprika
1/2 tsp. pepper
1 tsp. salt, to taste
2 bay leaves (opt.)
1 1/2 T. flour
1/2 can beer
1/2 c. catsup

In skillet, have the grease hot, then add the cubed beef and cook until broan. Add to this the chopped onions and saute. Put all this into a large pot and add enough water to cover. Add paprika, pepper, salt and bay leaves. Let this come to a boil, then simmer for 1 1/2 hours. In separate bowl, mix the flour into 1 cup water. Stir well - prevent lumps. (Use cool water.) Ten minutes before the goulash is done, add the flour mixture. The 5 minutes before serving, add the beer and catsup. When serving, pour over portions of cooked dumplings or cooked cubed potatoes. Do not overcook the potatoes.

Good Stew
(Hattie Kolar from Czech Reflections: Recipes, Memories and History from the McLennan-Hill Chapter of the Czech Heritage Society, 1994)

2 lbs. meat
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon cumin
1/2 bay leaf
1/2 cup tomato juice
1 tablespoon chile powder
1/2 teaspoon chile pepper
1/4 teaspoon poultry seasoning

Brown meat, then add onion and saute a little, add other ingredients and cook until almost done. Add potatoes about 20 minutes before it is finished.

* The book Czech Reflections also contains recipes for Gulasova Polevka (Goulash Soup) and Pivovarksy Gulas (Beer Hall Goulash) submitted by Alden Blanar Smith. Ms. Cervenka also submitted a recipe for Goulash under her own name that differs from hers above in that it includes celery, but omits the beer.


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