Thursday, September 29, 2011

Sts. Cyril and Methodius Slavic Fest

The 2011 Host Group - the Czechs!

I spent 3 hours at the Sts. Cyril and Methodius Slavic Festival in Houston last Sunday with my parents, sister, son, and nieces. The event is one of the oldest ethnic festivals in the state and this was its 48th year. I even have a family connection to it, though I'd never attended before. My great uncle, Bishop John Morkovsky, who was the Catholic Bishop of the Houston diocese for much of the 1970s and 80s, apparently was an integral part of the festival for decades. Though he didn't start the event, he gave a sermon in Czech at the very first one in 1963 and then did so from then on. The festival's printed program has a little tribute to him and says "He enjoyed all kinds of good food, and whenever you would ask him if he was on any kind of special diet, he would always reply: "Oh yes, I can only eat food."

Who are the Slavs, you ask?... Croatians, Ukrainians, Poles, Slovenes, Russians, Belarusians, Serbs, Bulgarians, Macedonians, Montenegrins, and, of course, Czechs. Only the Poles, Croatians, Ukrainians, and Czechs had a showing at the event, but, though they represent three main groups (Eastern, Western and Southern Slavs) the similarities were really interesting. As a group, Slavs have Catholicism and language as common denominators, though of course, not all are Catholic.

Inside the KC Hall on Whitney Drive. Food and merchandise booths
and ethnic displays lined the walls.
A stage at one end was fronted by a makeshift dance floor.
Then there's the food. There were more similarities than differences... all four ethnic groups served sausage. Three out of four served saurkraut. Two served stuffed cabbage. Two served perogies. So, it was fun to taste the variations. The differences were noticeable, especially the Croatian food, which was much more Mediterranean in nature, serving kebabs and sort of a spanakopita pastry along with sausage. The Ukrainians served borscht and a huge number of different pastries... cookies and cakes mostly.

Ukrainian plate
Texas-Czech plate
Polish plate
Together, the 5 of my family members and I sampled:
  • Croatian sausage served with pita, raw onions and a roasted red pepper dip
  • Polish sausage and sauerkraut
  • Polish plate with perogies, stuffed cabbage and sauerkraut
  • Czech-Texas plate with breaded pork cutlet with gravy, mashed potatoes and gravy, sauerkraut, cucumber and tomato salad, homemade bread
  • Ukranian plate with sausage sauerkraut, varenyky (like perogies) with sour cream, holubtsy (stuffed cabbage), bread
I thought it was really obvious from the food offerings that the Czechs have become so deeply rooted in the state over the last 150 years that traditional Czech foods have blended with Texas influences to create a Texas-Czech cuisine. While the menus of the other three groups at the festival seemed very typical of their home country, the Czechs were not ashamed to offer mashed potatoes with gravy and canned peaches with the pork cutlet, sauerkraut and cucumber salad. Also, we heard many people speaking Slavic languages at the event that were not Czech - it seemed like the other three ethnic groups had much more recent immigrants to Texas, which may have been the reason their menus haven't yet been Texas-ized.

The Czech food was prepared by the Harris County Chapter of the Czech Heritage Society. It must have been a huge undertaking, so I say a little sheepishly that I was disappointed that the kolaches they offered for dessert were made by Weikel's in La Grange the night before. I love Weikel's kolaches, but I had been hoping for homemade.

The Texas-Czech Food Booth
Besides enjoying the food, we shopped at the Polish and Ukrainian booths - bought Polish glass Christmas ornaments and cookies, Ukrainian beaded necklaces and flowery head wreaths for the girls. We watched the kids color black and white pictures of Josef Lada drawings and then get their faces painted like angels and butterflies. My 2-year-old and I danced to Polish music and watched children from the Houston Polish school and Croatian school sing and dance. The costumes were beautiful and all seemed to have bright colors, elaborate embroidery, and white lace in common.

I really enjoyed being exposed to cultures different enough from Czech to be fascinating, but similar enough that the event seemed like a huge family reunion where you know your'e related to everyone, but you're just not sure how.  Then everyone eats each other's foods and you don't care how; you're just glad that you are. 

To your health! - Na zdravi! (Czech) Na zdrowie! (Polish) Na zdorovya! (Ukranian) Zivio! (Croatian)

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Kolaches... the Good, the Bad, and the Unidentifiable

Tasting 19 different kolaches in a two hour period will either broaden your horizons or solidify your personal opinions. I got the opportunity to test mine about what characteristics make a good kolach last weekend when I was a judge at the Caldwell Kolache Festival. I got a new perspective on why places like Lone Star Kolaches are popular. And I realized that the choice of kolach recipes that will go into my cookbook (and the kolach's history) is more complicated than I originally thought. The working title of the cookbook is now The Foods of Texas-Czechs... boring, but descriptive, so I'm anticipating some kind of snappy subheading, like Beyond Kolaches, Sausage and Sauerkraut or  Recipes and Traditions from Kolach Bakers, Sausage Makers, Gardeners and Grandmothers. I'll take suggestions if you're inspired.

Postings on the front door of the church hall.
Two things got me especially excited about being a judge at the festival and both were from the emailed invitation I received from the Burleson County Extension Agent. First, the invitation said, "Judging at the Bake Show is both an honor and a responsibility. You will be taking part in a beloved tradition by... evaluating the kolaches. In order to maintain and increase participation in the bake show, it is important for the bakers to receive constructive feedback and encouragement. Judges play a major role in facilitating baker participation." Well, I'm all about wanting to facilitate maintenance of Czech heritage. This was just one more way I could do that. I was ready to taste and comment constructively, no matter what the kolaches were like.

Second, the attachments that came with the email encouraged me that there was some kind of standard in the community for what kolaches were supposed to look like, taste like, and be filled with. Yes, what one person likes in their kolach is subjective, but a baking contest HAS to lay down some rules. As a judge, I was supposed to familiarize myself with the scoring sheet (revised this year.) My idea of what the traditional kolach fillings were was confirmed in the classes... Apple, Apricot, Cheese, Peach, Poppyseed, Prune and Sausage. Then there was room for experimentation and innovation with the Cheese-Combo, Other Fruit, Other Meat and Other classes. (The judge sitting next to me in the orientation said, she'd judged Other Meat last year... "interesting in a bad way," she said.)

The judging took place in a church hall, but first the judges (over 70 of us!) were assembled for an orientation in a side room - 9:30am. The room was a buzz of anticipation. Organizers stressed being kind and encouraging - the sheer effort of baking kolaches warranted at least a score of 55, we were told. Kolaches were judged on a 0 to 100 point scale. Scoring was divided between three categories (overall appearance 30%, filling 20% and dough 50%.) Judges were given some guidance on scoring which reinforced my ideas about what makes a good kolach... "does the filling 'fit' the dough; not too much, not too little," "does the dough taste good; is it light to the touch; not too dense, not too dry."

A plate of apricot kolaches waiting to be judged next to a plate of palate cleansers...
lemons, Saltines, pickles and Goldfish.
Judges included former winners, local residents, Clint Machann from A&M, a visitor from the Czech Republic (who wondered why cottage cheese and cream cheese kolaches had to be judged against each other.) And they were from all over the area from Granger to Snook to College Station to me from Austin. I'd say 75 percent of the judges had Czech and German last names like Bravanec, Vaculin, Trocak, Fischer, Appelt.

This enterprise is complicated, with 5 divisions of bakers and 11 classes within each division. Teams of 3 or 4 judges were assigned to 2 or 3 classes within a division. I ended up judging Burleson County Youth (as opposed to youth from statewide) and tasting entries in the Apricot, Cheese Combo, and Sausage classes. Another team judged Cheese, Poppyseed, Prune, and Other within the same division. I wondered if they started new judges out with the Youth division maybe hoping we weren't too jaded or critical yet. Or that our judging skills were as amateur as the kid's baking skills.

How did youth in Burleson County age 9 to 19 fare as bakers? Pretty darn well. My favorite Cheese Combo was cream cheese (with noticeable lemon) and raisins. As I was filling out the score sheets for each entry, I kept thinking about my 12-year-old son and what he'd want to read if he'd entered the contest. Any pastry I tried could have been made by a cocky 19-year-old that was dared to enter or some sweet little 9-year old trying to be just like her grandmother. I had to be inspiring. And for the most part it wasn't difficult. My most common dough complaint was that it was too dry. I'm a fan of pillowy, squishy, dough that's golden brown on top and bottom. But I know other people grew up with kolaches made from denser dough that browns more and are in the shape of circles, i.e. not touching each other on the pan. I tried to get over my bias, remembering the organizers briefing.

Volunteers tallying score cards in the church hall.
The winners in each class then compete for Grand Champion of their division, i.e. the winners in the Youth Division (best Prune, best Sausage, best Apple) then compete against each other. I drew a lucky number and got to judge the Professional division, along with 5 other ladies. The division had entries in the following categories: Poppyseed, Sausage, Other, Cream Cheese, Apple.  I was not impressed with the professionals as there were a couple of Youth entries that would have stood side by side with them and a Professional entry that was pretty bad. I was expecting perfect uniformity and no missteps with the fillings. This was true of the Poppyseed winner, which was universally given a near perfect score by the 6 of us. But several had dough that I would call tough and no one else was churning out perfectly formed kolaches all the same size every time.

When it was all said and done, I still felt like giving my $8 donation and choosing a half dozen kolaches to take home. The Youth cream cheese/raisin combo made it into my box as did one of the only two nut-filled entries (traditional in the Czech Republic, but they haven't seemed to last in Texas, which I find strange given the prevalence of pecans here.) I took home a sausage, a dewberry, and two more that I now can't remember. For returning my plastic nametag so it could be reused next year, I was rewarded with a Caldwell Kolache Fest apron. Maybe next year I'll wear it while baking my own entry.

Apricot kolaches made by someone in the Youth division (age 9 to 19) that were as good as any I'd be happy to make. 

Things I learned...

  • You do not want your kolach to have an "aftertaste". One of the ladies judging the Professional division with me made this comment with a pinched face after tasting one of the entries. You also do not want your kolaches to have "blowouts" (filling exploding out of one side) or submit your corner kolaches (if you make them to fill the entire pan.)
  • If 6 women cannot identify your filling, you are not going to get a good overall score. The winner in the Other category of the Professional division filled their kolaches with (we later learned) Buttermilk and Pecan. However, our guesses were everything from pear to custard to some kind of overcooked meat substance. I am rarely ever in a situation where I don't know what I'm eating, so this was disconcerting.
  • If your kolaches look burned and the unidentifiable filling is running out of them and they're entered in the Other category so that a judge has to guess what they are to begin with, they are SCARY and you should have left them at home.
  • The secret to good kolaches (from a judge on a neighboring team) is to knead and let the dough rise three times. "Mama always let hers rise three times. Most people only do it twice." Hhmmmphh.
  • Sausage and meat kolaches (correctly named klobasniky) should be judged with a different score sheet than sweet ones. Considering "consistency" doesn't really apply and judging the "taste" of a product the kolach maker didn't actually make doesn't seem fair. (Though it would be fair to judge "sausage choice.") When I looked at and tasted a sausage klobasnik, I was judging the filling by the baker's choice in meats (Little Smokies = bad; homemade link sausage sliced lengthwise = good) and the sausage-to-dough ratio. 
  • Don't wear mentholated Chapstick to a food judging contest and do eat a little something for breakfast before you go. 
  • With so many entries stretched out on 8' table after 8' table, I was encouraged that maybe kolach baking in Texas is alive and well, though it needs encouragement, praise and a concerted effort to pass the tradition on to younger people.