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So What if No One Knows How to Make Kolaches?

I was recently babysitting my nieces and asked what they like to eat for breakfast. The older one, Eleni, said "Well, we're Greek, so we like to eat toast, cheese and olives." This statement made me both happy and sad. I was happy that she identified strongly with her father's cultural heritage, but she's almost as Czech as she is Greek, so I was sad that she didn't identify with her mother's cultural heritage, too. Or not for breakfast foods anyway. 
But of course she'd say she's Greek.... she's a first generation Texan on her father's side, she goes to a Greek school, has very Greek first and last names, learns Greek, her father speaks Greek and has favorite Greek and Cypriot foods, she goes to Greek festivals, has a grandfather that lives in Cyprus, and has visited Cyprus several times in her 7 years. 90 years ago when Eleni's maternal great-grandmother was 7, she did some of the exact same things and was a first generation Texan herself, but the word "Czech" would have been substituted for "Greek" above. 
My nieces, Emma and Eleni, in their Greek costumes. Houston, TX.
As a granddaughter and a mother, I've been thinking about how I feel about being a Texas Czech (and why), how my 3-year-old son might feel about it when he's grown, and how what I do is going to affect his feelings. Actually, I have been thinking a fair amount lately (no, a disproportionate amount really) about the ways Texas Czechs in general maintain their ethnic identity over generations. 

A friend (Lori Najvar) and I are so fascinated with the topic that we're putting together a traveling exhibit about it. Lori lost her father this year and her mother not long before that. I lost my grandmother this year. Together, Lori and I have seen many people pass away recently who were native Texas Czech speakers and poeple we'd call "tradition bearers", i.e. if you wanted to know how to pluck a chicken, bake a kolach, or sing a folk song, you could go to them for the knowledge. Watching members of that generation pass away inspired us to create the exhibit. We have several goals in mind:

  • To educate and engage a viewer (Texas Czech or not) about the cultural traditions and practices that continue to be embraced by the third, fourth and up to seventh-generation Texans of Czech descent. It's really amazing actually that some traditions even still exist 140 or more years after the first big wave of immigration to Texas.
  • To capture on film some stories, people, ways of speaking, that might be lost to history.
  • To honor the men and women who consciously prioritize activities that will foster and perpetuate Texas Czech culture for their children and grandchildren.
  • And maybe Lori and I are also struggling with our own mortality, but that's on a more personal note.
As part of a fundraising package we put together for a Texas granting agency, we had to include  support letters for our exhibit (working title is Texas Czechs: Rooted in Tradition.) We were excited to receive a letter from Bill Rosene and the Czech Center Museum Houston, where the exhibit might be displayed for a while. In the letter,  Bill wrote that younger people needed the multi-media exhibit that Lori and I are putting together (more "hands on media stimulus", he wrote) "to bring this soon to be forgotten culture to their attention." 

Is Texas Czech culture soon to be forgotten? In 25 years, will we only be able to get kolaches at Kolache Factories? Will anyone know how to play Taroky? Will Czech polka music only be heard on old Vrazels recordings? At the Sacred Heart picnic in Hallettsville last month, I walked by a group of four people in their 70s carrying on a conversation in Czech. (My partner, Mark, couldn't believe it.) I'm sad to assume there's no way my three year old son will have that experience as an adult.


My son licking the sugar off his hands from a poppyseed kolach.

Tentatively, the topics that will be featured in Lori's and my exhibit will include just such things as I ponder above...music, ethnic-specific games, language, genealogy, religion, fraternal organizations, church picnics and other community celebrations, and, of course, foodways. I'm personally hoping that the resurgence of interest in "do-it-yourself" in the kitchen and "home-grown and home-made" and eating local will empower young Texas Czechs to claim their culinary and cultural birthright and start canning beets, cutting noodles, baking kolaches, stuffing sausage, putting up sauerkraut, making wine and homemade cheese and say "We're eating Czech and we're proud!"

Here is a link to a poignant New York Times article from September 18th called Holding On to Heritage Before It Slips Away about food, memory and cultural identity. After reading the article, my father said "We must be doing a better job than most people. As a group we [Texas Czechs] still seem to eat many of the same things our parents and grandparents ate." I don't know if his perception reflects the truth, but if it does and eating sausage once in a while is going to help ensure that my sons identify with being Texas Czech, then maybe Bill's prediction about the culture being forgotten won't come true.


The youngest generation of the Morkovsky family
proud of the sausage they helped make. Floresville, TX.
Photo by Lori Najvar.

Comments

  1. I can't wait to see your exhibit! My father-in-law is a Texas Czech and grew up in Weimar. I hadn't really thought about my husband's Czech heritage much because it was never anything that was important to him because he grew up in Michigan. Now that we have a baby, I would love for her to know, at the very least, about the foods that her grandpa grew up eating.

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  2. Thanks for your comment. I feel the same way about my children and their grandparents. “The farther backward you can look, the farther forward you are likely to see.” ― Winston Churchill

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  3. I hope that my sons value that part of their heritage (being that they are half Czech). John knows how to sing some Czech hymns since he has been in the Cash choir before. I have recipes for kolach and "pigs" as well. One of these days I would like them to take a Czech language class as well as one about the culture so they don't forget where they came from.

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