Monday, July 30, 2012

Community Cookbooks and Call for Recipes

In my copy of a KJZT cookbook called "Sharing Our Best: Centennial Book of Recipes", a gift from my grandmother, she inscribed it with "To Dawn, my little Czech princess!" I love that she stressed the connection between my ethnic heritage and many of the recipes in the book. As many of you readers know, the KJZT is a fraternal organization begun in the late 19th century by Czechs who'd immigrated to Texas. So many of the recipes in "Sharing Our Best" reflect Czech and Texas-Czech foods. And like most community cookbooks, some of the recipes are just tried and true family favorites, or derivations of popular recipes from magazines or the ubiquitous New Better Homes and Gardens cookbook from the 60s with the red and white checked cover.

I am part of the team that's working on the first community cookbook by the Texas Czech Genealogical Society (TCGS), so have been thinking about these types of cookbooks as I see submissions to the TCGS. Like most, our cookbook will also include family favorites, but we're hoping for submissions of more traditional recipes. To keep the book focused on people (it's a genealogical society after all,) the title will be "A Tribute to Czech Cooks." TCGS members are encouraged to send in photos of the cook to accompany a recipe as well as information about both. (If you are a member of the TCGS, the submission deadline is November 15, 2012. Please submit recipes, photos and tributes to Charlene Hurta at or mail them to her at 1231 CR 201A, Angleton, TX 77515. Emailed photos should be high resolution (300 dpi.) Please include a stamped, self-addressed envelope if you are submitting an original photo and would like it returned to you.)

Addie Broyles did a lovely blog piece for the Austin Food Blogger Alliance on community cookbooks as the organization works on their own. She used the cookbook  “Czech Reflections" (1994) by the McLennan-Hill Chapter Czech Heritage Society in North Central Texas as her example. Her post is worth reading as an inspiration to submit recipes to community cookbooks, but also to pull out the cookbooks you have on your shelf and cook from them. She wrote to potential recipe submitters "As you are thinking about which recipes and stories to submit, consider the recipes that have meaning in your life because the generations that follow ours will hopefully be able to read our book and get a sense of who we are, what is important to us and how we live, including how we incorporate technology into our cooking." I would say the same to members of the TCGS who are considering submitting recipes.

I have relied heavily on community cookbooks the last 2 years for this blog as my ability to interview people directly (and collect recipes from them) has been limited.  However, it ,too, is just one way of doing research about food in the Czech community. It's interesting to me to match up Czech last names (of submitters) with their Czech recipes. It's a good way to find out different methods of preparing an ingredient... like the okra patty recipe I found amongst a sea of fried okra and gumbo recipes. I can assume how popular a recipe might be by how many times it shows up in different books. And the variations in recipes are always fun to see. 

I've compiled a list of the community cookbooks I've run across that reflect the Czech community... either coming straight from Czech organizations or coming from churches or societies with a high proportion of Czechs. The list is below (alphabetical by title) for posterity and in hopes that some of you readers will let me know about books I've not run across yet. 
  • 1995 Festival of American Folklife Cookbook, Smithsonian Institution
  • A Book of Recipes", Blessing Altar Society of St. Peter's Catholic Church, 1968-1992
  • "A Collection of Family Recipes", Victoria County Czech Heritage Society, 1992
  • "A Key to Good Cooking", The Hillje Altar Society, no date
  • "A Taste of Texas: Cooking with Beer from the Little Brewery in Shiner, TX", 1986 
  • "A Taste of Victoria", Nazareth Academy, 1974
  • "Czech Heritage Collection", Most Holy Trinity Catholic Mission, no date
  • "Czech Heritage Cookbook", Travis-Williamson Counties CHS, 1996
  • "Czech Reflections: Recipes, Memories and History", McLennan-Hill Chapter of the CHS, 1994
  • "Cesky Stopy: A Tribute to the Greatest Czech Cooks", Volume 7, December 2001, Number 4
  • "Domaci Kucharstvi: The Art of Home Cooking", Sts. Cyril and Methodius Church, Dubina, TX, 1990
  • "Favorite Recipes", Catholic Daughters of America, Court Sacred Heart No. 797, Hallettsville, TX, no date
  • "Frenstat's Favorites", Holy Rosary Altar Society, Our Lady of the Holy Rosary Catholic Church, Frenstat, TX, 1992
  • "The Fruit of the Spirit", Holy Cross Altar Society, Bay City, 2002
  • "Generation to Generation", Historical Society of the Czech Club of Dallas, 1980
  • "Heaven Scent: Generations of Recipes", Queen of Peace Catholic Church, Sweet Home, TX and St. John the Baptists Catholic Church, Koerth, TX, 2003
  • "Memorial Book and Recipes", Czech Catholic Home for the Aged, Hillje, 1957
  • "Molly's Cookbook with Love", Molly Pesek, 1981
  • "Nase Dejiny: The Magazine of Czech Genealogy and Culture", various volumes had recipes in them
  • "Orsak Heritage Cookbook", Orsak family for a reunion, 2001
  • "Our Favorite Recipes", Ft. Bend County Czech Heritage Society, 1991
  • "Recipes Old and New", Catholic Union of Texas, The K.J.T., 1996
  • "Sacred Heart Family Cookbook", Sacred Heart School, 1968-1990
  • "Sharing Our Best: Centennial Book of Recipes", KJZT, 1994
  • "St. Joseph's on the Brazos Catholic Church Cookbook", 1986
  • "St. Paul's Anniversary Cookbook, Houston, 1978
  • "Teachers' Tasteful Traditions", Members of Delta Kappa Gamma Society International Alpha Phi Chapter, 1998
I've also found lots of recipes for (usually) kolaches or vanocka in "Texas" cookbooks and magazines - way too many to list here! 

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

A Czech Way with Vegetables

I’ve had vegetables on my mind (and in my fridge) lately. It is summer in Texas after all. Last Thursday I got a Greenling delivery. The bright green bin landed on my front porch after work… I did not have to tend a garden or pick the vegetables, but I did have to figure out what to do with them quickly. 
Vegetables cooking on my grandmother's 1950s range...potatoes in one pot, butter and onions in another (to mix with the potatoes) with green beans in the back, also awaiting a coating of butter.
Also, I’ve been looking through a book called “Fertile Ground, Narrow Choices” by Rebecca Sharpless - a book based on oral histories with women, including Czech women,  on Texas cotton farms in the early 20th century.  Sharpless wrote “Attempting to augment their food supplies, those women who could do so grew vegetables, canned fruit, and raised chickens and cows, working to ensure plain but substantial, nutritious meals for their families.”

It made me wonder about exactly how Czechs of my grandmother's or great-grandmother's generation were cooking the vegetables they brought in from their gardens (or home from the grocery store.) I sent an email out to family and Czech friends. I asked if they remembered eating as a child the same vegetables I had gotten from my Greenling delivery - cucumbers, okra, fresh pinto beans, summer squash, mint, a melon, oranges.

Some of the answers I got are below along with recipes I tried. Ultimately, there maybe isn't a Czech way with vegetables (not all of them anyway.) They were just cooked simply. Maybe people from every ethnicity (or all Southerners) were cooking them the same way in rural Texas. And because there were vegetables that Czechs hadn't had at home (like squash and okra), they just had to learn from neighbors or home demonstration clubs or whoever. I need a lot more first person data to decide. Please comment on this post about how you remember your Czech-Texas family having all manner of vegetables. I would be fascinated to hear. 

About cucumbers...
My mom wrote "I also remember mother putting cucumbers for pickling in a huge foot tub in the back yard under the big pecan tree.  She would drop in a couple of vegetable brushes and wash cloths for us to use for scrubbing.  It was the children's job to get all the sand off and make them squeaky clean for pickling.  The bigger cucumbers were saved for cucumber salad.  Sometimes we would just have the cucumbers seasoned with a little vinegar, salt & pepper added, and sometimes she added fresh diced tomatoes and onion which was my favorite."

Father Paul Chovanec from Houston wrote "Cucumbers were sliced and served in a mixture of water, vinegar, and salt and pepper.  Of course, a lot of them were canned and pickled."
Basic Cucumber and Tomato Salad with a Vinegar Dressing Dawn Orsak 
2 cups of sliced cucumbers
2 small tomatoes, quartered and sliced
2 tablespoons thinly sliced onion
2 Tablespoons oil
1 Tablespoon white vinegar
1 teaspoon sugar
salt and pepper to taste 
Combine and let sit for a while so the flavors mingle and vegetables marinate a bit. You can vary the amounts of the ingredients, use more or less sugar, try cider or red wine vinegar, use white or red onion, add fresh dill or parsley or any combination of these ideas. 
A really, big cucumber ready to feed a family cut up as a salad. 
About okra...

From my friend R. Vasek - "Okra was either made into gumbo with plenty of tomatoes (probably canned) or pan fried with no coating."

My mom, too, mentioned my grandmother's okra "gumbo" (see my post from June called Okra Two Ways.) 
Fried Okra
This recipe is based on the memories of Father Paul Chovanec – “Mom sliced the okra into small circles, rolled it in cornmeal, and fried it till it was crispy” - but then had to be saved from the garbage can by my partner, Mark, because I didn't know what I was doing.  They were wonderful... a crispy batter on the outside and soft on the inside. 
½ pound fresh okra
a handful of cornmeal
1 egg
1/4 c. milk
salt and pepper to taste
oil for frying 
Rinse the okra and slice into small circles. Beat the eggs and milk together with the salt and pepper in a large bowl. Place the cornmeal in another large bowl. Heat the oil - about a 1/4" deep - in a skillet over medium high heat. Drop handfuls of the okra into the  milk/egg mixture. Then scoop them up, drop them into the cornmeal and roll them around until they're coated.
About squash... 

Fried okra... check out the golden hue of the batter.
Father Chovanec wrote - "I think Mom diced them and boiled them.  Then she drained some of the water and added butter to the squash  in the water."

My mom wrote "Sometimes Mother cooked yellow squash with onion, mashed it, and added beaten eggs, cracker crumbs and seasoning, and then baked it at 350 degrees until it was set and golden brown.  I don't know if it was Czech, but it was mighty good.”

R. Vasek wrote "Mostly yellow squash is what I remember and it was either in a casserole with saltine cracker topping or I definitely remember it being friend with cornmeal coating."
Squash Casserole
This is based on my grandmother's recipe and experimenting. 
5 cups of squash (I used zucchini), quartered and sliced
2 Tablespoons butter, plus some for greasing the casserole dish and dotting on top
2 eggs
1/3 cups milk
1/3 cup breadcrumbs plus more for sprinkling on top (or use saltine crackers)salt and pepper to taste  
Steam or boil the squash - how tender is sort of up to you. I steamed it for about 8 minutes; it still had a bit of bite. I'm more used to the casseroles where the squash had the heck cooked out of it and by the time it's mixed with liquid and breadcrumbs, it's more of a homogenous mass. You can do as you please. Drain the squash and add the butter while still warm so it coats the veggies. Beat the eggs with the milk and combine with the squash and breadcrumbs. Season to taste and turn into the casserole dish. Bake at 350 for 1/2 an hour. A few minutes before you take it out, you can sprinkle breadcrumbs on top, dot with butter and put back into the oven to brown.  
At the end of the recipe my grandmother wrote out for squash casserole (apparently at the urging of me or my mom), she wrote “I’m guessing at this because I never measure anything and don’t have any squash to test the recipe. Good luck.” I wish you the same, dear readers.

Squash casserole ready to go into the oven.