Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Sacred Heart Fall Picnic 2012

See the baby held between the couple in the foreground. Sweet!

On Labor Day weekend this month, I spent Sunday at the 130th Annual Sacred Heart Parish Fall Picnic in Hallettsville at the Knights of Columbus Hall. I know this hall very, very well. It's almost walkable from my grandmother's house on Alt. Highway 90.  My extended family has the Morkovsky reunion there annually; my grandparents' 40th wedding anniversary party was held there; I attended Fiddler's Frolics there most of my junior high and high school years; my Uncle Bobby was a drummer for bands that played dances there; and I've been to the picnic many times, though not in a while. 

There was so much activity going on when we walked into the hall and so many people there, I couldn't believe the church actually holds the exact same event twice in the year... once in the spring and once in the fall. The number of poeple was even more amazing when you consider that Shiner (a little more than 10 miles further west on Alt. 90) also holds their picnic on the same day. And High Hill, one county to the north, does, too. That's a lot of local people to go around.

As I stepped inside the entry hall I was approached by a blonde girl with a clip board, maybe 11 or 12 years old, wearing a tight pink T-shirt with white letters on it spelling Czech Chick - she was selling $10 chances in the Guinea-plop game (where a guinea is placed in a cage on whose floor squares are painted with numbers on them. If the guinea "plops" on the square you bought a chance for, you win the pot of money from all chance buyers.) I'm not a betting girl, so I passed and headed straight to the Country Store.

This picnic is all about food in one way or another (they don't call it a picnic for nothing) and the Country Store was the first proof. If you walked passed the Beanie Babies, Christmas ornaments, craft kits, and various garage sale items, you got to the treasure. There was fresh okra, pears, and chili pequins in Ziploc bags, dozens of farm eggs, canned jellies and condiments, plates of homebaked cookies, poppyseed rolls on tinfoil-covered cardboard rectangles, and kolaches. I left with a bag of chili pequins (.25!), a jar of pickled jalapenos (very small ones sliced very thin to use like a relish ($3), and a bag with 4 pecan kolaches ($5). My Dad bought every other bag of chili pequins, because for .25 a bag for about 1/2 a cup, we all agreed it wasn't worth trying to pick your own. We actually assumed they were supposed the be $2.50 and were just mismarked. Who would go to that much trouble for .25? (Czechs would.)

I almost bought a jar of pepper sauce, but my Dad makes it regularly, so I can get it for free. I was curious about how Czeechs use this sauce and the lady taking my payment told me she liked it in a bowl of beans, on meat, or in her chicken noodle soup... that she actually couldn't eat the soup without it. The other lady behind the table turned out to be related to my Dad's Aunt Irene in Victoria. I've seen my Dad do this before... he just starts digging and asking questions of poeple and it turns out they're related. It's either luck or all Texas Czechs are related somehow.

The cake walk (really a long, thin counter with painted numbers on which you placed a quarter for your bet) was a beautiful sight. There were shelves and shelves (and tables behind) covered with every shape of cake imaginable... bundt cakes, sheet cakes, layer cakes, cupcakes. And people were SERIOUS about protecting their lucky numbers. Even holding an impatient, whiny 3-year old in my arms did not allow me to quickly elbow his quarter onto a 7 or 22 or 45. My son lost interest after just one round. But my Dad won a cake on his first try and let my son choose a chocolate chip sheet cake. Not like anyone needed a whole cake because there were plates and plates of desserts covering the tables at the end of the make-your-own plate lunch line. There was German chocolate, dark chocolate, strawberry, angel food, vanilla, poppyseed, banana.

On the lunch menu was fried chicken, picnic stew (beef), mashed potatoes, green beans with a cream gravy on them, corn bread dressing, sliced white bread, and, had we not waited too long to eat, pickles and canned peaches, plus dessert and tea, coffee or water. And for only $8 a plate. My parents "introduced" me to the couple that was in charge of the corn bread dressing... Dorothy Rother and her husband, who have been making the dressing for over 25 years from Dorothy's recipe. It's famous in the area. They started the day before, measuring ingredients into roasters, some owned by the church, some borrowed. Each roaster serves 80-90 people and they made 38 roasters full of dressing. I used quotes around "introduced" above because guess what? We're related! Dorothy is my mother's first cousin, my great aunt Henrietta Pesek's daughter so I've probably met her many times at Kallus reunions. My mother said she's one of the hardest working women she knows.

Mr. Rother (left) and his wife Dorothy (my first cousin once removed),
whose recipe for cornbread dressing is a staple at the Sacred Heart Picnic.
I'd never been to a picnic that let you make your own plate (with a little help from the chicken servers to pick out your favorite piece.) Some men's plates literally looked like small mountains... some women's did too for that matter. The whole experience felt like being at a relative's house for dinner only if your family had hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of people in it. People served themselves, we had our tea glasses refilled by teenagers walking around the hall with pitchers, and everyone stopped to say grace together. My parents had many friends there and we saw a few relatives, too.

We spent the afternoon listening to Kovanda's Czech band and the Red Ravens and drinking Shiners under the hall's HUGE outdoor ceiling fan. When I say huge, I mean the fan blades were 12 feet long. We also followed my son around in the kid's area while he jumped in the bouncy castles, tried his hand at the ring toss, beanbag throw, and go fish games, and watched teenage girls get dropped into the dunk tank. One ball bounced over the fence and hit him square in the chest. At least three times, all four of us adults had to scatter to the corners of the event looking for him because he'd darted into the sea of people while I looked in my purse for a quarter or my partner paid attention to his Bingo card. "Good thing this is a small town," my mother remarked in relief once. "People look after each other here."

Auction items waiting their turn.
Occupied by a big red snowcone, I was able to leave my son sitting with my parents for a while so I could admire, gawk at, and covet the auction item offerings. (Why can't I be wealthy?) From donors with last names of Hermes, Etzler, Trojcak, Berger, Haas, Janak, Rother, Grahmann and Capa (we were in a Czech/German area to be sure), there was pile after row after basket after jar of wonderful things from kitchens and gardens. I saw jams and jellies (fig, grape, peach, blackberry), pickles (cucumbers, okra), chili sauce, bags and bags of noodles both thick and impossibly thin, canned and fresh pears, homemade wine, homemade molasses, beautiful houseplants, local honey, live rabbits and chickens, more kolaches and rolls, and two small antique, glass, hand-cranked butter churns (among hundreds of other things.) I know my Dad snagged a large, framed Texas flag for himself, but I'm hoping he bought a butter churn for my birthday as a surprise.

For those staying late for the auction or to hear the Dujka Brothers play, more volunteers were serving up hamburgers, french fries, nachos, and funnel cakes. These foods I'm not as inclined to eat, but the smell was pretty wonderful while sitting under the fan drinking a lemonade and listening to the auctioneer call out hypnotically. Wait! Where the heck did my son go?

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Vickie Klimitchek, 1925-2012

On July 30th, a wonderful lady and loving mother/ grandmother/ great-grandmother/ friend passed away... Victoria “Vickie” Klimitchek, 86, of Hallettsville. Mrs. Klimitchek was the mother of my Aunt Pat and the adopted grandmother of my first cousins on my mother's side. I remember her as talkative in that accent of native Tex-Czech speakers, very outgoing, and one of the most positive poeple I've met. She was also a goldmine of information about how early life was for a dying generation of Texas Czechs. Their invaluable knowledge is being lost daily in this state. 

She was born on Dec. 5, 1925 to Joe and Mary (Michna) Vanek in Hallettsville. Vickie grew up on a farm and worked in the fields while attending Sacred Heart School. In her obituary, Vickie's family wrote, "It was very difficult to balance that life style with getting an education. She would tell us stories about how far she had to walk to school and how physically demanding farm life could be." She was certainly cut from a different cloth than women of my generation.

My cousin Ryan with his grandmother, Miss Vickie,
and a beautiful batch of klobasniky.
Later, she met Robert Klimitchek, was married on January 9th, 1945 and raised two children, one of which was my Aunt Pat who married my mother's younger brother Joe. She worked at Weingartens for 25 years, Lavaca Medical Center for 11 years, and then "retired" in 1993. I used quotation marks around "retired" because she was one of those people who just did not stop.

Her family shared that she was like the “Little Energizer Bunny” always on the go and very active right up to the time of her sudden illness. She took people to doctor's appointments, bought groceries for others, brought kolaches to Father John at the rectory, and visited with shut-ins. Apparently, she never had an idle moment. As niece Debbie Fishbeck stated, "Aunt Vickie could throw a batch of kolaches together before breakfast, pick vegetables out of the garden, then proceed canning those veggies for something good to eat down the road, or share them with her family and friends as her way of saying she loved you." My cousin Ashley wrote to me that "at the Klimitchek reunion last weekend, ONE quart of her pickles sold for $92!  Grandma Vickie would have been apalled by that amount. LOL." 

Miss Vickie in her kitchen working with my cousin Ashley.
Miss Vickie was a loving, caring, sweet person who was compassionate and always willing to help others. She was a person who never missed a birthday, anniversary, or other special occasion for which a card was sent. Her faith in God was an inspiration to others. She often came to our Kallus Christmas celebration, going from table to table visiting. You never would have known that she was battling cancer.
Miss Vickie laying out noodle dough on the bed to dry.
I had the honor of speaking at her funeral. I spoke in two capacities... first as a member of the Kallus family. Mrs. Klimitchek was a friend to my grandmother, Anita Kallus, for decades. When my grandmother couldn't leave the house any more, Miss Vickie ran errands for her, brought church bulletins, and may very well have saved her live by checking in on her. Keep in mind that my grandmother was in her early 90s and Miss Vickie in her early 80s by this time. 

I also spoke at the funeral on behalf of the Texas-Czech community. I’ve always been inspired by the way Mr. Klimitchek embraced her Czech heritage. She was a member of KJZT, the Altar Society, and the Sacred Heart Catholic Church of Hallettsville. Czech was her first language. But she especially shared her heritage with others through traditional food. In 2001, I worked for an organization that produced some cooking demonstrations at the Winedale Spring Festival in Round Top. I invited Mrs. Klimitchek to demonstrate baking kolaches to a live audience. I remember her being very nervous and so humble, but you could not keep Vickie down. She was so knowledgeable and so generous that she did just fine. She actually enjoyed teaching her special techniques for baking kolaches (and klobasniky and making noodles), particularly to grandchildren. 

I would call her a cultural treasure. (Certainly her kolaches are the work of a master.) From recipes to farming practices to jokes in Czech, it’s because of people like her that people like me feel a genuine and meaningful connection with our Czech heritage. I know I’m not alone when I say that’s a precious gift she gave and shame, shame, shame on me for not interviewing her when I had the chance. She will be truly missed.

Vickie Klimitchek's Coffee Cake via my mom via Aunt Pat 

1 1/2 cup flour
3 teaspoons backing powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 stick butter at room temperature
1 cup sugar
1 egg
1/2 cup milk

3/4 cup brown sugar
2 tablespoons flour
3 teaspoons cinnamon
1/2 cup melted butter
1/4 cup pecans
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. For the cake, combine the flour, baking powder and salt in a medium bowl. In a separate bowl, cream together the butter and sugar. Add the milk and egg. When blended, add the flour mixture and blend again. For the topping, mix all ingredients together until mushy. Grease and flour and 8x8" pan. Spread the cake mixture and then drizzle/spread the topping mixture on top. Bake 25-30 minutes or until a toothpick comes out clean.

*Thank you to my cousin Ashley for sharing photos, to Mrs. Klimitchek's family for writing such a sweet obituary from which I borrowed for this post, and to my Aunt Pat for having faith in my ability to speak at the funeral.