Monday, October 15, 2012

Kallus Reunion 2012

Yes, it's ANOTHER reunion post. I feel like I've done too many of these, but I go (generally) to four reunions a year (Morkovksy, Kallus, Orsak and Hahn/Zielonka.) They're so full of family and food and other things this blog is supposed to be about that it's hard not to write about them. The Kallus reunion was last Saturday at the church hall in St. Mary's, outside of Hallettsville on FM 340 in Lavaca County. Kallus is my mother's maiden name.

The bad news - only 75 people attended this year, down from 100 in 2011. The good news - the poeple, music and food. They were 75 wonderful people, clearly committed to maintaining family ties. There were lots of traditional dishes on the long food tables and a keg of Shiner. Three relatives brought instruments this year -- two guitars and an accordion -- and the music was sweet. It was lovely to hear Al Mladenka playing Czech waltzes on the accordion as we ate lunch. And in the afternoon, people sang along to "She'll be Comin' Round the Mountain," "The Streets of Laredo," and "Amazing Grace." There were only 6 children under the age of 11, but they played together even though they didn't know each other, which is partially the point of a reunion.. re-uniting, re-connecting.

Above is my son playing his great-great-grandmother's guitar. My great-grandfather played piano and organ and he wanted his wife to play something, too, so he bought her this guitar. It got passed down and refurbished and the current owner brought it to the reunion so the children could have their picture taken with it.

The lunch line.

The dessert table.
Texas-Czech food was well-represented on the lunch table this year, though going through the photos I took, I realized that all the traditional food I shot was BROWN.  

Barbecued Chicken

Poppyseed Cake

Apple Strudel

Potatoes with Butter and Onions

Three Kinds of Sausage

Potato Salad
Roast Pork and Gravy (Steve Orsak)

Homemade Noodles (auction item from Marion Dierschke)
My plate groaned with starches, but Uncle George and Maggie brought fresh green beans with onions and someone else brought roasted beets. My son always goes straight for the pork products. For dessert, I personally sampled the strudel, coconut cake and apple brown betty. My favorite overheard comment of the day.... "Tofu! Who eats that stuff? They're certainly not Czech."

The list of foods we had this year:
Meat - barbecued chicken, fried chicken (4), pork roast with gravy, barbecued pork loin, sausage (3), baked penne with meat sauce, spaghetti with meat sauce, turkey spaghetti.
Sides - roasted beets, pinto beans (3), green beans (2), buttered corn (2), corn casserole (2), potatoes with butter and onions (2), mashed potatoes (2), macaroni and cheese, potato salad (3), three bean salad, cole slaw, green bean casserole, ramen noodle salad, home-canned dill pickles.
Desserts - chocolate chip cookies (2), poppyseed cake (2), fresh fruit, vanilla wafer cake, pecan pie, apple strudel (3), coconut cake, pineapple upside down cake, chocolate sheet cake, cream cheese bars, coconut pie, dump cake, apple brown betty, apple pie, poppyseed cupcakes.

Not only was there great food for lunch and lots of discussion of food, but half the auction items were food-related. Every year, the family sets up a silent auction to help defray the costs of the hall, disposables, tea, etc. plus the income allows the family to make donations to a local church or buy flowers for Grandpa and Grandma Kallus' graves (my great-grandparents whom I never knew) and have masses said. (It's been over 40 years since Alois and Theresa Kallus died and the family is still buying flowers for their graves. I can only hope someone will be doing that for me some day.) Homemade foods (canned and baked goods) are always the biggest sellers. Auction items included a gallon of homemade noodles (which my Dad bought me for my birthday), plum butter, home-canned pears, dilled okra, peanut brittle, plum jelly with jalapenos, pepper sauce, breads, vodka-soaked apricots, and garlic pickles.

Pears, dilled okra, and plum jelly with jalapenos.
A package called "All Things Czech" included a pear strudel, a Dujka Brothers CD, a 6-pack of Shiner Bock, cream cheese kolaches, homemade noodles, dewberry jam, and garlic pickles. It pretty much encapsulated Texas Czech culture for a high bid of $45. Someone donated a framed family portrait of my grandfather with his parents, brothers and sisters. My favorite item, though, was a set of very old glass bottles dug up from/out of the cellar of my great-grandfather's general store in Wied, TX which closed in 1936.  One of the great-grandchildren was studying archaeology and wanted to do a dig. The family located the cellar and is apparently still digging things up a year after starting. It was simply wonderful that the auction was not a garage sale dump of sorts, but items were thoughtful reminders of where we as a family came from and what we hold important.

I had a long chat with a second cousin who also drove from Austin. She told herself this was the last year she was going to come to the reunion. We lamented how hard it was to fit this event into our busy lives while feeling like we don't even spend enough time with our most immediate family... mothers, sisters, aunts. She started a "Czech Girls Beach Weekend" to try and honor those closest relationships and that's difficult enough. Once the oldest generation passes away, the fabric of family starts to unravel at the top and families re-cluster from the bottom up. My grandmother was the last of the oldest generation in the Kallus family and she died in January. I don't know that the 25 people who didn't come to the reunion this year that came last year didn't show because my grandmother passed on, but maybe that had a bit to do with it. I have 24 first cousins and 3 brothers and sisters and only one of those 27 people came to the reunion. Of my 9 living aunts and uncles, only 2 came. I'm not trying to instill guilt if any of them read this post. I'm illustrating how time and the busy, busy lives we lead wears away at extended family, even in the Czech community where family ties have historically been the basis for its social structure. I wonder what the reunion attendance numbers will be like next year.

I had lunch with my brothers the day after the reunion in Austin and one of them was telling me about hearing Deepok Chopra speak. Chopra talked about a person being made up on a molecular level of bits from trees, precious metals, rivers, even other people.  This made me think about what grounds me. Reunions help. I must have a disproportionately high percentage of molecules from Czechs in me... and maybe the Beskydy Mountains, plants like caraway and cabbage, and maybe some garnets.     

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

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, 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.