Summer in Texas means church picnics. The website www.texasczechs.com lists the dates for over 60 statewide throughout the year. But from May through September, there is a concentration of events in the predominantly Czech and German Catholic churches in Fayette and Lavaca Counties in South Central Texas. On a hot Sunday in July (the 21st this year), the Ascension of Our Lord Catholic Church in the community of Moravia hosts its annual picnic, which raises funds for upkeep of the church, its halls, and cemetery. Local residents, their children and grandchildren, have continued this tradition for decades - like Gene Marie and Arnold Bohuslav - Texas Czechs that have been living in the community their whole lives and cooking at the picnic for most of that time.
|Gene Marie and Arnold Bohuslav|
Moravia is a tiny community (less than 200 people) in Lavaca County locatable by finding the intersection of Farm roads 957 and 532. Though originally settled by Anglo setters, it was taken over by Czech immigrants in the 1870s as many communities in the Lavaca/Fayette County area were.
The church was built in 1912 and was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1983. Originally the picnic was exactly that, an event where parishioners cooked at home and brought food to share. Gene Marie remembers her mother cooking for it when she was a little girl (she was born in 1936) and being shooed away so her mother could get things done.
The event outgrew its quaint origins, though. In the last few years, the parishioners added a “drive-through” line for hungry supporters who travel from local towns after mass to pick up a plate to take home. One man simply drove up with his own half gallon glass jar to have it filled with stew. Those who attend the entire event, though, enjoy a cake walk, children’s game, ice cream and beer for sale, a live auction, and Czech polka music in the wooden, unairconditioned hall. The picnic serves not only as a fundraiser, but as a church, family and community reunion all in one.
|Gene Marie breading chicken pieces for frying.|
Gene Marie and her husband Arnold had been helping fry the chicken at the Moravia picnic for over 55 years and have been in charge of the operation for most of that time. They oversaw at least 20 volunteers working at a time to trim, bread, and fry the chicken beginning at 5:30am on the day of the picnic. Gene Marie’s father and a cousin of his are the men who added the item in the mid 1950s to the already established menu which consisted of stew, sauerkraut, green beans, potatoes with butter and onions, canned peaches, iced tea, and sweets. The menu is still exactly the same, only the final count is closer to 6,000 pieces of chicken fried for either take-away plates or to eat in the church hall.
Gene Marie (maiden name Halata) has a respectable Czech and cooking background that prepared her for the job she and Arnold only just passed on to the next generation. An only child, both her parents were Texas Czech and spoke only Czech in their home. She grew up literally cooking at her mother’s side the staples of Texas Czech cuisine from kolaches and noodles to sausage, dumplings, and cooked cheese. Talking about her parents, grandparents, and extended family, she mentions numerous communities in the area with serious Czech heritage… Praha, Komensky, Moravia, Novohrad. She and her husband, Arnold, were married in 1955 and had four daughters and a son. They’ve farmed - cotton, corn, milo – and attended the Ascension of our Lord Church all their lives. Her father physically built the parish hall where the meal is held now and his home hosted the sausage making enterprise that fried chicken eventually replaced on the menu.
Community members donate the desserts for the picnic’s lunch, nowadays mostly sheet or bundt cakes or cupcakes for ease. Kolaches and other Czech baked goods are now scarce treasures that disappear from the self-serve dessert table quickly. One neighbor made 17 cakes; Gene Marie made a mere 7 in 2011, including German chocolate, chocolate, angel food, and a white sheet cake. Her specialty, ruzicky, were made for the cake walk and the auction, along with three gallons of homemade noodles.
|Gene Marie's gorgeous finished ruzicky.|
Ruzicky (rosettes) are light, thin pastries deep fried on a decorative iron and then iced or dusted with powdered sugar. The pastries’ origin is Scandinavian, but the Texas Czech community embraced them, calling them ruzicky (Czech for little roses.) Gene Marie’s recipe is from her mother, as are many of the irons she uses, but she created her own style of finishing the pastries, using dried and colored coconut and powdered sugar icing. All four of her daughters can make them, but not all of them eat them since diets and health concerns change from generation to generation. Gene Marie learned the craft from her mother, who was also known as the community’s ruzicky-maker. They’re prepared for weddings, church picnic, fundraisers, and family holidays. She’ll take special orders, but only for friends or to support her community.
|Gene Marie and three of her daughters.|
In fact, the last gallon jar of Gene Marie’s ruzicky that I saw auctioned off started a bidding war between two of her friends that ended with a price tag of $190. It was a fitting tribute to her. Her history in the community and with the picnic lends itself to jokes about the event being scheduled just for her (her birthday sometimes falls on the picnic date), though attendance continues to rise as does the community support to produce it, even though the number of parishioners is in decline.
Nanny’s Rosettes (from Gene Marie Bohuslav)
2 tsp. sugar
1 cup milk
1 cup flour
¼ tsp. salt
1 tsp. vanilla
Crisco oil for frying
Add sugar to slightly beaten eggs, then add milk and vanilla. Sift flour with salt and stir into first mixture and beat until smooth. Let batter rest for 2 hours.
Dip rosette iron into hot fat to heat it then drain excess fat off on a wet cloth. Dip the iron in the batter, being careful not to let the batter cover the top edge of the iron, and then quickly immerse the battered iron into the hot fat. Cook each rosette 2-3 minutes, until golden. Remove the rosette from the iron using a fork if needed to nudge and drain on paper towels. Drain excess fat off the iron on wet cloth. Repeat until all batter is used. Let rosettes cool.
1 egg white
finely ground and dried coconut
Add vanilla to beaten egg white. Add sugar - enough for a creamy consistency. Dip top side of the rosettes in icing, then into coconut. After all rosettes have been iced and dried, toast in a low temperature over for 45 minutes. Turn off oven. When cool, store in an air-tight tin.