Tuesday, March 26, 2013

South Texas Polka and Sausage Fest 2013

Last Sunday, my good friend Lori and I spent seven hours or so at the South Texas Polka and Sausage Festival at the Knights of Columbus (KC) Hall in Hallettsville. Lori and I both know the hall well. I learned to dance in that hall with my Dad. I'd seen my Uncle Bobby play drums with the bands Kross Kountry and then The Velvets in the hall in the 1970s and early 80s. My grandparents' 40th wedding anniversary party was there. And I attend the Morkovsky family reunion every year there. But I'd never had more fun in the hall than I did on Sunday. The only way I could have had an even better day would have been to dance more. But Lori and I were working.

If you've been reading my blog, you'll know that Lori and I are producing  a multi-media traveling exhibit called Texas Czechs: Rooted in Tradition, which will open in October.  We are deep into both fundraising and doing the research, writing, and filming of the exhibit's content. Sunday, we scored the Hall of Fame room in the back of the hall to interview about 25 people for the exhibit's short films. When we walked into the room, I noticed immediately my grandfather's portrait hanging in a corner in a long line of portraits. He, George Kallus, was the Grand Knight of the Hallettsville KC's from 1941-1943. It was like a blessing for the day to see his handsome face up there. In fact, one of the first things I learned to say in Czech was for him... "Muj mily dedecku, rada vas mam, hubicku vam dam." ("My dear grandfather, I love you and I will give you a kiss.")

Lori's only dance of the day; a polka with Lee Roy Petersen.
My only dance of the day; a waltz with Lee Roy Petersen.

Lori and I handed out flyers, talked up the exhibit to anyone who would listen, and got connected to people from all over the state.... West, Dallas, Wharton, Karnes City, Jourdanton, Pearland. We interviewed a 16 year old girl and a 96 year old woman and many, many ages in between. The overriding theme was how proud people are of their Czech heritage. We asked them three questions... what word or phrase in Czech did you learn first, what generation Texas-Czech are you, and does your last name mean anything? These simple questions brought out the most beautiful, poignant answers. I got teary-eyed a few times during the day, but the sweetest moment was filming brother and sister Bea (Steffek) Welfe and David Steffek and their friend singing a capella for us. For David, learning to sing Czech songs was a powerful way for him to express his Czech-ness. As 5th in a line of 11 kids, he missed the opportunity to learn to speak the language as his two oldest sisters did. All three interviewees sang with such passion and love that it makes me teary-eyed now to just think about it. 

The day had so many highlights, it's hard to pin only a few down. I danced with the smoothest 77 year old there, Lee Roy Petersen. (Lee Roy and his wife, Gwen, started the Texas Music and Heritage Dance Club and have a sweet blog on their website.) Polka dancing is FUN... fun in the real sense of the word, like that feeling of freedom and movement you felt skipping or swinging dangerously high when you were 5. The joy on people's faces as they were circling the floor was a beautiful thing. And watching Dancing with the Stars doesn't hold a candle to watching couples who've been dancing together for 20, 30, 40, 50 years, like they were one organism.

I got to see close to 25 musicians (4 bands and random others) together on the big KC Hall stage for the fest's sing-along. It was a wall of sound. The crowd belted out "Aj Ja Sam" and other favorites and the atmosphere was seriously infectious. How about 6 accordions on one stage; the youngest was Mark Hermes of The Czechaholics, the oldest was Anton Vrazel from, of course, the legendary Vrazels Polka Band. What a treat. Live is definitely the way to hear this music.  

The crowd pressed close to the stage during the sing-along. People were more polite than those in mosh pits I was in in my early 20s, but just as enthusiastic.

Fritz Hodde's son, Scott, on saxophone
and accordionist Betty Gaskamp play during the singalong.

Sometimes I wonder how so many church picnics, cultural festivals, polka dances, wedding and funerals can get away with serving the same foods year after year, event after event. Of course, it's because it's so damn good. I was surprised on Sunday to have the richest, thickest, savoriest, tastiest bowl of chicken noodle soup I'd ever eaten. Sorry Dad! It was garlicky; it was peppery; it was piping hot; the broth swam around the thin egg noodles and bits of ground chicken... and it was $1.50. No joke. The meal plates were no less wonderful... sausage or fried chicken,  sharp sauerkraut, German potatoes, bread and kolaches from Country Czech Bakery in Hillsboro. The name "German potatoes" is a little misleading. It's not German potato salad, but rather what my family just calls potatoes with butter and onions... partially mashed boiled potatoes that have been doused with melted butter that onions have been sauteing in. Add some salt and lots of black pepper. The potatoes alone were worth the trip to Hallettsville. It was food to fuel work in the fields so Lori and I were well fortified for seven hours of gabbing.

The day overwhelmed us with inspiration for the exhibit. We sincerely want to capture the pride and effort of Texas Czechs today to keep their cultural traditions alive. And the event was a microcosm of what's going on in the state... food (made and shared communally), fellowship, joy, heritage, dancing, music, history, language, family, cross-generational exchanges, and a rock-solid sense of community. The event, after all, raises money for Sacred Heart school's athletics program in Hallettsville. 
Gwen Petersen's smile and her red button (courtesy of the awesome website PolkaBeat) pretty much say it all... Polka On! 

The event was covered by PolkaBeat, Daily Yonder, and there was a mention on the Scrumptious Chef blog. If you'd like to contribute to the production of the travelling exhibit Texas Czechs: Rooted in Tradition, you can do so on the PolkaWorks website or contact me for information. PolkaWorks is a 501c3 nonprofit organization. 

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Kolaches in the Capitol

Austin may the State capitol and the live music capitol of the world, but it is not the "Kolache Capitol of Texas." That honor (or designation) was bestowed on Caldwell, Texas in 1989 by the Texas Legislature. However, if you've got a craving for kolaches in Austin, I offer my humble recommendations as a Texas-Czech, a foodie, and a baker of kolaches myself. I am biased by these perspectives, without a doubt, so my choices for respectable kolach purveyors in Austin make up an extremely short (but worthy) list. (This post is part of the Austin Food Blogger Alliance's Austin City Dining Guide 2013.)

First, a lesson for the uninitiated. Kolaches are a type of pastry brought to Texas by Czech immigrants. They've morphed over the generations and what we call kolaches in Texas are similar, but not exactly like their great-great-grandparents in the Czech Republic. They're not even exactly like their cousins in Nebraska, Illinois, Iowa or other places in the US where Czechs also settled.

Generally, the soft, fragrant, yeasty dough has been coaxed into a square shape by butting up against other kolaches while rising and baking on a rectangular cookie sheet. They can be open-faced or closed. Traditional fillings are fruit, sweetened cottage or cream cheese, or poppyseeds. In the world of commercial bakeries, dough wrapped around sausage, ham and cheese, or other savory ingredients are also called kolaches, even though they're not. This makes for much confusion if you're searching for the real thing on sites like Yelp!, where well-meaning, but clueless eaters write posts like "Love their kolaches!" about donut shops that wrap Little Smokies in Sysco-supplied croissant dough. Do not be fooled!

Kolaches are like the taco of Texas Czech cuisine – you can find them everywhere, done well and done badly, cooked at home and commercially, in artisan versions and fast food versions, filled with traditional fillings and unconventional ones.  They have aficionados and purists and also lovers who aren't from the kolach’s culture of origin but have adopted them as their own. Here are the three places in Austin at which I'll eat a kolach...

Zubikhouse's bacon, apple and brie kolaches. Photo from the Zubikhouse website.

The Zubikhhouse
Zubikhouse sells kolaches and a few breakfast items using kolach dough from a trailer at the downtown farmer's market on Saturdays. This is the only establishment I know of in Austin run by an actual, honest-to-goodness Texas Czech. Though Andy Zubik serves an untraditional smoked pork shoulder with local honey and pickled jalapenos kolach and a Sweet Mexican vanilla and cottage cheese kolach, these combinations seem like well-thought-out nods to local flavors rather than deliberate cultural hodge podges created just to attract non-Czechs to the joys of the kolach. (Which is what you'll find at chain kolach bakeries.) Andy's flavors change periodically, so try what strikes your fancy. But, if they have them, I recommend the bacon, brie and apple kolach, the Czech Dog with sausage, or the traditional prune and apricot.

Zubikhouse's trailer at the Dowtown Farmer's Market.
Photo from the Zubikhouse website.
Moonlight Bakery's jalapeno and cheese kolach on the left
and a blueberry kolach on the right. 
Moonlight Bakery
Moonlight Bakery on South Lamar makes everything from scratch which automatically gives them a leg up over many commercial bakeries. The dough is dense, yeasty, almost a square shape and they sprinkle posipka on top (like s streusel topping of butter, sugar and flour, which is traditional to me.) The blueberry kolaches were filled with real blueberries - what a treat! And try the apple, apricot, or cream cheese. But get there early. By the time I got to the bakery at 9am (most Austin hipsters were still asleep), there were literally only 4 kolaches left.... not 4 varieties, but 4 kolaches.

Kolache Creations (formerly Kolache Shoppe)
This place has been around for 30 years and truly feels like a small town bakery. It is my choice for old-school commercial kolach bakeries, but be selective. The best bets here are the closed poppyseed kolaches, or the cream cheese, cottage cheese, or prune. Not all their fruit fillings get the same care and attention as these do. Order the sausage "kolaches" at your own risk - unfortunately, Kolache Creation DOES use Little Smokies for these, though the dough is good. On some level, if you're a sausage lover, there is not a bad sausage kolach... anything smoky and salty and porky will do the trick. But for a Texas-Czech that grew up with homemade kolaches, using Little Smokies is like making macaroni and cheese with Cheez Whiz. Try the the bacon and cheese "kolaches" instead, which are busting with chopped bacon and cheddar cheese (though these are not traditional fillings.)

There are at least a dozen other places in Austin you could get a sausage wrapped in dough and, like I said above, if you're a sausage lover, it is hard to get a bad one. Especially when these bakeries are buying commercially-produced sausage. Really, they only need to get the dough right to have a sellable product. So, if that's what you're after, just Google kolaches in Austin and you can probably find a bakery close to you. But for fruit or cheese kolaches, I can only recommend the bakeries above. I recently got notice that Salt and Time will be making kolaches with Stephanie McClenny's Confituras strawberry jam. I hope to try them soon, so I can add them to the list above. It's a disgracefully short list for the capitol of Texas.