Tuesday, April 16, 2013

In Praise of the Czech Heritage Society

Me, J.G. Hrncir (Lavaca Chapter President and
brother of my late Aunt Jerrilyn) and my cohort, Lori Najvar
I am a member of the Travis-Williamson Co. Chapter of the Texas Czech Heritage Society (CHS), though I rarely go to meetings, but last Sunday, Lori Najvar and I made a presentation to the Lavaca County Chapter of the Society at their quarterly meeting, which happened in the Hall of Fame room at the Knights of Columbus Hall in Hallettsville, the county seat of Lavaca County. We did our dog and pony show about our exhibit, Texas Czechs: Rooted in Tradition, currently in production. The Society was started in 1982 and is dedicated to the preservation of Texas Czech heritage through genealogy, history, music, customs, food, costumes, and language. It does this work through 15 chapters across the state. 

At these kinds of meetings, one must first sing the Czech national anthem and recite the Pledge of  Allegiance. (What other group is so comfortable with their Amercian-ness that they pass out the words to the Pledge of Allegiance in another language? I love Czechs.) Then one must sit through the requisite reading of the previous meeting’s minutes and the treasurer's report. But after that, the group surprised me by discussing one activity after another. From a tarok tournament (card game) to hosting the statewide Society meeting; from Youth Day at the Texas Czech Heritage and Cultural Center to crowning their chapter's 2013 Queen, JG was leading the group in fulfilling their mission. They've even built a pretty useful website.
2012 Miss Lavaca Czech-Slovak Queen Caitlin Orsak
(no relation) crowning the 2013 Queen. At left is the 2012
Miss Lavaca Little Czech Sister, Kenna Kubenka.

After our presentation about the Texas Czechs exhibit, there was very good discussion among the members about what kind of information we were focusing on. We were reminded how the community feels defined to a certain degree by a very strong work ethic and the values of faith and citizenship. I heard again the saying "Bez prace, nejsou kolache." ("Without work, there are no kolaches.") These sentiments were echoed in the speeches of Caitlin, Kenna and Ashley, the Chapter Queens and Little Sister, as they told the group what it meant to them to have a strong Czech heritage.

Ashley Becan,
2013 Miss Lavaca Czech-Slovak Queen

And then, there was the potluck... chicken salad sandwiches, deviled eggs, pecan and lemon meringue pies, ranger cookies, buchty (cheese roll or pecan roll), chips and dips, homemade pickles and coffee, tea or Lone Star beer. And the door prizes... homemade noodles from Martha Sitka and homemade Mustang grape wine from Evelyn Konvicka (which I won by choosing my own number without realizing it!) Lori and I enjoyed a glass on her front porch after we'd driven back to Austin that evening. She reminisced about the Mustang wine her parents made which she got to sample as a kid, just a small amount, over ice. Mustang grapes grow wild and Lori and her family would pick them in the pasture, growing on fences and up in trees. I offered my 14-year old a taste when I got home with the bottle. He took a tiny sip, but scrunched his nose up at it.

Martha Sitka's pecan pie.

Helen Janak's deviled eggs.

Kountry Bakery's buchty.

Even better than the food itself, though, was the talk around the svacina (snack) table. Kenna Kubenka’s mother told us she and her husband had Kenna attend a whole hog butchering this year, not just the sausagemaking which she’d seen several times. She wanted her daughter to know where her food really came from. One woman came up to tell me that my grandparents would come to her family’s farm near Wied every year for loads of tomatoes. There was also mention of outhouses, ungrateful children who don’t work hard, walking across fields to get to church at St. Mary’s near Hallettsville, and someone affectionately calling my grandmother Aunt Nita, even when she wasn’t an aunt.  J.G. and his wife Janice regaled us with stories of visiting the Czech Republic, sleeping in the Hrncir home from the 1860s, and offering connections with museums there at which our exhibit could be displayed.

Though we received generous contributions from Chapter members to help make the Texas Czechs exhibit happen, we left the meeting with so much more... inspiration, validation for our efforts, a renewed respect for the CHS, connections, full stomachs, and homemade wine.

If you would also like to make a donation in support of the exhibit Texas Czechs: Rooted in Tradition, you can do so through PayPal on the PolkaWorks website or contact me for a mailing address to which you can send a check. 

Monday, April 1, 2013

Mazanec, Lilies and Family Stories for Easter

The baked and sliced loaf. 

Slicing the cross into the loaf of Mazanec before baking.

Last Sunday, my parents-brothers-sister-spouses-children and I had lunch together for Easter at my sister's house in Houston. I baked Mazanec, which is a Czech bread made for Easter. It's very much like (if not exactly the same as) Vanocka made for Christmas. The slightly sweet dough is filled with raisins and almonds. Recipes vary, of course... some call for soaking the raisins in rum; some sprinkle almonds on top, too; some dust the finished loaf with powered sugar. I only had Vanocka occasionally growing up and never ate Mazanec. My mother remembers Vanocka fondly but, when asked about Mazanec, she had a vague memory of a loaf with the cross cut on top,  but not a memory of who made it. It seems that it was a tradition that died out early in our family, but I'm going to revive it. 

It was delicious and, as my mom said it would be, better the next day toasted and dipped in coffee. On Easter Sunday, we ate it buttered with our lunch because I didn't get it into the oven the night before, so it was still baking Sunday morning while we gulped our coffee down trying to get to my sister's house on time. The rest of the lunch menu was ham with pineapple chutney, peas, carrots, potatoes with butter and onions, roasted and marinated asparagus and beets, a curried quinoa salad with spinach, an olive and pickle tray, and deviled Easter eggs.

This is a bittersweet occasion since my mother's mother (we called her Datu) died in January of 2012 at 96 years old. We spent many Easters at her house in Hallettsville as adults with our children doing the same things we do at my sister's... eating a potluck lunch and having an Easter egg hunt for the kids. We add our own twists to the day now. We had a 120-egg cascarones fight made possible by my nephew and his girlfriend who drove from Laredo where he's a reporter. And the day ended with all the kids (and a few uncles) in the swimming pool, even in March. But the basic components of the day at my sister's house are the same as when we spent it with my grandmother... sharing food, enjoying the Texas sunshine, kids going crazy on sugar, and building relationships with cousins that will hopefully last a lifetime.
My son and my brother's son.
I'd been thinking about my grandmother since I'd stopped by her house a week before and was struck by the sight of bright orange lilies in the backyard garden. I took a photo for my mom and she emailed it to her sister, my Aunt Maryann, who told this story about the flowers. 

Lilies in my grandmother's
backyard in Hallettsville.
"Mine are also blooming and I hope they last until Easter. They are St. Joseph's lilies. According to Datu when she gave me a bulb to plant, the original plant was given to Aunt Bessie when she had Joseph in March, 1938. Aunt Bessie was given her plant by her brother, our Uncle Joe, who, along with his wife, Aunt Lillie and another of their brothers, Monsignor Alois Joseph, was also born in March (all on March 16th strangely.) Uncle Joe and Aunt Lil were my godparents so that is the reason I remember the story of the lilies!"

St. Joseph's lilies in my mother's

backyard in Katy.
My mother then wrote "I knew Datu got the original bulb from Aunt Bessie, but had forgotten the rest of the story. Mine are also blooming, which is really special. I think Aunt Charleen planted some in her flower bed as well. I'll dig up a bulb for you so that it can be passed down to the next generation. Isn't it wonderful that all these flowers came from a single bulb before 1938? We really need to preserve it so that it lasts at least 100 years in our family."

Lilies in my Aunt Maryann's
backyard in Galveston.
There was a theme of family stories to our Easter Sunday as well. My mother and I looked through old photographs of her mother's family, trying to identify people, places and dates, now that my grandmother is not here to do that. My mother knows wonderful family stories that I want my children to know, too. And our family is blessed with really old and amazing photographs, collections of which stayed intact with my grandmother eventually being their caretaker. I remember sitting in the nursing home with Datu a few times looking through photos with her and trying to memorize every word she said about them. Of course, I couldn't. I was afraid to write down what she was saying for fear that I'd be letting her know that I thought she wouldn't be on this earth much longer. I was afraid she'd think I just wanted her knowledge for identification purposes rather than to simply BE with her. Now I realize those things were one in the same and feel that she would have been pleased (and relieved) that someone younger wanted to record family history. But, I can never get those moments back now or ask her questions again.

An example above of the photos my mother and I tried to identify, piecing together things we'd been told about them and memories of people we actually knew.  My mother's mother is the standing at the far right. I can see my own's son serious expression on her face. It was the birthday party of Jaunita Raska, the girl standing with the white bows in her hair and my grandmother's cousin. My great aunt Marie is second from the right, seated. The photo was taken around 1920, probably somewhere in Lavaca County.
I recently read a wonderful article in the New York Times about the power of stories and shared history to strengthen a family. I want to be the kind of mother and grandmother and great-grandmother that can be the family historian sharing stories (and recipes) spanning generations from my great grandparent's lives down to my great-children's. Since I'm planning to live to 96 with all my faculties like my grandmother, that should be doable.