Wednesday, June 26, 2013

I Love Potlucks!

I love potlucks. Last night, I attended the monthly meeting of the Austin Czech Historical Association (ACHA) at the Gethsemane Lutheran Church Fellowship Hall. Members share a potluck meal together and then listen to a speaker or musician or other interesting person present some topic related to Czech or Texas-Czech culture. This group has the evening's timing down right. BEFORE the program, we go through the line on either side of the long tables set with dishes and we make our plates. And the event is BYOB, which people do. We are Czech, after all.

I heard someone comment that this evening there were too many meats and not enough vegetables in reaction to a previous meeting where the opposite was true. That's the nature of potlucks and the fun. I personally loved having three kinds of sausage on my plate. And Czechs do know how to balance the flavors of a meal. A little rich pork and something sour to cut it - pickles, olives, vinegar-based cole slaw, vinegar-dressed green salad, sauerkraut. (There was a corn casserole, broccoli-rice casserole, and au gratin potatoes as well.) Then something sweet to finish the evening.

The program starts after everyone has moved onto coffee and dessert.  There were oatmeal cookies and peanut butter cookies, poppyseed cake and cherry pie, and kolaches from Hruska's. Sometimes the people and the discussion are like the potluck meal itself... occasionally random, or you get 3 or 4 of the same thing. Usually there are few surprises, but also familiar staples. I was lucky enough to sit at a table with or spend time with Gene Volcik, Alice Kubacak, and Tutty Maixner - wonderful story tellers and funny as hell. Conversation topics ranged from high school sweethearts, old dance halls, and easiest and most difficult surgery (to go through), to favorite kolach flavors, drunk polka bands in the 1950s, and pickle recipes. Everyone should have to periodically spend time with people at least 30 years older than themselves for as long as they can - how grounding, how comforting, how humbling, and how interesting. And family reunions and cultural meeting potlucks are great places to do that.

Lori Najvar and Gene Volcik.
I took a loaf of banana bread for dessert. The recipe came from my sister years ago and she wrote on the recipe card that she got it from a Czech cookbook given to my Dad by my grandmother, but she didn't write which cookbook. She did, however, write the Czech name for the loaf on the card - Bananova Babovka.

1/3 cup butter
1/2 cup sugar
2 eggs
1 3/4 cup flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon slat
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1 cup mashed bananas ( I used 3 bananas)
1/2 cup nuts
3/4 cup raisins
1 teaspoon cinnamon and sugar

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Cream the sugar, butter and eggs. Add the dry ingredients, the bananas, nuts, and raisins. Pour mixture into a greased loaf pan. Sprinkle the top with the cinnamon/sugar. Bake for 1 hour.

The ACHA's monthly programs are sort of like a potluck, too. Lori and I have presented several times, but there have also been talks about Czech celebrities and politics, music performances by accordionists and singers, and an egg decorating demonstration. For last night's program, Carolyn Heinsohn gave a great talk about the Texas Czech Heritage and Cultural Center (TCHCC) in LaGrange. Carolyn is a volunteer at the Center and former State President of the Czech Heritage Society. The TCHCC's mission is to "preserve and promote the history, language, culture, and heritage of Texans of Czech ethnicity." It does so through a library, museum, archives and with public programs.  The current exhibit is of photographs from area professional photographers of the early 1900s, including Jno. Trlica.

Texas Czech Heritage and Cultural Center in La Grange

Thursday, June 20, 2013

St. Mary's Picnic 2013

On Sunday the 10th, my cohort Lori Najvar and I went to the annual church picnic in the community of St. Mary's outside of Hallettsville on FM 340.

Parishioner volunteers measuring out picnic stew
to sell by the quart in the "drive-thru" line.
The first religious activity in Lavaca County happened in the area around the present St. Mary’s Catholic Church, near Smothers Creek, which dates back to a missionary effort in 1841.  And the beginning of Sacred Heart Parish in Hallettsville (where my parents were married) resulted from this effort. My mother's father's side of the family has had their reunion at the St. Mary's church hall the last few years, so I'd been there several times for that event.

But Lori and I were there to work - interviewing, filming and photographing for the travelling exhibit we're producing called Texas Czechs: Rooted in Tradition. Lori's been collecting film footage from church picnics in traditionally Czech rural area for years... Ammansville, Praha, Dubina, St. John's, Moravia, Sacred Heart in Halletsville, and St. Mary's, too. But to tell a fuller story in the exhibit about these sweet events, we needed more footage of food and the auction. And we can never get enough footage of polka bands, which are the steady beating heart of the picnics.
We were impressed by the preparations, the sheer volume of food, the hardworking characters in the kitchen, and the teamwork.  Restaurants know how important it is to have a well-oiled machine of chefs, sous chefs, prep guys and dishwashers in the kitchen. They work elbow to elbow day after day. But the group of people working the kitchen at the St. Mary's picnic (run by Helen Janak's daughter Judy Opela - photo above - who took over after Helen ran the kitchen for years) are all volunteers who just get together once a year. But when the proverbial dinner bell rang at 11:30am, the steaming chafers full of food were paraded out of the kitchen to the long tables set under the Last Supper print hanging in the hall and the diners started lining up.

Full plate for $8! Photo: Lori Najvar.

The menu included picnic stew, sausage made special for the picnic once a year by Janak's outside of Hallettsville, potatoes with butter and onions, green beans, sauerkraut, home-canned pickles, and "homemade" bread from Kountry Bakery. When Czechs say homemade bread, they're talking about a style, not a description of the baking process. And the desserts! These were donated by parishioners and locals...  all flavors of cakes, brownies, kolaches and buchty.


The live auction included antiques, handmade quilts,foods like noodles and jellies, arts and crafts, livestock and a GORGEOUS panoramic photo of St. Mary's Church taken by St. Edward's University professor Joe Vitone, which PolkaWorks donated. Lori started interviewing the woman working in the auction booth (where payment is taken) and one of the woman was the granddaughter of the sister of my grandmother's Aunt Clara (Mozisek) Sykora. I asked because Mozisek is an unusual name. And thank goodness I know my genealogy well enough to ask questions. My son thinks I'm a dork, but I think it's fun to realize you're related to someone. And finding those kinds of connections roots me deeper in that area, which I appreciate as I get older.
In fact, a theme for the day was that almost every single person I talked to at the picnic was either related to me somehow or knew my parents or grandparents. One woman told me about sitting next to my grandmother in a Houston hospital in the late 1970s as my grandmother accompanied my grandfather to chemo treatments. Another man told me about sharing his lunch money with my mom in elementary school. Joe Puska, the man in charge of sauerkraut for the day (and Lori's cousin) had an uncle marry my great aunt Elizabeth... so we were sort of related, too!) I loved every reminiscence and every connection.

The "country store" also sold homemade canned and baked goods, crafts, fresh vegetables and eggs. I was stopped in my tracks by the sign that advertised farm eggs for $2 a dozen or $2.50 for a dozen and a half. Two dollars for a dozen farm eggs? I'd have to pay triple that at the Sunset Valley Farmers Market near my house and have to listen to singer songwriters while I made my purchase.

Lori hard at work filming the band.

A spectacular lightning display and storm cloud showing around noon added drama to the day. The loudest thunder clap I'd ever heard prefaced the electricity going out throughout the picnic. So our timing was right to listen to Texas Sound Check acoustically, which made the sounds even sweeter. I imagined my relatives who lived in a pre-electricity time enjoying some polka on a Sunday afternoon sounding pretty much just like what I was hearing. Later in the day the Tony Janak Band and Red Ravens played as well, but I don't know if they were electrified or not.
Games on the grounds included bingo, cake walk, basketball throw, fish pond, bean bag throw, ring toss and train ride. What kid doesn't love to play these games? Of course there was beer sold all day and hamburgers sold in the evening, but we hit the road back to Austin  about 1:30pm. My souvenir from the day besides the photos and the memories and the connections to distant relatives?.... the worst case of chiggers I've ever had. I'm still scratching almost two weeks later, but the day was worth it.

Below is my grandmother's recipe for potatoes with butter in onions. Like at the picnic, they're delicious with sausage, but also with baked chicken or pork chops. Don't skimp on the butter or you're missing the point.

Potatoes with Butter and Onions (Anita Kallus, 1915-2012)

Peel and cut into 1" cubes a 5-pound bag of potatoes. Cover them with salted water in a large pot and boil until tender (but they still hold together). Drain them, put them back in the pot, and set aside.

Melt 1 1/2 sticks of butter (or more if you want!) over medium heat in a frying pan. Slice 2 medium onions and fry them in the butter until golden.

Pour the butter and onions over the potatoes and mix well. You're not making mashed potatoes, so the mixture should be a combination of chunks and mashed all mixed up together. Add more salt, if desired, and black pepper to taste.  Feeds a family.