Monday, August 19, 2013

158th Prazska Pout

Last Thursday, I attended the 158th picnic of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary Catholic Church in Praha, Texas. I thought it would be interesting for you, dear blog follower, to first read about my great grandfather, Alois Morkovsky, attending the 28th Praha church picnic. Below is his account of getting to Praha. At the time (1889), he was a single man of 19 working for a farmer in Moulton. He worked the fields, built a hayloft and stable, and hauled loads of stone from Praha for the lining of a well.
He wrote "The Parish Feast in Praha took place in August, and it was more than half a year since I had been there among my old acquaintances. But how to get there the 10 miles distance? We had a young horse that had a habit of first throwing the rider and then letting him mount again and ride. I put on my stout, everyday clothes and saddled the horse. He was full of mischief and indicated that he intended to throw me to the ground. I did not give in. I lost my hat and was hanging on with only one leg, but I did not fall, though the horse tried all his leaps to throw me. His color was bay, but he exerted himself so much that he was all covered with white foam by the time he stopped his foolishness. Then I changed clothes and rode him to Praha. There I found my mail for almost a year past, and among the letters was one from my older brother Joseph. It was only then I learned that, after a painful illness, our father had died of blood poisoning on January 26, 1888. The poor man had enjoyed little happiness on earth. So there remained only my brother Joseph, and the younger one, Adolf. The pastor in Praha at this time was Rev. Fr. Zak, and they were just beginning to build a new church." 
Unfortunately, my great-grandfather didn't write about the picnic itself, but I assume that, even with 130 years between our experiences, we both listened to polka music, both drank a beer, both visited with friends, both were HOT, and ate a similar meal. His trip to Praha, though, was tainted with the sadness of finding out his father had died, while my trip was gratefully less heavy. I did think of him, though, maybe looking out onto the same trees, ruminating about his own ancestors that had passed.

But one can't be too melancholy at the picnic, whose atmosphere was, as you might imagine, joyful. The town is not called Maticka Praha (Mother Praha) for nothing and even on the church's sign the event is called Homecoming. The picnic is truly a sort of Texas-Czech family reunion with happy visitors coming from all over the state to be embraced by the culture to which they feel very strong ties. I ran into the State President of the Czech Heritage Society, visiting deacons from the Czech Republic, my cousin Noel and her mother and son, Gene Marie Bohuslav from Moravia and then her daughter Rene from Austin, the PolkaBeat folks, accordionist Chris Rybak, Miss Czech Texas-Lavaca Co., and Carol Filer and her parents from West. I drug my 14-year-old son and a friend of his along, too, but was really there to film, photograph and interview with Lori Najvar and the PolkaWorks crew for our Texas Czechs exhibit.

Lori and Maria in the church choir loft lugging film and camera gear.
Praha is one of Texas' "painted churches' - you can see some of the
lovely details on the ceiling above their heads.
My favorite moments were spent dancing, enjoying a peaceful moment inside the church after mass, and interviewing Helen Schaefer, the woman who's been in charge of the kitchen at the picnic for over 20 years. She was so generous with her time (the kitchen crew was ridiculously busy, of course) and her knowledge. She had to have been exhausted, but was as kind and smiley as could be.

Lori and I interviewing Helen Schaefer in the kitchen. 
And Helen has to be absolutely fearless to take on serving 5,100 people in one day with just volunteers and love. Everything is literally homemade... the volunteers even peel all the potatoes themselves, starting at 2am that morning. The event is a well-oiled machine and even though the food lines were long, people inched along steadily, visiting and drinking beer and listening to the music as they waited.

An intrepid volunteer in the kitchen after most people had been served. 
And the food is so worth the wait!... the menu is fried chicken, Praha stew, sauerkraut, buttered potatoes, green beans, a pickle spear, white bread, tea or water and a dessert. My plate had a cherry kolach in it.  Helen told us that the only change they've made to the menu since she's been in charge was eliminating the canned peaches. I didn't miss them. My plate already weighed like two pounds! I've been eating the leftovers since Thursday night and loving every bite.

I could not stay as long as I would have liked, but did get to hear both Central Texas Sounds and Texavia as I was working and eating. I love to polka dance and enjoyed one twirl around the pavilion dance floor with Gary McKee, self-proclained King of Fayette County. Thanks, Gary!  You can see a few wonderful photos by Bill Bishop here, including one of Gary and Earline. There was just no way to have a bad time at the picnic. Who can be down when polka dancing and drinking a beer? It's simply not possible. But what made me most happy during the day, besides the accordion music, was being told that, like the picnic in Moravia, attendance at the event continues to RISE every year, even though the number of parishioners continues to decline and get older. Children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren volunteer to come back home and put in the hard work to make the event happen. For the church, for each other, and for the Texas-Czech community.

PolkaWorks has some photos up on our new Flickr page, along with images of other Texas-Czech fieldwork and other PolkaWorks projects. Please have a look at the sights, people, and events that we've been capturing.

Run out of kolaches? Let them eat cake. 

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

When Life Hands You Chicken Necks....

My parents' deep freezer is an amazing place. There aren't many shelves, so the ones that are there (and the shelves in the door) are stacked from the bottom of one to the bottom of another, front to back with frosty packages, some commercial and some things packaged by my parents in Ziplock bags and Tupperware containers. I don't know how they can possibly find anything at the back without taking dozens of pounds of food out first to get to it. It is intimidating and comforting at the same time. My parents could eat for weeks without going to the grocery store.

There are leftovers, of course, plus all cuts of meat bought when on special, vegetables from overabundant gardens, game and fish from family and friends, and store-bought prepared meals for busy nights. A month or so ago, I took home a bag of catfish fillets caught by Aunt Deneise and Uncle Gary. At least that's what I thought I was taking home. The Ziplock bag had the word "catfish" scrawled across it with a Sharpie in my Dad's handwriting and contained off-white, fleshy-looking hunks of meat under the ice crystals.

Chicken parts ready to be skinned and deboned. 
However, when I thawed the bag out, I realized it was full of chicken necks and wings. The bag was bait; it didn't contain catfish, it was FOR catfish. As I've written before, my family does not throw edible things away, so I called my parents to ask what I should do with two pounds of thawed chicken parts. (I am not a Buffalo Wings fan.) "Make broth" was my mother's suggestion.

My grandmother and my son. 
I had just been visiting my 93-year-old grandmother last weekend (above) and interviewed her a bit about her life growing up on a farm in Ratcliffe, a community (not even that really) in DeWitte County, near Cuero. I was amazed, as I always am with stories like hers, about people's resourcefulness in decades past. If I didn't inherit my great-grandmothers' recipes, I certainly inherited, through my parents, an innate drive to save scraps, to make a lot of a little, to stretch foodstuffs, to use up what I had before I bought new. So, with my chicken parts, noodles in the pantry, a few random vegetables sitting expectantly in the refrigerator drawer, and basic spices, I made a killer pot of homemade chicken noodle soup. I feel it would have lived up to the expectations of my great-grandmother who always started Sunday dinner (lunch for us city folks) with soup, as many Eastern Europeans did and still do.

Homemade noodles for the soup.
The simple recipe below is from a cookbook printed by the Smithsonian for its 1995 Folklife Festival when Czech cooks from both the Czech Republic and Texas were featured. It's from one of the two Czech cooks that were there. I doctored the recipe up a bit and my additions are in italics, in case you'd like to follow the original.

Wings and necks do not yield much meat, but it was worth the effort. However, though the soup was wonderful, I do miss the catfish that I thought I was bringing home.

Chicken Soup
from the Czech section of the 1995 Festival of American Folklife Cookbook

1/2 a chicken (or about 2 pounds)
1/4 lb. carrots
1/4 b. celeriac (celery)
1/4 lb. parsnips
sliced mushrooms (optional)
2 cloves garlic
1/4 c. finely chopped parsley
1/2 an onion, left intact
2 sodium-free bouillon cubes or the equivalent
salt to taste
black pepper to taste
6 cups water
noodles to taste (1 1/2 cups dry), cooked al dente

Wash the chicken and boil gently in salted water. When it begins to get tender, add the root vegetables and bouillon. When meat and vegetables are tender, remove them, dicing the vegetables and meat. Chill the stock until you can skim the fat off the top. Return both [the meat and vegetables] together to the stock and add the noodles. Reheat.

I simmered the chicken with the garlic cloves and the onion about an hour and a half. When I removed the meat and vegetables to chop them up, I took the half an onion out, too, but mashed the garlic cloves up in the broth. I added the parsley at the very end so it stayed bright green.

Monday, August 5, 2013

A Venezuelan Czech in Texas

When my 14-year-old was in preschool Montessori, he had a classmate whose grandmother's last name was Tugendhat. I knew it sounded familiar, but couldn't figure out where I'd heard it. Then on a playdate, Marcia asked about my Czech background. She, too, had a Czech background, and I realized where I'd heard the unusual last name.

Many people who've been to the city of Brno in southern Moravia in the Czech Republic have visited the Villa Tugendhat. It is considered a masterpiece of modern architecture, designed by the German architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and built between 1928-1930. The residence is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, reopened in 2012 after restoration. The fascinating story of the house can be read on the Villa Tugendhat website. Even though I've been to Brno three times, I've never visited the house.

The Villa Tugendhat. Brno, Moravia, Czech Republic.
It was built for Fritz and Grete Tugendhat, who were my friend Marcia's grandparents. As Jews, they fled Czechoslovakia for Venezuela in 1938 with their children, including Marcia's father (photo below, taken in Brno.) They eventually ended up in Sankt Gallen, Switzerland, though, which is where Marcia and her immediate family would visit them. In fact, the family was truly scattered by the War, with members ending up in Australia, Canada, Ecuador, Venezuela, Switzerland, Brazil, and the United States. Marcia grew up in Venezuela and came to Texas by way of college in Massachusetts, meeting her husband there, and then moving to Austin for his job.

Grete Tugendhat and her son
- the father of Austinite,
Marcia Tugendhat.
Marcia shared some memories and some recipes with me when I realized her family's background. She wrote "The recipes that I have of my grandmother's (Grete Tugendhat) are more Austrian than Czech, like marillenknodel (apricot dumplings). I haven't made the knodel, but when we were kids and visited our grandmother we had contests to see who could eat more of these incredibly rich delights. And then there is my grandmother's unbelievably awesome sacher torte recipe. I especially love this now that I don't eat any gluten. The cake is made with ground almonds."

"We ate schnitzel when I was a kid because it was a tradition from my father's family, but I don't think there is such a thing as a written recipe. I make it pretty much like Milanesa. In Venezuela we made it with thin pieces of beef (veal was too expensive) and pounded them thin and then breaded them with flour, egg wash and bread crumbs. Now I make it with thin pork. My family ate it with a squeeze of lemon. Here, it is eaten with ketchup or BBQ sauce. :) We also grew up eating a lot of things with a cream dill sauce... boiled potatoes or meat."

Palatschincken/palacinky made by me. 
Though the recipes seem Austrian by name, they have equivalents in Czech cooking. Sacher torte and schnitzel are easily found in Prague restaurants and cukrarna (bakeries/sweet shops) today. Marillenknodle (boiled apricot dumplings) were actually made by Texas-Czechs, too, and you can still find recipes for them (or prune dumplings) in some community cookbooks. The recipe below for palatschincken is basically the same as for palacinky (in Czech) and they are a favorite dessert in the Czech Republic as well, though I've never seen them or a recipe for them in Texas.

Marcia shared these lovely memories, too. "In the 1950s and 1960s traveling from Caracas to St. Gallen, Switzerland was a huge deal. We would go for weeks at a time; food and walks were the central organizing principles of the day. These delicious pancakes were endlessly interesting as they were filled with fruits such as apricot or plum (delicacies for children raised on tropical fruits) or better yet chocolate and schlag (whipped cream). "
Grete Tugendhat’s Palatschincken
(Passed on by Hanna Lambek to Marcia Tugendhat) 
Makes 6 pancakes 
2 eggs
1 cup milk
½ cup flour
pinch of salt 
Mix batter until the consistency of runny yogurt. Add butter to a pan over medium heat. Tip the pan to spread batter thinly in the heated pan. Flip when ready. Cook on the second side. Fill with preserves or fruit. Or simply sprinkle with sugar.

This recipe could not have been easier, cheaper, more accurate or more delicious. My son helped crack the eggs and my 1940s hand-held egg beater mixed the batter smooth as silk.  I was so proud of how the palacinky turned out that I ate three, which was one too many, but I didn't care.  I thought I'd burn or destroy the first few, but every one was perfect... light and soft and glowing golden with melted butter. The secret, I think, is a lot of butter and a non-stick pan. I used a generous teaspoon of buttter per pancake to coat the pan before pouring the batter in 1/4 cup at a time.

Cook the pancake until it's a bit browned in spots. 
When the pancake was ready, I laid it on a plate, spread half with a spoonful of my mom's homemade plum jam or orange marmalade, folded it in half and then half again, and sprinkled the top with granulated sugar (though powdered sugar would be just as pretty.) This would be an elegant, but easy dessert to make for dinner guests, using two pans at once. Each guest would have to wait while their dessert was custom made, but entertain the cook while they waited. My four-year-old was not so good at this, but ate two palacinky in succession and was very complimentary to boot.

I obviously could not have written this post without Marcia's contribution of recipe, photo and precious memories, for which I am sincerely grateful. I hope her grandmother would be proud.