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Part 2 - Texas Czech Foodways: A Cultural Legacy

Texas Czech cooking is rich and simple and, like other ethnic cuisines, it has its emblematic dishes – sausage and roasted meats: baked goods like kolaches, buchty and strudel; dumplings and egg noodles; pickles and sauerkraut; soups, picnic stew, and fried chicken; and homemade beer and wine.

There is no shortage, especially in the last couple of years, of articles by food and travel writers about kolaches or sausage. And there is general information about the most common foods eaten by Czechs in books like Krasna Amerika and Sean Gallup’s Journeys Into Czech Moravian Texas.  Those books and a few general Texas cookbooks include small sections on food that cover the basics. They talk about sausage, beef clubs, kolaches and strudel, noodles and beer. But there is so much more to Texas Czech food. The most interesting information lives in primary sources like oral histories, diaries, memoirs, letters and newspaper recipe columns. To tell the full story of how Bohemian, Moravian and Slovakian cuisine morphed into Texas-Czech cuisine, much more research needs to be done.

Here are a few examples of writing about foodways from primary sources like that. Notice how each illustrates cultural history or values.

The upcoming cookbook from the Texas Czech Genealogical Society has some wonderful introductions to recipes that are little gems of foodways information. Here’s one from Danny Leshikar…. “When I was growing up, the Adamek side of my family had several very large family reunions at my grandmother's farm in New Mexico.  Family members would come from all over, but mostly from Texas and stay for a week.  My grandmother would cook for weeks prior to their arrival and as everyone would arrive, they would pitch in helping with cooking and other chores.  In true Adamek Family style, it was an enjoyable week with never an argument but plenty of visiting and domino playing. “

Robert Skrabanek’s 1988 memoir We’re Czechs describes family and farm life growing up near Snook. In it, he writes “Another thing our entire family worked on together was processing honey when we robbed our bees at least once each year. While none of the Americans had bees, we Czechs saw it as another way to produce our own food and also to makes some extra money.” 

The fascinating book Fertile Ground, Narrow Choices: Women on Texas Cotton Farms, 1900-1940 by Rebecca Sharpless is based on oral histories with women of many different ethnic backgrounds, including some Czechs. A woman named Mary Hanak Simcik of McLennan County is quoted with this story in the book about her and her sister-in-law helping out with preserving meats by smoking them. “They left the smoke to me. I had to watch it so it didn’t get too hot. We were supposed to smoke the meat; and we were playing cards together; (she says laughing) and we put, you know what kind of wood it is – resin, you know? And of course we didn’t pay any attention; and we put that under there all over the meat. It all tasted like resin. Boy did we catch it that time!”

Johnny Morkovsky and family
The following paragraph is from of an article called Hog Butchering Memories written by Martha Victorin of East Bernard. It was in the Spring 2013 issue of the Cesky Hlas. She wrote So we used the pig’s feet, the brains, the blood, the entrails, the skin, every piece that had any meat on it to make the different sausages, special delicacies and head cheese and as my Grandfather said, “The whole hog was used, everything but the squeal.”

Through their stories about foodways, all of these writers document the culture and values of Texas Czechs… frugality, strong families, working cooperatively and efficiently, and, of course, fun. This is what I mean when I say traditional foodways are a cultural legacy.

What will that legacy be for our great grandchildren? Certainly butchering hogs and growing poppies are not everyday activities for the majority of 21st century Texas Czechs. But still, Texas Czechs are cooking. 

In homes and community kitchens and commercial establishments across the state, they are pickling vegetables and putting up sauerkraut, making kolaches and kneading bread dough,  grinding meat, stuffing casings, and smoking sausages. They’re making cucumber salads or potatoes with butter and onions from home-grown vegetables or organic produce bought at local farmers markets. They’re cooking Sunday lunches with their families, for church picnics with their fellow parishioners, or at commercial bakeries. Today the kolaches look different than their Moravian frgal counterparts and sausages might contain jalapenos, but Texas Czechs are still fiercely proud of their traditional foods.

Texas Czechs connect with their roots through food at dozens of meat markets, barbecue joints, bakeries, wineries and restaurants throughout the state. Most Czech meat markets feature several types of pork or beef sausage, and some offer very traditional sausages like jitrnice, jelita or prezvurst. They cater to non-Czechs, too, with barbecue and other non-ethnic items, but selling these ethnic specialties helps them stay in business and keeps these traditional foods available to Texas Czechs.

Bakeries, many of them on major state highways, helped popularize the kolach — the iconic Texas Czech pastry.  Kolaches (and their sausage-filled relatives, klobasniky) have inspired billboards, T-shirts, festivals, bumper stickers, baking contests, candles, national news articles, and YouTube videos. Recipes for making them can be found in Czech community cookbooks from Dallas to Corpus Christi. They are, quite simply, the most recognizable symbol for Texas Czech culture.

More in part three of this series. RememberBez práce nejsou koláče.

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