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Texas Czech Foodways: A Cultural Legacy (Part 1)

Last month I had the opportunity to give a talk to the Texas Czech Genealogical Society (TCGS) at their meeting called "From the Ship to the Plow" in Temple at the SPJST Home Office. The presentation took so much work, I thought I'd break it up and offer it to my blog readers, slightly modified. Here is part 1 of 4. Please comment and let me know what you think. I love feedback. And you can read an article and listen to a KWBU radio piece about the meeting and some of its participants here

I am very passionate about food and have to thank Charlene Hurta of the TCGS for inviting me to talk with a captive audience about it. My presentation was very visual with lots of photographs. Please know that all of them were taken by either me or by Lori Najvar of PolkaWorks unless otherwise noted.

You might be wondering why someone would be talking about food at a genealogy meeting. At the earlier TCGS meeting in Caldwell in February, I heard Charlene Hurta talk about genealogy work not just being about finding names and dates further and further back in history, but about fleshing out the story of our ancestors, presumably to create a more personal connection. I can think of no better way to do that than through the subject of food. Everyone, since the beginning of time has eaten food; hopefully every day.

First, I want to share two quotes with you. The first is to stress the connection between food and culture…  Culture itself is the product of our search for food. Most of our time on earth is spent in obtaining, preparing, and consuming food.” --  Charlie Camp, American Foodways. When you realize that, the “obtaining, preparing and consuming” becomes much more interesting.

The second quote is a reason to seek out and to share personal stories about food with your family and your community. “In the presence of grandparent and grandchild, past and future merge in the present.” -- Margaret Meade, American anthropologist. That’s such a beautiful thought.

These two quotes reflect my goals for  the talk I gave and these next four blog posts… the first is to convince you that what you eat and what your ancestors ate and the way they ate is worthy of your attention and interest. The second goal is to inspire you personally and to inspire the Texas Czech community at large to put more effort and resources into documenting and preserving traditional food. That could mean, on a personal level, cooking more with your grandchildren, for example. And on a community level, it means creating more opportunities for food-focused events and interests. As much as the Czech language or polka music or dancing the beseda, traditional foods are a cultural legacy.

Almost any Texan can tell you what a kolach is, but if you grew up eating them at family events, learning to bake them, or growing the fruit that filled them, you're probably a Texas Czech. Baking kolaches, butchering hogs, growing poppies for seeds, gardening, eating in fellowship at a church picnic... these activities and so many more have been part of the foodways of Texas Czechs from the mid 19th century right up to the present day. I think they deserve to be researched, documented, and fostered.

I’ve used the word foodways several times – what does that mean? Foodways are all the activities and beliefs around acquiring, preparing, eating and cleaning up after a meal. It’s not just what people eat, but why and when they eat, who eats, and how they eat.  Foodways encompass everything from farming practices, religious celebrations that include particular foods, expressions of hospitality, gender issues, economics, and family dynamics and more.

These are the very things we want to know about our ancestors, and they are things your descendants will want to know about you. I don’t just want to know what foods were eaten at my grandparents’ wedding, for example, but where they came from, how people decided what to serve, who did the cooking, who did the cleaning, and how did my grandparents feel about the meal.

George and Anita (Morkovsky) Kallus' wedding meal. July 6,1937 in Hallettsville, Texas.

So, what do we know about the foods Texas Czechs eat – now and all the way back to when people first began immigrating? When I was younger, all I knew about Texas-Czech food was from dishes my mom made that could be considered traditional, from family reunions, holidays at my maternal grandparents’ house, church picnics, and from travelling in Fayette and Lavaca counties. As an adult looking for more scholarly information, I realized that there is not a lot of scholarship out there, which is why I’m did not give an hour long lecture on the history of Texas Czech foodways since the 1850s. No one has done that work, actually.

Immigrants came to Texas from Moravia, Bohemia, Slovakia and Silesia with distinctive tastes and preferred cooking methods. They adapted these to the new crops and conditions they found in Texas. They were also influenced by the food traditions of their new Texan neighbors - Anglos and African Americans from the South, Mexicans, German immigrants and others.  Their Central European cuisine slowly evolved into a unique Texas Czech cuisine.

To be continued in part two. 


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