Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Můj Milý Dědečku

Yesterday was my father's 71st birthday and we celebrated him last Sunday with a lunch at his house. He asked to have beef stew (recipe below), corn bread and lemon pie. There's nothing traditional about these foods except that my mother's been making them fantastically for years. But on this occasion, I did revive a tradition from my childhood for my kids and my Dad.

George Kallus, my maternal grandfather, died in 1979 when I was about 12.  For much of my childhood before that, my parents, brother and sister and I lived out of state… Ohio, Georgia (twice), New Jersey, Connecticut. So, I don't have strong memories of my grandfather and the ones I do have…  well, we know how memories are. They could be accurate or not.

My dapper grandfather, George Kallus.
My grandfather was very tall. He was kind. He had a sweet smile and a dimpled chin. I have no memories of him anywhere except in his home in Hallettsville which he and my grandmother bought in the late 1930s; the home she lived in after his death for another 30+ years and that her children still own. This is strange because when he was going through chemo in Houston before he died, my grandparents stayed with us each time he came for a treatment. My mother remembers him sitting in the backyard watching my siblings and me play, but unfortunately I don't.

I think I know more stories about my grandfather than have actual first-hand memories.  As for those, there was my grandparents' 40th wedding anniversary party. There was his gumball machine. There were packed family Christmas celebrations where my grandparents held court in the living room over their very substantial, but loving brood. There were also birthday get-togethers during which our family had a special ritual.

On my grandfather's birthday, his grandchildren, including me, would line up before him. In turn, we would each recite a little poem in Czech to him and give him a kiss. For this sweetness, he would give us a dime for each year of our life, i.e. a 10-year-old would get 10 dimes. We would say…

Můj mily dědečku,
rada vas mam.
Hubičku vam dám.*

Which means…
My dear grandfather,
I love you.
I'm giving you a kiss.

My son, my father and my nephew.
It only took a few coaching sessions for my 5 year-old to learn the phrases and be able to say the whole thing with no prompting to his grandfather. In fact, he was so excited to say it that he whispered it in my father's ear at an unassuming moment and didn't even care about getting the dimes in exchange. I honestly don't know if he's even saying the whole poem correctly, though it's the way I learned it and my mother says it's the way she learned it, too. She thinks that "hubicku" might actually mean kiss on the cheek specifically, as opposed to just a kiss in general.


A video of my son reciting the poem.

When my mother was a child, this same scene was enacted by her and her cousins for their grandfather, Alois Kallus, though it may of been for his name day (date on the Catholic calendar when the person's namesake saint's day is celebrated.) I was actually reminded of the ritual when showing the photo below to some relatives at the last Kallus reunion and one of them said "That looks like grandfather giving out dimes to the grandchildren!" Of course, they actually called him dedeček because their generation spoke more Czech words and phrases, even if they didn't learn how to speak the language fluently. Granchildren and great-grandchildren would line up and either recite the poem in Czech or some had a few other things to say. Dedeček would ask how old they were and then give them a coin for each year, either nickels or dimes.
My great-grandfather with some of his grandchildren
in front of his house at Wied in the early 1940s.
My great-grandparents - Alois and Teresa (Migl) Kallus
My father says that his paternal grandfather Orsak did the same (gave coins out on his birthday), but the amount was not age dependent and the children would simply tell him Happy Birthday or some other wishes.

My father's birthday meal was very Texan, reflecting his love of comfort food, the particularly rural roots of his family in South Texas, and the fact that it's been ridiculously cold in Texas this winter. Our cornbread had jalapeños in it. The appetizers were chips and guacamole and salsa. And my brother shucked a dozen raw oysters, which are a favorite of my dad's (and were for my grandfather, too.) My mom made both lemon meringue pie and an apple pie from scratch for dessert. My sister forgot the salad in her refrigerator at home, but luckily, like the loaves and fishes story, my parents fridge and pantry can yield whatever is needed for salad for 18 people just by needing them to. It's the magic of my parents' kitchen.

The recipe below for my mother's beef stew fed 11 adults, 7 children under the age of 10, and there was almost 2 quarts leftover, so make it for a crowd.

Beef Stew (Betty Orsak)
  • Cut 6 pounds of beef (1/2 rump roast and 1/2 top round roast with any fat trimmed off) into 1 1/2" cubes and season it to your liking with salt, pepper, garlic powder and onion powder
  • Dice 3 thick slices of bacon 
  • Peel and cut 3 large baking potatoes into 1" cubes.  
  • Peel and cut 1 pound of carrots into 1" chunks 
  • Dice 2 large onions and 2 large cloves of garlic
  • Fry the bacon in a large skillet until the fat is rendered; then remove the meat.
  • Brown the beef in the bacon fat; then transfer it to a large pot.
  • To the pot, add the bacon, the onions, garlic, 2 quarts of beef broth and 1 cup of red wine.
  • Cook the beef at least 3 hours until it's tender.
  • Add the potatoes and carrots and continue cooking until they're tender. The potatoes should start to break up a bit and help thicken the stew.
  • Adjust the seasonings, if necessary and add some chopped parsley for color. 
My brother shucking oysters… we were all workin' for the man (my Dad, that is.)

*If anyone would like to send me the correct my diacritical marks for this text, I would be grateful!