Sunday, July 27, 2014

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.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

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.