Saturday, May 9, 2015

Texas-Czech Cook Joe Novosad



I first met author and family historian Joe Novosad of Inks Lake by telephone. We are both members of the Travis-Williamson Counties Czech Heritage Society and Joe had submitted several very traditional recipes for the Society’s 1996 cookbook. I was told that Joe was a wealth of information about Czech food and that I should just call him out of the blue and he would be happy to talk. He was! I had no idea how important Joe’s experiences and generosity in sharing them were to a history of Texas Czech food.

Joe is a second generation Texas Czech, born in Frydek, Texas in 1928. He graduated from Sealy High School in 1946 and married his high school sweetheart, Helen Remmert, in 1947. He served in the Marine Corps, studied electronics and engineering at the University of Houston, and worked as an electronics instructor at Houston Community College.

Joe’s parents were Joseph, born in Live Oak Hill, near Ellinger, and Louise (Kutra) Novosad, born in Sealy. They were sharecroppers, eventually buying a small farm in Frydek, near Sealy. All four of Joe’s grandparents were born in Moravia in what is now the Czech Republic. After his father died, Joe’s mother (pregnant with him) and his 2-year-old sister moved in with Louise’s parents. Louise’s mother, Anna (Veseli) Kutra, who Joe called Starenka, did the cooking, since his mother worked in the fields.  Anna was born in Velka Lhota, Moravia, and was 9 years old when she came to Texas. Because her knowledge of cooking came directly from Moravia and Joe’s memories of family meals are so rich, his information about food is a real treasure.

Though Joe did not help much with cooking, he certainly absorbed much information about ingredients and preparations. His jobs instead focused on the fields – planting and picking the cotton and corn the family sold for cash. He remembers maybe helping around the kitchen on Sundays, gathering eggs, milking the cow, bringing wood in for the stove. (His family got a kerosene stove sometime when Joe was in school.)

Weekdays were busy. For breakfast, they would have homemade bread and jelly and everyone drank coffee. Joe’s grandfather, Staricek, might have cracklings (preserved in lard) with syrup. Coming home from the fields at lunch around noon, the family had a sandwich, black eyed peas, Texas chili (no beans), or bread and a gulas-style soup of beef and potatoes flavored with paprika. Svacina would be something sweet like cookies or a kolach. And weekday dinners were lighter meals, like leftovers or bread and jelly again. 

The Kutra-Novosad farm was self-sufficient. They bartered with other families in the area and did not even buy seeds for corn or cotton until later in Joe’s life with the help of county extension agents. There was also a tiny grocery store in Frydek to which their family sold most of their eggs. Every Saturday, cream from their cow was sold to the creamery in town and a beef bone was bought for about fifteen cents with the profits.

For personal use, the family had 4 or 5, 100-foot long rows of poppies grown for seeds.  They made their own butter and cheese and brewed beer. In the family’s garden were green beans, watermelon, cucumbers, beets, tomatoes and turnips among many other fruits, vegetables and herbs. Dewberries grew around fence rows and were ripe around Mother’s Day. They were used for jelly or malinak. Malinak was made by flattening a large circle of kolach dough into a pie pan, pushing the bottom down and the sides up. The center was filed with dewberries mixed with sugar and then the malinak was baked. (Malina is the Czech word for raspberry.)

The Novosads belonged to a beef club and hunted for dove or rabbits. (Once Joe killed two rabbits with one shot.) There was also a pond on their property.  The family butchered their own hogs and had a smokehouse. For zabijackas (hog butcherings), Joe’s job was to catch the blood and clean the head. Like most Czech farming families that butchered, many types of products were made from the pig. Joe remembers lard sandwiches, smoked sausages, jelita, jitrnice, and svickovice (pork loin smoked like sausage.) When he gets nostalgic for foods from his childhood, he thinks most of svickovice, as well as bozi milosty, ruzicky fried in lard, and kraple (a baked sweet of many alternating layers of 2 different kinds of dough drizzled with powdered sugar icing.)
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This recipe by Joe Novosad is perfect for a weeknight dinner – you can prepare everything the night before and then cook the potatoes quickly. I served it with fried patties of ground venison.

Moravian Potatoes
4 large potatoes
1 tablespoon caraway seeds
1 small onion
Hot water  
1 teaspoon salt
pepper to taste (optional)
2 tablespoons butter
 
Peel and slice potatoes and layer them in a heavy kettle. Sprinkle top with caraway seed and salt (pepper, optional.) Dot with butter. Pour small amount of hot water over potatoes (just enough to see, but not enough to cover.) Bring to a boil, then simmer for 15 minutes. Makes 4 servings.

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