Thursday, May 21, 2015

Kolache World Domination starts with D.C.

Republic Kolache Co.'s Five Spice Cherry kolache. Photo lifted from their website. 
My sister-in-law directed me to the recent Houstonian article titled "Consider the Kolache: Is Our Beloved Czech Pastry Poised for World Domination?" My answer would be "I don't know," but someone who might give a tentative "heck, yes" is Spring, Texas native Chris Svetlik. His new bakery Republic Kolache Co. is poised (launching in D.C. in the next 6 to 8 weeks) to at least dominate our nation's capitol.

The subject of kolaches has put me into contact with everyone from Chris in D.C. to Autumn at Brooklyn Kolache Company, John T. Edge writing for the New York Times, to reporters in Prague, which is fun. This may be some evidence that perhaps kolaches are poised for world domination. Chris, who I'd never met, was in Austin last week and contacted my Texas Czechs exhibit cohort Lori and I to "chat Czech-Texan heritage (as well as pick [our] brain a bit more about research on the kolache and the general Czech culture/cuisine front)." My favorite subjects. We met at ABGB and drank, what else, their pilsner style beer. 

Me and Chris Svetlik, soon to be the Kolache King of DC.
Chris, who is only in his 20s, has great insights about the pastry and the culture as anyone placing faith in their sell-ability outside of Texas should have. We talked about traditional flavors vs. what might sell (i.e. honoring the past vs. business is business), price points, and the fact that most cultures have ingredients wrapped in dough... how hard could it be to sell a kolach? Will his customer base be Texas expats on the Hill or adventurous foodies or both? One very interesting point in our discussion was how Texas Czech traditional could become D.C. exotic (prune and poppyseed for example, as opposed to the ubiquitous cherry found in convention breakfast buffet Danishes.)

Even as young as late 20s, Chris has the family background to imprint the taste for traditional on his palette. His grandmother Svetlik made kolaches, his father makes kolaches (and bread, strudel and vanocka!), and he traveled back and forth from the Houston area to Lavaca County growing up to visit relatives. It's hard not to absorb the pastry-sausage-noodle-pickle-strudel-beer menu into your being with experience like that. If kolaches are poised to dominate the world, we can only hope it's Texas Czechs leading the charge. 

Sausage, egg and jalapeno klobasnik. Photo lifted from RKC's website.
Chris was here in Texas visiting his father near Moulton and doing a self described "sourcing and recon trip", i.e. sausage fieldwork. (We should all be so lucky to have that job.) Lori and I made some recommendations and he had some ideas already of processors that might ship their product to DC to be baked into Republic's klobasniky (yes, Chris knows the difference.) There's Maeker's in Shiner, Prasek's in Hillje, Slovacek's in Snook/West, City Market in Schulenburg, Kasper Meat Market in Weimar, among others. Chris reported that he'd packed strategically, leaving "sausage room" in his suitcase so taste testing could take place back home. His business partner is not Czech, so must be educated, of course. Hard work.

Of course, Lori (being the eternal documenter of stories and culture) got Chris to stand for a little interview we'd done with hundreds of people over the two years of research for our Texas Czechs exhibit. We're always fascinated by how people got connected to and stay connected to their Czech heritage. Ironically, Chris' dad had attended the opening of our exhibit Texas Czechs: Rooted in Tradition at the Lavaca Historical Museum. Find out a little more about Chris and his background in his video below and visit Republic Kolache's Facebook page. And seek out Republic Kolache Co. on your D.C. family vacation this summer.


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.)
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.