Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Food is Love

September 6, 1965 in Hallettsville, Texas
“Taught by family members in South Central Texas, husband and wife Steve and Betty Orsak have canned, pickled, and preserved foods together since the early 1970s. Their Czech heritage influences their choice of recipes and produce.” 

These words about my parents came from the program of the 2008 Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington D.C. where, with 10 other participants that summer, they represented Texas cooking to the world. It is an apt description since their 50-year marriage, their Czech heritage, and their creativity and generosity with food form the bedrock of love in our family. They celebrated their Golden Wedding Anniversary last week.

When my parents married in 1965, society’s expectation was that my father would be the breadwinner and my mother would be the bread baker (and the maker of everything else.) But growing, cooking, shopping for, planning around, preserving, and sharing food offered, over 50 years, opportunities for them to be and do things together and they took advantage. Of course, my stay-at-home mother did master the art of feeding her family day in and day out. She’s a fantastic cook who seemed to never burn, undercook, over salt, or otherwise ruin a dish.

Betty and Steve in San Fransisco in 1975.
Beginning in the late 1960s, she and my father started exploring “gourmet cooking”. They threw dinner parties and cooked for family, friends, and coworkers. They explored local cuisines on trips to Acapulco, San Francisco, and New York City and in places my father’s job transferred him to including Ohio, Georgia, New Jersey, and Connecticut. There was coq au vin, salade nicoise, strawberry tart, and flounder stuffed with crab. My parents collected Gourmet magazine for decades and have a cookbook collection that numbers in the hundreds.

Back in the Lone Star State by the late 1970s, my father was mastering those dishes Texas men learn to cook… chili, barbecue, gumbo, among them. He hunted deer, elk, duck, quail, dove, and fished, and my parents cooked what he brought home. His best friend, my mother’s brother Johnny Kallus, convinced him to enter a chili cook off because my father made a good pot of it at the deer camp. They won the cook-off and my father began a 40-year hobby. My mother helped as a bottle washer, stirrer, and chili taster. But when they began entering contests with multiple categories (sauce, barbecue, chicken soup, gumbo, beans, and even my mother’s beef stew) she became a full-fledged member of the team.

Garden in Connecticut in the mid-1970s. When we had an overabundance, my sister and I would pull a wagon
around the neighborhood, giving away what we could't eat and spreading the love.
They began gardening when we lived in New Jersey and, with natural green thumbs, their bounty had to be preserved. They started canning and haven’t stopped. On any trip to their house in Katy, I can leave with jam and jelly, pickled squash or cucumbers, barbecue sauce, and flavored vinegars from their canning pantry.

My Dad (second from right) and sister (far left); members of a winning
barbecue team at the 2013 AOS Cook-off in Houston.
Cooking for crowds became second nature as Betty and Steve fell into catering as a side job in the early 1980s. It began as my father cooked for Knights of Columbus events at their church in Katy, but expanded to weddings and parties for friends, cousins, and even their children. They catered my wedding and my sister’s wedding in the same year… bearing the emotional stress of giving away their daughters and feeding hundreds of guests at the same time. But what better way to send us off into adulthood with love, than cooking for our most important life event.

Betty and Steve Orsak doing a canning demonstration at the
2008 Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington D.C.
In the mid 1990s I began working for an organization that sometimes did public programs about traditional food. I used my parents as subjects… they did canning demonstrations, cooked for fundraisers, and my father represented Texas for the first time at the 1996 Smithsonian Folklife Festival. My parents were sharing their love for food, heritage, and each other in yet another way. Every food activity my parents have engaged in over their 50-year marriage has been passed down to at least one of their children, whether it’s canning, gardening, collecting cookbooks, or throwing dinner parties like a caterer.

My parents and we four food-lovin' children at their 50th anniversary party last weekend.
The food tradition dearest to our family, however, is the Christmas Eve dinner (Štědrý večer) my parents make and it is the only tradition they have not yet passed to us. They still make the meal themselves and we enjoy it at their house. The dishes for this meal are based on the traditional Czech recipes that both of my mother's grandparents brought to America with only a few modifications. My parents ate this meal at my grandparents’ house (see 1969 photo below of the Christmas Eve dinner table) and I and my children eat it at my parents’ house (see 2014 photo below of my parents' Christmas Eve table.) It embodies the love of food, family, and heritage that have characterized my parents’ 50 year marriage. 

1969

2014