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Folklore and Foodways; Connection and Inspiration

Monica Pope's Texas Czech dinner at the
Foodways Texas symposium in Austin.

When it rains, it pours. I was fortunate enough to participate in three different events in the last three weekends regarding work to highlight and preserve Texas Czech culture. I’m tired, but I’ve been inspired, encouraged, and challenged. Any one of these events deserves its own blog post, but I have a backlog of things I’d like to write about, so I’ll cover all three together in this post. Rather than acting like a reporter documenting the events, I’d like to offer some of the questions I’ve been formulating after listening to and connecting with really interesting and passionate folks the last three weeks doing their own cultural preservation work.

My first Texas Foklore Society Annual Meeting...
the Society's 100th! So honored.

At the Texas Folklore Society 100th Annual Meeting the first weekend in April, I presented a paper I called “Texas Czech Foodways: More Than Kolaches.” I wanted to give the group of folklorists, writers, and historians an idea about the richness of traditional Texas Czech food. My paper was only one of two focusing on foodways at the meeting, but I learned so much about what makes a great presentation and how to hold the audience’s interest by listening to other presenters on topics that ranged from Irish cowboys to April Fools Day jokes in the Victoria Advocate newspaper. My paper’s premise is that the easiest way for non-Czechs to be exposed to Texas Czech food is by visiting the bakeries and meat market/barbecue restaurants around the state.  But what other places and events should I recommend the next time I do such a presentation? Church picnics and festivals surely. Family farms that sell produce, eggs, and noodles, too? The very few restaurants in Texas that claim to have Czech or Texas Czech dishes on their menu?

Sausage at Moravian Hall in Corn Hill, made by members just for their annual event.
In turn, I was also questioned by audience members. What festivals and picnics did I know of that made their own sausage especially for their event? Was I aware of the small, but potent Czech community in west Texas whose food traditions are still going strong at places like St. Ambrose Church in Wall, St. Joseph’s in Rowena, and St. Boniface’s in Olfen? I was not aware, but am grateful that I now know. Road trip!

The next weekend, I sat on a panel called “Gender Roles in Texas Czech Home Kitchens” with four other Texas Czechs as part of the 6th annual Foodways Texas Symposium. The panel included moderator/writer Sarah Junek, baker and Caldwell Kolache Festival founder Lydia Faust of Snook, Texas A&M professor Clint Machann who literally “wrote the book” about Texas Czechs (Krasna Amerika: A Study of the Texas Czechs 1850-1939), and the owner of the Old Main Street Bakery in Rosenburg, Nicholas Maresh. (Photo below.) We talked about men and women's roles on the farm 60 or 70 years ago, and the fact that half the kids Lydia now teaches how to bake at her local SPJST lodge are boys. 

Left to right: me, Clint Machann, Lydia Faust, Sarah Junek, and Nicholas Maresh.
The most thought provoking questions from the audience seemed the simplest, too. Which kolach flavors are “original” or came first, and what is the traditional fat used in kolach dough? Lard, Crisco, butter, vegetable oil? A case could be made for all of them because, of course, the word “traditional” is so subjective. One person’s “traditional” recipe from their grandmother, who embraced the joys of Crisco when it was introduced in 1911, is not another person’s idea of traditional. Is there such thing as THE traditional kolach in Texas?

Great bakers of two generations.
The speaker that followed our panel—Monica Perales of the University of Houston—gave a talk about Mexican-American women and their food work that had direct parallels with my investigations into Texas Czech foodways. I couldn’t take notes fast enough during Monica’s presentation. How did the choices that Texas Czech women made in feeding their families help strengthen or dissolve their children’s Texas Czech identity? When they decided what foods to prepare, how to accommodate children’s tastes, how to save time in the kitchen by using a new product or gadget, they were doing “cultural work” too, in that what they served at their tables would collectively and over time effect Texas Czech food’s power to be a marker of cultural identity. Were the same choices being made in the community’s “home kitchens” – church picnics, KC halls and various festivals? Who was the first Texas Czech who decided to use cream cheese in kolaches and when? Or coconut in strudels? What brands of noodles were offered to homemakers in Texas Czech communities who didn’t want to make their own?

Kitchen in the Migl house on the grounds of the
TCHCC in La Grange.

A fascinating presentation by Brandon Aniol of the Landmark Inn historic site in Castroville got me thinking about historically accurate cooking demonstrations in the house of my great-great-grandparents (who were Migls), which was moved to the grounds of the Texas Czech Heritage and Cultural Center in La Grange. Could I learn to bake kolaches in a wood-burning oven while wearing long skirts without using my KitchenAid? Imagine the upper body strength and stamina our ancestors had! Aniol also talked about the difficulty of replicating past ingredients. An audience member mentioned making one’s own yeast. Did my Czech ancestors do that? Did they make kolaches from dewberries if they were growing wild along fences? Were some recipes I’ve found for venison in community cookbooks from Texas Czech areas really a traditional Czech preparation?

Monica Pope and her Chicken Schnitzel

The celebrated Houston chef Monica Pope (Sparrow Bar + Cookshop), who had a Czech grandmother, prepared the last dinner of the symposium… her own delicious take on Texas Czech flavors. During Monica’s dinner I wondered how far someone could take the commonly associated ingredients of Czech food—garlic, dill, poppyseeds, cabbage, vinegar—and still call a dish Czech? This has direct bearing on the current cultural discussions about bastard kolach flavors (I use the term “kolach” loosely) like saag paneer, bacon and brie, and even Nicholas Maresh’s cream cheese and chocolate. These thoughts were in my head as I savored Monica Pope’s cole slaw with poppyseed dressing, chicken schnitzel, and noodles with fresh dill.

A little polka from the Czech Melody Master to accompany Pope's meal.
For more information about the Foodways Texas event, see two great blog posts by Kelly Yandell and by Abby Johnston

This last weekend on April 17th, Lori Najvar and I hosted an absolutely fascinating music program at the Texas State Capitol Extension Auditorium in Austin by accordionists and music scholars Frances Barton and Dr. John Novak on the sources of seven of the Texas Czech community's most beloved "folk" songs. There were 125 people in attendance, which we all considered a triumph of marketing, word of mouth, and the popularity of Texas Czech music. The lecture/demonstration was both informative and interesting, but the loveliest moment was when Frances and her daughter Jubilee sang the Wedding Song in harmony to John's accordion accompaniment. Just the night before I’d watched the recent film Brooklyn. In one scene, the main character—an Irish immigrant in the early 1950s—is transfixed and teary-eyed with homesickness, listening to another immigrant sing an Irish folk song. Hearing the Wedding Song sung by Frances and Jubilee brought tears to my eyes, too. Can someone be homesick for a place they’ve never lived (Czech Republic) and a time before they were born? I seem to be.

Top row: Lori Najvar, me.
Bottom row: Frances Barton, Jubilee Barton, Dr. John Novak.

Photo: Gary McKee.
The questions I was asking myself as I listened to Frances and John’s presentation were about how I could bring the same level of scholarship and research to Texas Czech food that they’re bringing to the community’s folk songs. Could I trace a recipe to its origin and explain why kolaches look the way they do in Texas and what picnic stew has in common with gulash, for example? The last three weekends have bolstered my commitment to try.  

The music program was offered in conjunction with the travelling exhibition Texas Czechs: Rooted in Tradition which is on display at the Capitol Visitors Center in Austin through June 12th. 


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