|Susan Netardus (standing) and her nieces.|
Today at work, I noticed a jar of Trader Joe’s sauerkraut someone had in the refrigerator. The jar was $4 or $5. In my freezer is a quart of sauerkraut that I paid only $3 for and which was made with so much love, history, cultural knowledge, family, and dedication that it’s actually priceless. There are men and women around Texas who are going above and beyond to not just maintain, but actively pass on Texas Czech food traditions…. farmers, bakers, sausage makers, picnic coordinators, and other heroes. My second cousin, Susan Netardus, is one of these people. Susan gives six weeks of every summer over to fermenting sauerkraut at her house, so that it can be served to at least 600 parishioners and visitors at St. Matthew’s Catholic Church’s Czech Day (always the third Sunday in July.) The church is in Jourdanton and Susan is in her second term as mayor of the town of a little more than 4,000 people… mayor of the town she was born in in 1964. The majority of attendees are actually from out of the Atascosa County area, and Susan says the homemade sauerkraut is a big draw for them. More sauerkraut is made than is served at lunch so it can be sold by the quart after the meal. Many people come, just so they can take homemade ‘kraut with them.
Susan wrote to me that “Czech Day began in July of 2000. It was the 75th Anniversary of St. Jerome Society No. 87 (Jourdanton Society) of the [the fraternal organization] KJT. In conjunction with the KJT State Czech Day (which they no longer have) it was hosted by Society No. 87 at St. Matthew's in Jourdanton. The Czech Day was so successful that the priest of St. Matthew's decided he wanted to acknowledge the Czech settlers of the area, who, along with the German, Polish and Hispanic community, were a factor in getting a Catholic church established in Jourdanton, by continuing Czech Day as an annual event and the funds raised would go into a Building Fund for improvements to the Church, CCD Classroom Facility, and Parish Hall.”
|Czech Day selfie with my son.|
Lunch was a comforting, familiar mix of meat and sides that makes me glad I’m Texas Czech… boiled pork and beef smoked sausage from Pollack's Meat Market in Falls City, green beans cooked with bacon, the sauerkraut, buttered potatoes, canned peaches, sliced bread, and tea. Susan’s father, Blaise Netardus, was in charge of the sausage before he passed away last year, and now Susan’s brother Phillip handles the job, getting started about 8 a.m. the day of the event. Parishioners also make a colorful array of cakes, cookies, brownies, etc. for the choose-your-own dessert. The cheapest cans of Shiner anywhere in the state ($2) were sold with sodas, too.
All the prep work for this year’s batch of sauerkraut was done on Sunday, June 5th. 500 pounds of cabbage were cored, cleaned, shredded, heavily salted, and put in crocks, layered with dill (a 30-gallon crock, a 15-gallon, a 10-gallon, and an 8-gallon crock.) Then the crocks sat in Susan’s dining room fermenting. She cleaned the cabbage daily, draining it (squeezing it out by hand), and refreshing it with new salted water. The process took weeks of daily work as the ‘kraut waited to be cooked early on the morning of Czech Day.
How did Jourdanton’s young mayor come to prepare hundreds of pounds of sauerkraut for her entire church and more? Susan’s aunt, Rita Vyvlecka, and her “crew” made sauerkraut for the very first Czech Day in 2000. Susan got involved as a member of the crew in 2002 when she moved back to Jourdanton from Austin. Susan says “As Rita got older, it became more difficult for her to be the one to ‘clean’ the cabbage, so I stepped up and became the one who would daily stop by her house after I got off work and I would do the manual work of cleaning the cabbage. Rita suffered a stroke in late 2009 and passed away on April 21, 2010. It was at this point that I took over coordinating the cutting of the cabbage.”
|Parishioners in the kitchen preparing lunch plates.|
Every aspect of the process is labor intensive, from cutting to layering to the daily cleaning, to cooking the sauerkraut the morning of the Czech Day. Susan told me that “during those early years of the event, the cabbage was cut using homemade cabbage cutters. These were made of a 2”x4” board about 3-1/2’ long. The middle of this board was cut out and had two or three blades there. You put the cabbage inside a small wooden box and slid it back and forth over the blades, which sliced the cabbage into slaw-size pieces. The crew usually got started about 5:30 p.m. after work and didn't finish until midnight sometimes. It was a long process, but worth it for the sauerkraut that was the end product. Around 2005 or 2006, one of Aunt Rita's nephews by marriage, Frank Vyvlecka, who by trade was a machinist, made a motorized cabbage cutter that we use to this day. This reduced the cutting time by about 4 hours.”
Susan also learned to cook the sauerkraut for the event from her Aunt Rita by helping out over seven annual events and took over before Rita passed away. It is the perfect sour counterpoint to the rich sausage, buttery potatoes, and sweet peaches that are served. Susan offered this description of the cooking process… “Onion and bacon are fried the week before Czech Day. Then the day before the event, we transfer over the sauerkraut from my house to the Hall and put it in our big cookers. The ‘kraut is layered with the already-prepared onions and bacon. Then the morning of Czech Day (early - 6:00 a.m.), I arrive at the Hall and fill the cookers with enough water to cover the 'kraut (about 1/2" - 3/4" over the top). My nieces, Molly Netardus and Erin Soward, arrive around 6:30 a.m. to help with the cooking. When the sauerkraut starts boiling, I then add a slurry of water and salted/peppered flour to the sauerkraut. We have two large cookers of 'kraut and it takes about 2 to 2-1/2 gallons of this mixture.”
In true Texas Czech fashion, Susan does not want to take all the credit for this amazing feat of cultural preservation. She’s quick to point out that many family members are involved in the initial preparations of the cabbage and in the cooking of the ‘kraut. Her uncle, Henry Netardus and her aunt Marcella (Netardus) Dornak, help with the cutting and will go by and clean the kraut if Susan has to go out of town during the process. Susan’s siblings, Debbie and Phillip, and her cousins JoAnn and Margaret (her Aunt Rita's daughters) all help out during initial prep. As described above, Susan’s enrolled the help of two of her nieces with the cooking on the morning of the event. In the last couple of years, more parishioners have gotten involved, as well.
|Hungry, happy lunch attendees in the Parish Hall. Photo courtesy of|
St. Matthew's Catholic Church.
Susan wrote to me about the importance of St. Matthews Czech Day to her, to the church, and to the Czech community in Atascosa County. “Financially, it is important to our Church because it raises annual funds for our St. Matthew's Building Fund. Personally, and especially for the descendants of Czech heritage, it keeps an old fashioned way of life alive with the food, fellowship, and music passed down from a generation of immigrants from the old country. This is why I have gotten my two nieces involved. I want them to know the importance of their Czech heritage.”
The 18th annual St. Matthews Catholic Church Czech Day in Jourdanton will happen Sunday July 16, 2017.