Monday, July 25, 2016

Homemade Saurkraut in Jourdanton

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.
This year, the event was on Sunday, July 17th and my youngest son and I drove down from Austin to attend Mass, enjoy the lunch, and visit with family. We were late for Mass, but arrived in time to hear the choir (of which Susan is also a member) singing the hymn Zdravas Maria, which was the second of two Czech songs that were included.  We also missed the two readings in Czech, which the priest, Father Kazimierz Olesky, later said were read by maybe the last person in Jourdanton that speaks Czech. In the Parish Hall where lunch was served, boxes of kolaches were sold by the local KJT society (from Kolache Stop in San Antonio), a duo played polkas and waltzes for a few dancers, and there was a silent auction completely comprised of Czech items from books to bumper stickers.

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. 

Saturday, July 9, 2016

150 Years in Texas

This month marks the 150th anniversary of my Orsak family being in Texas, according to my great-great-great grandfather's Record of Declaration, which notes that he "arrived at the port of Galveston on or about the 1st day of July 1866."

At our annual family reunion (for our downline of Orsaks) late last month, this momentous occasion was marked with a little speech from my father and signage in the door prize plants. We went about our usual reunion activities... sharing lots of food, children whacking a piñata, selling our baked goods to each other in the silent auction, telling embarrassing stories about when we were kids, listening to Don Orsak play the accordion, and visiting.

Czech foods were most abundant in the silent auction. People could outbid each other (for the good of next year's auction) to take home an apricot/cheese roll, kolaches by two different women, a cheese roll with pecans on top, a poppyseed roll, buttermilk pie, and five or six different kinds of canned goods.

There were, of course, varied and glumptious (to quote the new movie The BFG) dishes stretched out along the dinner and dessert tables. For posterity, I always make a list of what's brought each year and then walk around with my notebook looking like a canvaser for family traditions asking people what dish they brought. (Mostly in case I want to contact them for the recipe later.) My favorite comment this year was "Who brings lasagna to a Bohemian event?" (We're actually Moravian, and the lasagna was delicious.)

Me and my great aunt Marcella,
the oldest Orsak descendent and my grand-
father Orsak's only living sibling. She
brought barbecued brisket and
German potato salad.
This year, we could all partake of the following
savory dishes:

3 kinds of sauerkraut
broccoli-rice-chicken casserole
2 lasagnas
green beans with potatoes and bacon
green beans with dill sauce (recipe below)
green beans
corn on the cob
pulled pork sliders
pork loin with apricot sauce
pork roast with rice
3 other pork loins or roasts
2 dishes of baked ham
two pasta dishes
okra with bacon
sliced barbecued bricket
German potato salad
roast with potatoes and gravy
chicken wings
macaroni and cheese
red beans and rice
slices sausage from Novak's in El Campo
gumbo and rice
crawfish dressing
loaves of white and what bread
two plates of deviled eggs
canned peaches
kvasena (refrigerator pickles)
other pickles
fresh fruit platter
pasta salad
sauerkraut salad
creamed fruit salad
fruit salad
black bean-corn salad
cole slaw
couscous salad

Orsaks and food go together like vegetables and cream sauce. 

I brought sauerkraut salad and the green bean recipe below. It was given to me by an Orsak relative at the 2011 reunion, but this was the first year I'd brought it. The recipe notes that "Louise Orsak [my great aunt] makes this and so do some of her kids. It's a favorite of almost everyone." I checked with Aunt Louise's daughters who thought they recognized the recipe, but didn't remember the vinegar in it. I suppose is could be left out, but it balances the flavors nicely. You're on your own as far as quantities go, as I was. You can do it. 

Green Beans with Dill Sauce (typed below as written) 
Cook fresh green beans with onion and some salt til almost tender. Melt some margarine in pan 1/3 cup. Add 1/4 cup flour, fry til light brown. Drain some water from the beans with some milk to make a thick sauce. Add a little vinegar to taste and 2 to 3 tablespoons chopped dill. Drain beans. Add sauce to them and simmer briefly in sauce. 

The dill sauce recipe below is from The Czechoslovak Cookbook by Joza Brizova (Crown Publishers, 1965) and it is so similar to the one above, I like to assume my recipe was handed down from my Orsak relatives since coming from Moravia 150 years ago.

Dill Sauce (Koprová Omáčka) 
Prepare white sauce (below). Add 2 tablespoons minced dill. Add sugar and lemon juice to taste.  
3 tablespoons butter
1/2 cup flour
2 cups stock
salt to taste
1 cup light cream or milk
1 or 2 egg yolks 
Melt butter and blend with flour. Add stock and salt; simmer for 30 minutes. Mix cream with egg yolks and pour into sauce, stirring constantly. Do not boil. Serve over vegetables. Makes about 3 cups. 

Dobré jméno, nejlepší dědictví. 
English equivalent: A good name is the best of all treasures.