I sometimes feel like Austin, though it’s the heart of the state, is a barren wasteland of Texas Czech culture. Rarely does a polka band play here. (Yes, they do play, but rarely.) It’s not possible to find a decent kolach. There are no traditionally Czech Catholic churches, so no picnics are held like the ones that happen in small, rural towns in the Texas “Czech Belt.” The University of Texas’ Center for Russian and East European Studies sometimes has fantastic lectures, but they’re scheduled during the weekday for students or retired folks, so I never get to attend. The Travis-Williamson Counties Czech Heritage Society chapter meets monthly, but in Pflugerville or Taylor on a weekday night, making it impossible to attend with a full-time job and child in school in far south Austin. (Austin traffic!!!)
I sometimes forget that there are thousands of people in this city that probably have some Czech family history. This feeling made me appreciate even more the Cesky Vecer event held by the Austin Czech Historical Association (ACHA) on October 21st at the much-easier-to-get-to Saengerrunde Hall downtown. It was the 24thannual event and it was just pure joy to be there. I made new friends, strengthened relationships, and got whirled around the dance floor like nobody's business. From the music, to food, to the décor, the evening was truly celebratory.
The ACHA’s mission is to preserve Czech culture. If it was other Texas Czech organizations, I might be tempted to correct their assertion to “Texas Czech”, not Czech, culture. But because of the music that’s played and the Czech-born chef that’s cooked for the event for 23 of the 24 years, Cesky Vecer really is rooted closer to Czech traditions than to Texas Czech traditions. And this year, of course, the event celebrated the 100th anniversary of the creation of independent Czechoslovakia after World War I, so Czech pride was palpable in the room.
Walking into the hall, the first thing attendees saw were colorful kroj on both mannequins and actual human Texas Czechs. The kroj on the mannequins were owned by ACHA Co-Presidents Woody Smith and Helen Oelrich. The humans I met on my way in were wearing Texas Czech versions of kroj – simpler, more wearable fabrics and styles, made for the Texas heat, and cowboy boots instead of the tall, black stovepipe-shaped black leather boots worn with kroj in the Czech Republic. Women wearing cowboy boots with their kroj is my favorite regional adaptation of this folk tradition.
Chef Pavla Van Bibber is somewhat of a celebrity in Austin’s Texas Czech community. She is an expatriated Czech living in Texas for decades, and also a chef so her spectacular meals of traditional dishes are both familiar and exotic in their authenticity. The menu this year started with a colorful spread of předkrm (appetizers) including devilled eggs, chlebicky (tiny open-faced sandwiches), canapes of bread topped with sliced sausage and sauerkraut, and more.
The invitation for Cesky Vecer advertised the dinner menu in both Czech and English.
- Bramboravá Pórková Polévka (potato leek soup)
- Vepřová (pork roast)
- Knedliky (dumplings)
- Zelí (sauerkraut)
- Houbový Štrůdl (mushroom strudel)
- Salát (salad)
- Rohlík, Máslo (bread, butter)
- Ledová Čaj (iced tea)
- Horká Káva (hot coffee)
Pavla is a pastry chef by trade, teaching at Austin’s Auguste Escoffier School of Culinary Arts. Her dessert plate shined with four or five different Czech specialties including a slice of strudel, bread pudding with slivovice sauce, a small kolac, and one of Pavla’s specialties… a cookie with an edible photo transfer on it. This one celebrated the 100th anniversary of the founding of Czechoslovakia.
For almost all of the years of Cesky Vecer, Kovanda’s Czech Band has provided the music, beginning the evening with the American, the Czech, and the Slovak national anthems, to which everyone sings along. Like the food at the event made by Pavla, the music also has direct roots in the Czech Republic. The band was started here in Texas in 1984 by Czech expatriate Vlastimil Kovanda, to replicate the sound of brass bands called dechovka. This style of music was once popular in Texas (think of the Baca Brass Band of Fayetteville in the early 20th century) but now it’s only played by a few bands.
The Austin Czech Historical Association loves Kovanda’s and they reciprocate with lovingly-played waltzes, schottisches, polkas, and the night’s highlight… the Grand March. Hipster Californians-turned-Austinites might find the whole scene dorky, but dancing in the Grand March, and polka dancing in general, is close to the most fun a grown up can have. The Grand March is just that, a march of all in attendance in choreographed lines that combine, separate, and recombine in different line formations around the dance floor. It is a communal act, strengthening the ties of community members through cooperation, and following and leading simultaneously. And it so democratic. People of varied ages, political leanings, educational backgrounds, professions, economic situations, and religions smile at each other, literally hold hands, encourage younger members, slow down the lines for older ones, and just exude happiness. The March ended as we surrounded a well-known Czech-born couple in the community, Petr and Olga, as they danced to celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary. The music and smiles and goodwill were infectious, and goodness knows we all need that right now.
If you’re in the Austin area and want to connect to a sweet group of Texas Czechs, the ACHA holds meetings the 4th Tuesday of each month at Gethsemane Lutheran Church at 200 West Anderson Lane (on 183 between IH-35 and Lamar). The get-together begins with a meet and greet at 6:30 pm, followed by a pot luck dinner at 7 pm. Everyone brings their favorite dish or dessert or adult beverage (coffee and water are provided.) After the meal is a short business meeting, many times followed by a program of Czech interests. The next ACHA meeting is scheduled for November 27, 2018 and the ACHA’s website notes that “Everyone (Czech or just wanting to be Czech!) is welcome to come.”