Drive north on I-35 toward Dallas and you’ll go through a little bit of the Czech Republic. West is a predominantly ethnic Czech town between Waco and Hillsboro, and it’s most people’s first taste of what it means to be a Texas Czech…and I do mean taste.
West is home to the Czech Stop and the Little Czech Bakery. If you’ve never had a kolache, the bakery is a good place to start.
I’m from Texas, but I have to confess that I really don’t know that much about our Texas-Czech culture. A long-time friend of mine, Ginger, lives in Bristol, just outside Ennis, and she’s married to a Czech. Their last name is Mensik. It’s through Ginger that I’ve learned some things about our Texas Czechs. For starters, Czechs have an extremely close-knit family unit and they are intimately tied to the land on which they live. Most Texas Czechs are descended from Moravian immigrants and they still speak Czech in the Moravian dialect, rather than the Bohemian dialect other Czech-Americans use.
Czech communities stretch from Williamson County, through Bell, McLennan, Hill, Kaufman and Ellis counties. There are concentrations of Czech towns on the Texas Coastal Prairie too, mostly in Wharton, Fort Bend and Victoria. One of our Central Texas Czech communities is right here in Bell County. Zabcikville is located at the intersection of FM 2269 and 437, 10 miles east of Temple and has a population of 40.
Last weekend, I went to visit a friend up in Telico. You pretty much have to drive through Ennis to get there and it’s barely a speck on the map. Ennis isn’t a large town, but it was on that particular weekend. The 43rd Annual National Polka Festival was being held in Ennis, and the town was full of Texas Czechs getting their “Whoopie John” on. The particular fraternal hall I passed on the way to see my friend was the Sokol Activity Center. “Sokol” is the Czech word for “falcon.” The parking lot was full, so I imagine the hall was packed.
I looked up the Sokol Activity Center on the Internet, and this is how it was described on the National Polka Festival Website: “With over 90 years of continuous service to the Ennis community and its guests, the 30,000 square foot Sokol Activity Center located two miles east of downtown Ennis on Highway 34 carries on a deeply rooted tradition that started in 1908. A proud group of immigrants banded together to preserve the heritage brought from their homeland while embracing American patriotism and the athleticism synonymous with Sokol.”
I’m not sure which Czechs are more proud of: being Czech or being American. Add to that being Texans, and that’s a whole lot of national pride rolled into one culture.
An example of this Texas-Czech pride is in their fraternal organizations. Fraternal orders are a very big deal with Texas Czechs. If you happen to see a building with SPJST on it, that’s an acronym for “Slovanska podporujici jenota statu Texas” which just gave my spell-check program fits. In English, that’s the “Slavic Benevolent Order of the State of Texas.”Organizations such as the SPJST grew out of a national Czech fraternal order, but split off to become a Texas institution. More Texas pride at play, I imagine.
I mentioned the National Polka Festival earlier. That’s not the only Czech-specific festival in Texas. We also have Czech Fest in Rosenberg, Czhilispiel in Flatonia and WestFest in West. I’ve not been to any of them, but after having seen the turn out at the National Polka Festival in Ennis, I want to. So I’m brushing up on my Czech. I know that “Jak se máš?” means “How are you?” after seeing it about a million times on car bumper stickers up and down I-35. I’ve learned some other basic words and phrases too, such as “prosím” and “děkuji,” which are “please” and “thank you.”
Now I just need to learn how to say them.
For most Texans, our first encounter with Texas Czech culture is with the iconic kolache. I found a recipe that’s supposed to be an authentic Czech recipe, and I’m inclined to believe it since the instructions say that they take most of a day to make. Here it is as I saw it written:
Klobasniky (or sausage kolaches)
This is the old fashioned way; takes 5-7 hours.
Personal note: Do not scrimp on the quality of sausage used
• 2 packages dry yeast
• 1/2 cup lukewarm water
• 2 cups lukewarm milk
• 1/2 cup sugar
• 1 small can evaporated milk (=5.33 oz =approximately 2/3 cup)
• about 8 cups flour
• 5 egg yolks
• 1/3 cup melted butter
• 1/3 cup vegetable oil
• 1 tbsp salt
• 3 drops lemon extract
• 2 to 2 1/2 pounds cooked, cool smoked sausage.
1. In a large bowl, dissolve yeast in lukewarm water. Add milk, sugar, evaporated milk, and 4 cups flour. Mix thoroughly until smooth, cover and let rest at least 1 hour in a warm place.
2. In a separate bowl place egg yolks, melted butter, oil, salt, and lemon extract. Mix with mixer. Add this to first mixture and blend. Add 3 1/2 to 4 cups of flour gradually and mix well using a wooden spoon until smooth.
3. Cover and let rise until double in bulk.
4. Place a third of the dough at a time on floured board. Sprinkle flour on top of dough and roll out with rolling pin to about 1/3 inch thickness. Cut in squares about 2x2 inches or a little larger. Place cooked, cool sausage pieces on each square and enclose, sealing edges.
5. Place on greased baking sheet with sealed edge on bottom. Brush lightly with melted butter and let rise until double in size. Bake at 425 deg F until light golden brown, about 10 minutes. Yields 6 dozen.
6. Some prefer to brush done kolaches with evaporated milk or melted butter after they have cooled down slightly after removal from the oven.
I haven’t made any yet, but I’ll bet one bite will make you say, “Je to vynikající!” (“It is delicious!”)