In Czech community cookbook, kolaches aren’t the only things worth preserving

Members of the McLennan-Hill Chapter Czech Heritage Society in North Central Texas weren’t messing around when they published the “Czech Reflections” community cookbook in 1994.

The book’s sub-subtitle says it all: “Recipes, Memories, History, Customs, Proverbs, Language, Farm Tasks, Costumes and Dancers.”

What the society couldn’t guarantee were notes like the kind that my neighbor Mary Beth’s mother, who was also named Mary, wrote for her inside the cover. “Hope you enjoy this book as much as I enjoyed giving it go you,” she wrote that Christmas.

This post, which is a helpful reminder that recipes for the AFBA community cookbook are due on May 1 [SUBMISSIONS ARE NOW CLOSED], isn’t really about this particular cookbook or that particular inscription, but before I get to the real heart of the matter, a few things of note from inside its pages:

On the cover, a girl with flowers in her hair and in a traditional dress feeding geese. After the photo shoot, she probably went home to watch “Saved By The Bell” like the rest of us, but in that moment, she represented the many generations’ worth of recipes and cultural traditions that are packed in the 204-page book.

On wells:

“Water for drinking was drawn from the well with a bucket on a chain and pulley. In the summer to keep meat from spoiling, it was placed in the bucket and suspended down halfway into the water to keep it cool. Also to cool beer, the bottles of beer would be placed in the bucket and lowered to half-way in the water.” — Henrietta Cervenka

On making it “in the early twenties,” when food was scare:

“One made the best of what was on hand. There were no supermarkets or gasoline filing stations. Fast food was never thought of nor were Dairy Queen and Long John Silver. Even so, often a peddler would come by. A mule was hitched to a wagon carrying much needed staples like flour, coffee beans and some type of bean stored in wooden barrels.” –Evelina Lenart

Recipes, of course, make up the bulk of the book. Five kolache recipes, plus lesser-known Czech desserts, like meringue kisses and poppy seed cake. Goulashes, stews and sausages, plus slightly more unusual dishes, like fried frog legs:

“Wash frog legs, put in deep bowl. Salt and pour a little oil and lemon juice over them. Sprinkle them with chopped onion and chopped green parsley and leave to marinate about an hour. Then take out and place on a clean napkin, dust with flour, dip in beaten egg and roll in grated bread crumbs, fry in hot melted butter shortly before serving. Arrange on dish lined with green parsley.”

They’ve published Czech translations of many of the standards like cucumber salads, sour potato gravy with dill roux and vanilla cookies, but how often do you think that frog legs recipe, which was also translated, was used in the early 1990s?

But the recipes — like the darker stories that this kind of digging into the past can bring up — are important, even if we don’t particularly like them anymore.

Community cookbooks like this one capture so many things about a society, including aspirational and traditional dishes that people might not actually cook any more but that are important to understanding how we came to eat the way we do now. With ours, we’re not looking to document the entire history of a culture, but merely a glimpse at the kind of food that bloggers who live in Central Texas love to make. Through publishing these stories, we hope to also tell the stories of the people they love and who loved them enough to pass down the art of cooking.

The owner of this copy of “Czech Reflections” doesn’t have any children herself, and I might be the only person in a decade who asked her to point out which recipes were her mother’s and which were from her dad’s mother. This, of course, led us to talking about how her parents met and how her dad’s mom taught her own mom, who couldn’t boil a pot of water when they got married, to be one of the best cooks in the county.

I’ve been talking a lot lately with my maternal and paternal grandmothers, who are 81 and 86, respectively, about our family histories, and sometimes the best way to get them talking is to ask them questions about food and cooking. I’m trying to get them to open up about relatives who died years before I was born in an effort to build an Ancestry.com digital family tree, which is a free and pretty spiffy tool if you haven’t checked it out.

Talking the other day with one of my grandmothers about how she used to bury eggs in a wooden box of salt to preserve them led to both of us in tears, facing a difficult conversation that needed to be had. My other grandmother’s stories got a little more tepid after we touched on the time after her father walked out on her, her mom and her brother when she was just a kid.

Emotions are tied up in the simplest things, but documenting them taps into something deep within us, a reverence for the things we know and the things we wish we knew.

I feel lucky to have started gathering oral histories now before my elders start losing some of those details about who moved where when and what they did when they got there. (My great-great grandfather left Sweden in 1884 to make wagons in Springfield, Missouri. He couldn’t afford to go back to get his wife and children for a decade, and my grandmother still uses the bread knife that her grandmother carried over on that boat.)

Anyway, I’m delving far too much into genealogy and away from cookbook publishing, but as you are thinking about which recipes and stories to submit, consider the recipes that have meaning in your life because the generations that follow ours will hopefully be able to read our book and get a sense of who we are, what is important to us and how we live, including how we incorporate technology into our cooking.

Speaking of technology, over on our Facebook group, AFBA member Ginny Bell asked if we were lacking in any particular category of entries. We are getting lots of desserts, but there are also plenty of appetizers and entrees, too. We have received several very complicated dishes, and we don’t have very many straight-up side dishes, so it would be nice to get a few simple and/or vegetable-heavy dishes in the next week. If you have any other questions, don’t hesitate to email me at broylesa@gmail.com.

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6 Enlightened Replies

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  1. You sure know how to pull on heart strings!

    I’m working on gathering family history and recipes for my own project. It might stem from being away from home for so long and rapidly losing elders of our family. I’m proud of my Finnish-French-Canadian heritage and want to pass it to my kids and grandkids (one day!).

  2. Great post. Both of my grandmothers have passed, unfortunately taking some of their most beloved recipes with them. It’s so important to ask these questions and have these conversations before it’s too late.

  3. Jodi says:

    I’m not sure I HAVE any original recipes that I would feel comfortable passing off as my own. But I LOVE this project. Thank you for sharing your family stories, Addie!

    • Thanks for the comments! Hopefully we’ll find a way to use everyone’s talents. This book included a few explanatory chapters about Czech life, so maybe we can think of a few things like that to include in the book…

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