For those living in Central Texas, kolaches are a part of every day life. Whether they stop to get kolaches on family road trips, eat them fresh out of the box with junior-high-school friends the morning after a slumber party, or bring a fresh dozen to the office to share with co-workers, kolaches are food commonly eaten by many Texans.
However, most people in the United States have never even heard of a kolache, let alone tasted one. It was only when I left Houston for a job in New York City in 2004 and discovered that kolaches were virtually impossible to find, that I began to really think about what kolaches are and why they became such a staple in Texas.
After some preliminary research, I learned that kolaches, a yeast bread traditionally filled with fruit, cheese, or a combination of the two, were brought to the U.S. with Czech immigrants, many of who settled as farmers in Texas in the mid 1800s. The traditional pastry was a key food eaten in Czech daily life and immigrants in the U.S. continued to eat kolaches to hold onto their Czech heritage and identity in a new land.
As times changed, so did kolaches. The pastry began to be eaten by Texans of various ethnic groups who changed not only the fillings, but the idea of what a kolache is. I argue that the kolache has evolved over time to become not only a Czech food, but also a distinctly Texan one. Thus, kolaches have become just as much of a symbol of identity for Texans as for the Czech people who brought kolaches to Texas in the first place.
No matter what specific kolache one prefers, the traditional Czech pastry has undeniably become a food that is intertwined with nostalgia for both Czech descendants and all Texans alike.
The kolache has been taken over by the melting pot of ethnic groups in Texas to evolve from a purely Czech food to one that uniquely Texan. Although the kolache has changed over time in the way it tastes and how it is eaten, it has consistently acted as a symbol of identity for those leaving home for the promise of a better life in a new place.
Czech Immigration Introduces the Kolache to Texas
The kolache was just one of the foods Czech immigrants brought with them when they came to America in search of new opportunity. Most Czechs came to the U.S. in the mid 1800s, to escape the oppression in their homeland for the promise of employment and religious freedom that the New World held (Martin 6). Czechs were typically farmers who were enticed by the land being offered to settlers in America. They packed their belongings and endured the three to four month journey to the port of Galveston, Texas. From there they dispersed across the fertile prairie of Central Texas (Butler).
During the last half of the 1880s more than 250 such communities sprang up in the area between Dallas and Austin, and today Texas has the largest rural Czechoslovak population in the United States (Voros).
Czech cooking is known for its desserts, which also include bukhty (filled buns) and babovka (a sponge cake baked in a special mold). Due to the popularity of sweets in Czech cooking, Peter Martin included seven recipes for kolaches in his book Czechoslovak Culture: Recipes, History and Folk Art. A kolache is similar to a Danish in both shape and fillings, but kolaches have a softer, doughier consistency as opposed to the Danish’s buttery, flaky layers. Taking its name from kolae, which is Czech for cake, it can also be spelled kolace, kolach, or kolacky, depending on where you are from.
Martin notes “Just as there are many ways to spell kolache…so too are there many ways to prepare kolaches! The original kolache was the size and shape of a pie and was cut and served accordingly. This dessert, which is also a breakfast, a staple, or whatever you wish, also exemplifies the diversity, creativity, and thrifty nature of the Czechoslovak cook” (116.)
In the Czech Lands, as the Czech Republic was called in the mid 1800s when most immigration to Texas occurred, kolaches were a traditional celebratory food served at Christmas and weddings. Kolaches were even served in lieu of wedding cake, and brides would traditionally be required to bake their potential husbands a 1,000-kolache dowry to prove that they would be able to cook for them every day (Gabriel).
Kolaches continued to be a part of everyday life for Czechs in Texas and baking was something that Czech women did all the time. They would make the dough by hand, stirring and kneading it in a wooden bowl for a lengthy amount of time until it was ready to rise, fill, and bake. The tradition was to bake sweets like kolaches on Saturday’s so they would ready for Sunday afternoons when people would visit each other’s homes.
Kolaches were an element of every meal, and according to Joe Rychlick, whose family settled in Caldwell, Texas in 1882, “If they didn’t have ingredients for bread and kolaches, they made kolaches so you could get both [bread and sweets].”
It was also very common for kolaches to eaten as part of a “svacina,” or “light lunch” in the field that gave farmers strength to get through the day. Kolaches were such a predominant foodstuff for Czechs at this time that Joe Rychlick can’t even remember when he had his first one. “I probably had a kolache with my baby food,” he says.
Traditional kolache fillings in the Czech Lands and in Texas were apricot, poppy seed, prune, and sweet cheese. These were the only foods that Czechs could really get their hands on, according to Jody Powers, owner of Zamykal Kolaches in Calvert, Texas. “They grew poppy seed, raised their own cows, and could only get dried fruits like apricots and prunes.”
Works Cited in This Series
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18 December 2012. <https://www.texasmonthly.com/food/recipefiles/Breakfast/1998-11-01/recipe3.php>.
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