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.
Homesick Texans and Imagined Communities
Evidence of the kolache’s transition from a marker of Czech identity to a Texas regional food is also seen when Texan “immigrants” leave their home state. Like Czech immigrants in Texas, Texans who move to other places use kolaches to maintain their identity and remember where they came from.
One prime example is Autumn Stanford, who owns The Brooklyn Kolache Co. in the Bed Stuy neighborhood of Brooklyn, specializing in Texas kolaches. Stanford opened her business in hopes of recreating the kolaches she ate growing up and to share the pastries with fellow homesick Texans.
Both Stanford and Fain (who also lives in New York City) reminisce about the kolaches they ate on family road trips as kids. It is these kolaches that both women have attempted to duplicate, Fain for her cookbook and Stanford in her shop. Neither of these women are of Czech descent, but they both very closely associate kolaches with their identity as Texans.
For Fain, trying to replicate the kolaches was a challenge with a specific goal in mind. “Every time a batch would come out I’d be like ‘I’m close, but its not quite there,’” she says. “It was really exciting when that last batch came out and I was like, ‘I’m back in Texas, this is great!’”
Stanford and Fain aren’t the only Texas expats who yearn for kolaches. Texans in the Northeast will take pilgrimages to the Brooklyn Kolache Co., where on weekends the line goes out there door with Texans eager to taste a “real” Texas kolache like they could find at home.
In Brooklyn, kolaches may be sold individually, but in Texas, people rarely buy just one. The kolaches at the Burleson County Festival sold out so fast because everyone ordered them by the dozen, not by the piece. Every day in Central Texas, dozens of boxes of kolaches are sold with the purpose of sharing them with others, whether its with family, friends, or co-workers.
Like other baked goods such as cookies or cake, kolaches are meant to be shared. From its origin as a celebratory food in the Czech Lands that was eaten in a large pie, kolaches have always been a food that symbolizes community. “Its not an alone person food, it always seems you’re eating kolaches with a group,” says Fain. “Home baked or store bought it’s a community food. You get a box and you’re sharing with people.”
This sense of community can also exist between Texans no matter where they live. Benedict Anderson describes this in his idea of the “imagined community,” which is different from an actual community because there is no face-to-face interaction between its members. “It is imagined because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion” (Anderson).
When Fain and Stanford in New York eat kolaches they are united with other Texans around the world who love kolaches. Even if these people have never met, they’re still members of this same imagined community that connects them to each other as fellow Texans. This “imagined community” originated in Texas in the 1800s when Czech immigrants formed a virtual community with their fellow kolache-eating Czechs back home in the Czech Lands. Over time, this community has widened to now include Texans of all ethnic backgrounds.
Works Cited in This Series
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