Kolaches, Polka and Pivo
Czech-ing in: Come for the kolaches & stay for the polka
This weekend, Burleson County will kick off its 27th annual Kolache Festival in its county seat of Caldwell. Located about an hour and a half east of Austin via US-290 and TX-21, Caldwell is just one of many of Texas’s quaint, small towns that would serve as a fun weekend getaway for Austin’s metropolitan citizens.
But this festival on the town square is about more than just stuffing your face with an assorted variety of Czech pastries with cherry, apple, cream cheese and any other fillings you can imagine. For the people of Caldwell and surrounding small towns in central and southeast Texas, this is the chance to celebrate the colorful history of Czechs in the Lone Star State.
Let’s get one matter straight, a kolache is a baked pastry that always has a sweet or fruity filling, like poppy seed or apricot. Do not believe for a second that a true Czech kolache has sausage, ham or cheese in it. A pig-in-a-blanket does not equal a kolache. They are just as tasty to have for breakfast after picking them up from a local bakery, but the distinction needs to be made in the name of cultural heritage.
That may seem like nitpicking, but when it’s a part of your family’s heritage and is firmly rooted where you grew up, it’s a distinction that needs to be made. Outside of the Midwest, Texas has some of the largest concentrations of Czech-Americans in many counties located between San Antonio, Austin and Houston.
The story of Czechs in Texas pretty much begins with the story of Rev. Josef Arnost Bergmann, who traveled to Texas in 1850 to minister to German Protestants in Cat Spring, located in Austin County. Soon after, the Pastor Bergmann wrote an extensive letter back to his home country detailing the cheap land and free opportunities available to all settlers.
The letter was published in the Moravské Noviny (Moravia News) back home, and many Czechs were quickly tantalized by what Texas offered. Living on crowded land in Central Europe under the oppressive rule of the Austrian Empire, it wouldn’t take much to convince these settlers to seek the American Dream in the heart of Texas.
There would be successive waves of Czechs making the journey to Texas following the Civil War, with most of them being Catholics and from the eastern region of the Czech lands called Moravia. While these Central European Slavs were a minority that were significantly smaller that other minorities in Texas, they still had a profound impact on Texas’s cultural scene.
One of the biggest is perhaps its influence on Tejano music. The polka is a major part of traditional Czech music and the accordion is the soul of polka. Through cross-cultural contact in Central Texas, the Norteño genre of Tejano music would gain a major influence on its tempo and style of dance.
Besides music, Czech settlers brought with them perhaps the greatest cultural tradition native to the people of Bohemia, Moravia and Silesia. In case you didn’t know, Czechs really love beer. A lot. As of right now, the Czech Republic is the largest beer consumer per capita in the world. Yes, the Czechs actually drink more beer than the Irish. If you have trouble believing that, then go to a wedding reception for any Czech-Texans and see for yourself.
That pretty much sums up the Czech people. They are about the hardest working people on Earth, but they somehow simultaneously mastered the art of kicking back and relaxing with music, food and beer.
So if you don’t have the chance to make it to Caldwell this weekend, you’ll still have the opportunity to enjoy this unique heritage if you simply get yourself some kolaches and a case of pilsner. And if you happen to be driving along TX-71 right past Columbus between 5 and 7 o'clock in the evenings, tune your radio to 98.3 KULM for Polka Party Time. Not only do you get to enjoy some true Texas polka, but the DJ, Ricky Canik, will also introduce you to the very unique Texas-Czech accent. You might need a local to translate for you.