Newcomers brought tasty favorites to Texas, then changed them
DAVID STONE | OUR TOWN TEMPLE
I can’t believe it’s been a year since I made a case for the chicken-fried kolacharito — a tasty kolache pastry stuffed with burrito fixin’s and smothered in country gravy — to assume the throne of Texas culinary royalty.
In a previous column, I pitched the idea as the official dish of Bell Country. Apparently it didn’t catch on, but that’s OK.
Today I’m going to revisit one of my favorite subjects — food. To be specific, Texas food.
Although this is one of my top topics, I write this column with sadness in my heart. This was going to be a column co-written with my friend Susan Chandler, former director and curator of the Czech Heritage Museum.
Susan’s life here on Earth ended last month, but I’ve decided this is a column I want to write. Besides, she was all smiles as she told me the inside story about kolaches in Texas.
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Americans love hamburgers — the popular sandwich made of a bun stuffed with veggies, sauces and, of course, ground meat grilled to perfection. As a country, we eat about 50 billion burgers a year. No wonder it’s our national dish.
In an average life of 74.9 years, the typical American eats 8,389 hamburgers and washes it down with 20,301 bottles of beer. Just for grins: The average person also eats 11,113 M&Ms and 801 pounds of chocolate.
In Texas, chili — and its variations such as Frito pie — is king. The Texas Legislature made it official in 1977 by naming it the state’s official dish.
So, what about Bell County? If we were to designate an official food — or in our case, unofficial — what would it be? The options are plentiful, and a solid case can be built for each.
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First of all, it’s Texas, so anything beefy would be a great choice. Since burgers are the national dish, maybe brisket, steak or fajitas. After all, the famous Chisholm Trail cattle drives came right through the heart of Bell County.
From the start of the trail drives in 1867 to 1871, millions of longhorns were taken from south Texas to the Kansas Railhead. It is estimated that 10 million longhorns went up the Chisholm Trail — which ran through Salado, Belton, Temple and west of Troy — before new rail lines to Texas made the long trail drives no longer necessary.
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Secondly, Hispanic Texans were among the first to settle in this region, and of course, they brought their tasty dishes — with the exception of tacos. Those came later.
Tacos in some form have been around for centuries, but those early forms looked quite different from today’s popular and portable entrees. Long before it was known in the good ol’ USA, natives in Mexico were eating fish and organs wrapped in a corn-based flat tortilla to supply them energy for mining.
Mexican immigrants likely brought this tradition to San Antonio and El Paso in about 1905, but it wasn’t until December 1920 that they were Americanized with ground beef and chicken, tomatoes, cheddar cheese, lettuce and sour cream.
The change came as Americans in the Southwest began to customize the dish with familiar ingredients. The original organ-filled tortillas were heavily seasoned with spice, and many Americans at that time looked to tame that spice with other ingredients.
Although the modern version of the taco isn’t that old, the name “taco” is. It probably started in Mexico during the 1700s as a convenience food for the working class, including miners.
Gunpowder was wrapped in a paper-like “taquito” and set into rocks prior to detonation. As the meal gained popularity, they were sold on the street as “tacos de miners” — miner’s tacos.
These were soft corn tortillas with spicy filling and were affordable for the working folks.
The taco first appeared on street carts and were sold primarily by women. Mexican immigrants bought them, but American’s just couldn’t wrap their palates around them. So, in 1920, tacos began to change. Woohooo! Hello cheese, tomatoes, sour cream and ground beef!
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But perhaps the top candidate for Bell County’s official dish is the kolache.
The delicious breakfast pastry we know looked a lot different in the early 1800s, before immigrants from the Moravia region of the Czech lands settled in Texas.
“Back then, Moravians made a large thin pastry similar to a pizza,” the late Susan Chandler said. “It was called a Frgal, and it was topped with apricots, plums, poppy seeds and cheeses.”
Chandler said the pastry was downsized when it came to Texas.
“To make them more portable, they started making them in little circles,” she said. “The called them kolo — which actually means circle. If there was just one kolo, a ‘c’ was added to make it koloc. That signifies there is only one. If there were more than one, a ‘ch’ was added. Kolach. Eventually it became kolache.”
“A new trend in kolaches is to make them bite-sized to serve as party appetizers,” Chandler said.
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The tales of the kolache’s origin are many, but Carol White, owner of Kolache Kitchen in Temple, shared the following story. The tale has been hanging on the wall of the popular bakery for 38 years and was hung by her mother, Irene Wassermann, right before the business opened.
Here’s the story — Carol believes it to be true. We’re not sure exactly when or where this took place, but it presumably occurred in Czech lands around or before 1800.
“Maminka, busy with her weekly task of baking the family’s bread, broke off a few pieces of dough to keep little daughter Lebuse amused. The little cook kneaded her dough into flat cakes. Looking for added flavor, she selected several plums from a bowl on the table and plopped the fruit into the center of the circle of dough.”
“Libuse’s cake went into the oven alongside Maminka’s loaves of bread. Tatinek, coming in from a hard day in the fields, spied the bakery cooling on the kitchen table.”
“He picked a tantalizing tart and popped it into his mouth. When the hot juice spurted from the plump plum center, Tatinek hopped from one foot to the other, making a mad circle about the table.”
Little Libuse clapped her hands and shouted with glee: ‘Tatinek je do kolac.’”
“Long after the pain was forgotten, the flavor was remembered, and friends and neighbors learned of the new tasty pastry. Soon, the fame of the kolac spread throughout the Austro-Hungarian empire and even into the New World.”
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When Camp Hood — later renamed Fort Hood — was established in 1942, huge numbers of Army personnel called Bell County home. Most were men in the early days, and many spent part of their service years abroad at military installations in Germany and Korea.
As young men do, many took girlfriends while stationed abroad and later returned to Bell County with new families. These German and Korean populations boomed in the Killeen area, and so did their cuisines. Today, kimchi and kraut are common refrigerator companions to mustard, ketchup, mayonnaise and salsas.
In recent years, veganism and healthy eating certainly have grown in popularity. But, that said, many Southern folks still get a hankering for fried food. And, in Texas and Bell Country, we love chicken-fried steak. Always have, and for at least the near future, always will.
Nothing beats a crispy, crusty fried steak smothered in country gravy. It’s a natural pick for Bell County’s favorite dish. Like the kolache, chicken fried steak originated in Texas, the product of eastern Europeans who adapted the dish from wiener schnitzel, which is similarly cooked but traditionally uses veal and breadcrumbs.
So, there’s a few options. Bell County may never name an official dish, and that’s OK. But, you just might have to put up with a similar column next year.