My grandmother made two kinds of kolaches. They were equally threatening. One had a prune-and-apricot filling, the fruit stewed together into a dark spackle that rested inside a shallow depression on top of the pastry. The other contained a poppy seed paste, hidden inside a plain mound of dough, that was even darker, even gunkier. The pungent smell of those kolaches, their suspicious texture and strong, complicated sweetness, were too much for a finicky young eater like myself. I tried them once or twice, and that was enough. It was not just the way they tasted but what they evoked: a world far older than my own, a dark age and a distant place that seemed to think it had some claim upon my soul.
My grandmother’s married name was Gladys Berney, but she had been born Gladys Lednicky. Her parents had grown up in Czech villages only a few miles apart but did not meet until they had emigrated separately to America and settled in the Midwest, where they were married in 1885, in Buchanan County, Missouri. She was an industrious woman with cat-eye glasses who gave book reviews for local women’s clubs and was once named Oklahoma’s “Mother of the Year.” I can remember her sitting at her kitchen table in Oklahoma City—where she and her husband moved the family in the thirties—talking on her red Bakelite telephone to her mother, gossiping rapidly in a baffling language she called “bohunk.”
I don’t recall being particularly curious about this language or why she would be speaking it. And for the next half century or so I lazily remained indifferent. I knew more or less that my ancestors came from a region of the world that had once been part of Austria-Hungary, and after the First World War had coalesced into Czechoslovakia, and then after the fall of communism, in 1989, had become the Czech Republic. But as far as I was concerned, it was still a fuzzy, medieval-ish land. I grew up in midsized cities (Abilene, Corpus Christi), not in roots-conscious big-city neighborhoods or rural communities. My world was a striving postwar America of blank cultural cohesion. Ethnically speaking, I had always felt like nobody in particular, a product of the casually mongrelized white middle class—in my case part Irish, part Scotch-Irish, and part murky middle European. To the degree I ever embraced any of these splintered identities, it was the Irish part—not the Czech—that had appealed most to my carefully cultivated, broodingly romantic soul. But DNA doesn’t lie. When I looked in the mirror, I saw not some tortured black-haired Irishman but the generic round face, bald head, and mushy features of an Eastern Bloc apparatchik.
I don’t think I ate a kolache between about 1954 and sometime in the mid-eighties, when my Uncle D. D. baked a batch for Christmas using my late grandmother’s recipe and sent them around to the rest of the family. People use the word “Proustian” to describe the sort of sensation I had upon encountering these kolaches, but for the adjective to have real meaning, it helps to go back to the famous passage, early in the first volume of Remembrance of Things Past , where the author describes the experience of rediscovering the texture of his childhood through the taste of a madeleine cookie dipped in tea: “I feel something start within me, something that leaves its resting-place and attempts to rise, something that has been embedded like an anchor at a great depth.”
My uncle’s kolaches were round, rather flat, formed irregularly by hand, and baked to a deep brown. They came in a cardboard mailing box, layer after layer of them—prune and poppy seed—wrapped in aluminum foil. Unwrapping that foil released a smell, or rather an intricate tapestry of smells, that transported me instantly into the precognitive mist. I had just discovered the Dead Sea Scrolls of my childhood.
My way of pulling at the anchor was to begin making kolaches myself every Christmas. I worked from my grandmother’s recipe, written in her own hand. It required some serious parsing and occasioned a few double takes. (The directions for one step read, “After they bake—put butter over top—I do + momma died.”) The recipe, I was cautioned by my uncle, is a Lednicky secret, though I think I can reveal that at one stage it calls for a box of crushed vanilla wafers.
I was able to approach but never quite attain Nana’s standard. Making kolaches is hard. A famous Czech proverb, printed on pot holders and refrigerator magnets, confirms my own experience: “ Bez práce nejsou koláče ” (“Without work there are no kolaches”). First, there is the time-consuming process of making the dough, which involves an afternoon’s worth of mixing flour and eggs and sugar, scalding milk, and melting butter, then kneading it, letting it rise, punching it down, letting it rise again, and rolling it out onto a floured surface, only to discover at the end of the procedure that you’ve left out a crucial ingredient—yeast, perhaps. There is also the filling to prepare, the endless stirring of the pot that holds poppy seeds and milk and flour and sugar as you wait—hope—for it to resolve itself into the proper speckled paste. Meanwhile, on another burner, the dried prunes and apricots stew together in a saucepan, a bubbling tar pit that you have to keep a careful eye on as it cooks down, until finally it is pliable enough to mush together with a heavy-duty whisk. Then you have to make popsika, the sugary, cinnamony, vanilla-y topping, and then comes the tedious, origami-like hand-forming of the kolaches themselves, an art that I have humbly accepted I do not have the patience or remaining lifetime required to master.
For years I continued to make my kolaches without much encouragement. My children, when they were young, sampled them in the same grudging way I had. Now that they are grown, they claim they like them, but I know