Stephen Harrigan’s grandmother made two kinds of kolaches. He tried them a couple of times, but he wasn’t very fond of the Czech pastries that tasted strangely odd and evoked a faraway place and time. In fact, he avoided them from 1954 until sometime in the mid-eighties, when his uncle baked a batch using his late grandmother’s recipe. With one bite, Harrigan was transported back to his childhood, of sampling—and rejecting—the kolaches that his grandmother used to make. And with the nostalgia came a need to reconnect. He began by making his own kolaches, staying true to his grandmother’s handwritten recipe, but it proved to be a struggle. After years of making his own, he embarked on a journey to find not merely the best but the most redolent kolaches on earth—and to learn why it mattered to him. Here’s the story behind the story.
What made you decide to write about this experience?
At first, I thought I would just do a short piece on all these dueling kolache/gas station outlets like Hruska’s and Weikel’s and the Czech Stop. I was intrigued by the fact that these places were packed with customers every time I stopped at them. It seemed newsworthy that kolaches were a niche food that had gone mainstream without anybody really noticing. But the “newsworthy” part soon took a back seat as I began to think about the strangely meaningful presence of kolaches in my own family history.
When you write a personal story like this, is your writing process different? Why or why not?
The actual process of writing is much the same—just pounding the keys on the computer—but in my mind a story like this ought to be a little shaggier. I didn’t want to “report” this piece—I just wanted to see where it led me.
You wrote that while at Westfest, you felt like a fraud. How so?
I always feel like a bit of a fraud, no matter what I’m writing about. I think it stems from a sense of inadequacy, the feeling that as a journalist you’re just an observer, whereas the people you’re writing about are passionately involved in some action or belief. In the case of Westfest, I was even more on the sidelines, because all these people had invested so strongly by their Czech heritage. I had a Czech heritage as well, but had barely given it a thought.
When did it hit you that you were destined to travel to the Czech Republic? At that moment, what did you think you were searching for?
I knew fairly early on that this wasn’t really going to be a story about kolaches. It was a story about a missing part of myself. And my hope was that my oddball search for the perfect kolache would somehow hit a universal chord, because I think many of us feel sort of blank about where we came from and who our ancestors were.
Have you ever written about food before? Did you find it hard or easy?
Years and years ago I wrote a story for TEXAS MONTHLY about biscuits. When it comes to food writing, I seem to specialize in dough.
What was the most interesting thing you learned while working on this story?
I was fascinated by the history of the Czechs in Texas. I didn’t have any space to do more than sketch in a little bit of that history, but for readers who are interested in learning more, I recommend Krasna Amerika, by Clinton Machann and James W. Mendl, and To Reap a Bountiful Harvest, by Štepánka Korytová-Magstadt.
The giant prune frgale. Were you completely surprised? Did you eat more than just one? Did you ask for the recipe?
Yes, completely taken by surprise. I didn’t expect the aha! moment I wrote about in the story. And nobody could eat more than one of these things—they’re the size of pizzas.
What was it like tracing your roots? Did you ever question why you had started down that path?
Meeting my Lednicky relatives in Brušperk was one of the most satisfying experiences I’ve ever had as a writer. When I first started thinking about traveling to the Czech Republic, all I meant to do was go there and eat kolaches. It didn’t occur to me at first to try to find the wellspring of my own family history. But now that I’ve found it, I feel oddly redefined. I’m not sure I’m exactly the same person anymore.
Are you still making kolaches? If so, why? If not, why not?
Every Christmas. And I’m getting better at it. My friend Rebecca Ford, who’s a well-known Austin caterer and food guru, went over my grandmother’s idiosyncratic recipe and found a number of places where I was misreading her intentions. So the last few batches of kolaches I’ve made have been truer to the mark, though they’ll still never win any contest because they’re pretty weird-looking.
What do you want readers to take away from this story?
There are many paths to enlightenment. Mine just happened to be kolaches.
Is there anything you would like to add?
You only need half as much poppy seed as my grandmother’s recipe says.