This article originally appeared in the September 2018 issue with the headline “Not Your Kolache.”
Just a week after moving to Columbia, Missouri, five years ago for graduate school, I had already conducted crucial field research. I knew which grocery store carried Topo Chico, where to find suitable Mexican food, and which bars served Lone Star. But I’d yet to scout out a staple of my diet since childhood: the sausage kolache.
In East Texas, where I grew up, every Shipley, Sunflower, and Snowflake I walked into carried at least a few varieties of the savory pastry. So in Columbia, I drove to a strip-center doughnut shop, hoping their kolaches would be at least passable.
“I’d like a kolache,” I told the woman at the counter as I scanned the glass case of baked goods.
“A croissant?” she asked. I was in trouble.
“We don’t have any croissants.”
For the next nine months, my life was devoid of something that had once been ubiquitous. But in April 2014 Lisa Fain’s The Homesick Texan’s Family Table arrived on my doorstep. Her first book, The Homesick Texan, an essential compendium of Lone Star recipes, was my Texpat culinary bible, its pages dog-eared and stained, the classic signs of a well-loved cookbook. But that book had offered up instructions only for the pillowy, fruit-filled pastries I referred to as “sweet kolaches.” Delicious, to be sure, but not quite what I was looking for. And so I eagerly flipped through the pages of the new tome, crisp and white, until I found a photo of what I wanted to make: a sinful, juicy link of kielbasa, hugged into dough, with pickled jalapeño and gooey melted cheese tumbling out of the bread cocoon.
But wait. There, in the prominent recipe title, was a word I had never seen before. What the heck was a klobasnek? That was my first realization that the kolache I (and thousands of other Texans) had ingested and loved for years was a delicious linguistic lie.
Village Bakery owner Mimi Montgomery Irwin.
Photograph by John Davidson
Ruby Kotch removes kolaches from the oven at Village Bakery.
Photograph by John Davidson
Texas-Czech communities clustered in the Central Texas Czech belt are well-known as places to find authentic kolaches, which their forebears brought to the state in the 1800s. Filled with fruit and sometimes cheese—original flavors included apricot, prune, farmer’s cheese, and poppy seed—these kolaches were and remain an integral part of Czech life. “Kolaches are part of our identity,” says Dawn Orsak, a Texas-Czech lay folklorist. “In the same way that Italians would be proud of the way their mom made ravioli, or Mexican Americans, the way their mom made sopaipillas.”
But it was the kolache’s cousin, the klobasnek, which many believe was invented in Texas (more on this later), that worked its way into the morning routines of people across the state. By the nineties, the klobasnek (klobasniky in plural)—made from the same semisweet yeast dough as the traditional kolache but stuffed with kielbasa rather than fruit—had begun to proliferate across Texas, thanks to successful chains like the Kolache Factory, which began offering the “on the run” food to Houstonians in 1982. The popular franchise sold both kolaches and klobasniky but didn’t bother to make the distinction between the two. It was all a kolache to the non-Czech Texan (and thus to me).
“My dad saw someone eating a hot dog, and it dawned on him. ‘We’ll just take the kolache dough and put the little cut sausage in it and wrap it.’ ”
Homesick Texan author Fain believes that the klobasnek eclipsed the kolache in popularity because of the Texan palate. “The sweet kolache is very similar to other pastries that are available, like Danish, whereas the pig-in-a-blanket thing is kind of unique,” she says. “And, you know, we’re Texans. We love our meat. And so something with sausage or bacon or brisket just maybe has more appeal.”
The kolache/klobasnek misnomer irks many Czech-Texans. In December 2016 journalist Katey Psencik pleaded with ignorant consumers to put an end to it. “I call upon you, people of Central Texas, to stop referring to these meat-filled delicacies as kolaches, and call them by their rightful name: Klobasniky, or klobasnek in the singular,” she wrote for the Austin American-Statesman. “The Czech community will thank you.”
Orsak agrees. “If they can use the Czech word ‘kolache,’ they could use the Czech word ‘klobasnek,’ ” she says. “I don’t really get that, why they can’t just call it the right thing. It bothers me, but it’s probably too late at this point.”
How, I thought, can we be so militant about what constitutes proper barbecue but manage to be so clueless when it comes to kolaches? With each of the savory pastries I consumed, was I aiding in the death of a key component of a vibrant Texas culture?
To finally get some answers, this summer I went to West, the kolache mecca just north of Waco, right off Interstate 35, to have svačina (Czech for “afternoon snack”) with Mimi Montgomery Irwin. Mimi owns and operates West’s famed Village Bakery, which her parents, Wendel and Georgia Montgomery, founded in 1952. Wendel is also widely credited with the invention of the klobasnek, which Mimi says was a mash-up of the most American of foods, the hot dog, with a poppy seed kolache, the only variety at the bakery that was rectangular and enclosed, rather than circular with a divot for exposed filling at the top.
“My dad saw someone eating a hot dog, and it dawned on him,” Mimi says between bites of a cottage cheese kolache and sips of coffee. “ ‘We’ll just take the kolache dough and put the little cut sausage in it and wrap it.’ It was a little hot dog. And that’s how it started.”
Wendel’s creation was added to the rotation at the bakery in 1953. Mimi estimates that today they sell more authentic kolaches during the week but on weekends it’s an even split between kolaches and klobasniky. “More men,” explains Mimi matter-of-factly, turning to Ruby Kotch, a longtime employee, for affirmation. Kotch nods as she busies herself around the kitchen, eyeing the giant, steadily churning mixers making the next day’s batch of dough.
Mimi doesn’t seem to share my obsession with how the name of the traditional Czech pastry was bastardized. But she shares her father’s frustration that the two were conflated. “He never claimed it was the kolache,” she says. “It infuriated him. That wasn’t his mission. It was uniquely what it was, klobasniky—‘little sausage.’ ”
But that unique creation has taken on many forms in the years since: some simple, such as swapping brisket for sausage, and others unconventional, like the egg-based creations that have become popular at places like the Kolache Factory.
“My father would probably have been aghast at the idea,” Mimi says, her hands gripping the wooden-topped table we stand at, which was in the original bakery (Village has been at its current location since 1969). “I can understand it. It’s the Egg McMuffin concept. It’s the McDonaldization of a Czech food.”
And speaking of breakfast, I was delighted when Mimi confirmed my long-held belief that her father’s invention was intended for all meals of the day, even though the first generation of “sausage kolaches”—primarily sold at doughnut shops—seemed firmly in the breakfast category. Things seem to be shifting back to the way Wendel intended, but perhaps not in the way he envisioned. Take the “Yes, Please! Mac and Cheese,” the recent winner in the Kolache Factory’s search for a new flavor at its annual Kolache Olympics: a savory kolache stuffed with macaroni and cheese, brisket, and jalapeños, dreamed up by a customer in Katy. (I also found these eleven creative klobasniky from bakeries around the state.)
Mimi, on the other hand, has pushed herself as far as she is willing to go. When she took over the bakery, she added klobasniky with cheese and jalapeños to the mix. But after that, she’s drawn a hard line. “It’s not my mission in life to sell kiwi kolaches,” she says.
I left West full of dough and sausage and realization. Since discovering that I had been calling it by the wrong name, I had thought that my love of the klobasnek made me a clueless interloper into Czech culture. And I was, to be sure, but not because of my devotion to the klobasnek, which, after all, is a welcome addition to the Czech pastry canon. Calling a klobasnek a kolache isn’t the chief battle in the Czech community, anyway. They’re worried about a far greater loss: the disappearance of their traditions. “I’m working backwards from my worst-case scenario here, which is that in fifty years, no one who has a Czech background knows how to make them, and the only thing you can find is banana and Nutella kolaches or chicken enchilada,” Orsak says.
The very least that I, an unabashed lover of both artisanal and doughnut shop klobasniky (apologies to the Czech community), can do is offer what people like Mimi and Orsak gave me: an education. The next time you have a hankering for a Philly cheesesteak “kolache,” look for Czech-run bakeries in the area instead. And when you find them, force your untrained tongue to ask for a “klobasnek” rather than a “sausage kolache,” which we both now know doesn’t exist.
And most importantly, ask the devoted Czech-Texan denizens of the craft, like Orsak and Mimi, about the difference. As the Czech saying goes, “Bez práce nejsou koláče” (“Without work, there are no kolaches”).