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 it’s only a nostalgic tolerance. I’ve taken my kolaches to office parties and other sorts of gatherings, and the approbation I’ve received has been on the polite side. No matter: it’s my own personal recherche du temps perdu thing, the hunt for something long misplaced, or something yet to be discovered.
What exactly is a kolache? Although a friend of mine recently confided that he thought the word referred to a type of shoe, this is not a question that needs answering so much anymore, particularly for people from Fayette or Lavaca or Caldwell or Austin or McLennan counties, or any of the other blackland prairie regions of Central Texas that were home in the nineteenth century to a steady influx of Czech emigrants. Throughout this territory, bake-offs and festivals and eating competitions have helped leverage the kolache from an obscure ethnic staple to a ubiquitous comfort food. Even if you’re nowhere near the Czech belt, you’ve probably encountered chains like the Kolache Factory or the Kolache Shoppe or Lone Star Kolaches.
The word is a corruption of the Czech koláč. (The plural is koláče.) I can remember my grandmother pronouncing it the correct way: not “kuh-lotch-y,” as we say it, but “koh-lotch.” The Czech word from which it derives, kolo, means “wheel.” Home-baked Lednicky kolaches were decidedly round, but most commercial bakeries these days squeeze the kolaches so close together on their trays that they bake into puffy squares.
As I understand it, “koláč” can be justly applied to many forms of Czech pastries, but at least here in Texas most people understand “kolache” to mean a springy mound of sweet dough with a declivity on top containing a dollop of some sort of fruit and a sprinkling of the streusel-like popsika. The fruit is almost always in plain sight, often sharing its little foxhole with a dab of cream cheese, but if it’s a poppy seed kolache, the filling is usually tucked away within the dough. That’s also the case with sausage kolaches, which are the best-selling variety in Texas.
For a long time I thought kolaches were more or less my family’s secret—that’s how blind I was to the Czech culture all around me. Then about fifteen years ago, my mother moved to Houston from Corpus Christi, and I began driving regularly from Austin to Houston on Highway 71 to visit her. I soon discovered that along the way there were several places to buy poppy seed kolaches, her favorite. I alternated between Weikel’s, a little gas station–bakery combo on the outskirts of La Grange, and Hruska’s, fifteen miles farther down the road in the tiny town of Ellinger. At that time Hruska’s inventory seemed to be evenly split between kolaches and scrapbooking supplies, but when they put up a billboard proclaiming “Awesome Restrooms” and then began expanding by several thousand square feet, it became pretty obvious they were gearing up to fight the kolache wars in earnest. Weikel’s responded by completely tearing down their building and replacing it with a truck-stop-size kolache palace, with even awesomer restrooms featuring the best automatic hand-dryers in the Texas Czech Republic.
Although the kolaches I ate at Hruska’s and Weikel’s were perfectly respectable, they didn’t carry the ancestral charge of the ones that my Uncle D. D. had made. Nobody likes a kolache snob, but that’s what I had become. A part of me was resentful that the sacramental snack of my childhood had been so brazenly loosed upon the world, but another part of me was curious enough to learn more about what it had become—and why it mattered to me. I set out upon the kolache trail to find not merely the best but the most resonant, the most redolent—in a word, the most Lednickyian—kolaches on earth.
My first stop was—had to be—the little town of West, just north of Waco. West, Texas (locals refer to it as “West comma Texas” so they won’t be perpetually misunderstood to be talking about West Texas), is to kolaches as Lockhart is to barbecue: a pilgrim’s holy ground. The town is home to the Village Bakery, the oldest and arguably best Czech bakery in Texas, to the newer but also impressively authentic Gerik’s, and, of course, to the hegemonic Czech Stop, the mightiest of the gas-station kolache empires. Unsurprisingly, West also has one of the state’s Czechiest populations and hosts the annual Czech heritage celebration known as Westfest.
The Czech Stop rules exit 353, siphoning off travelers along the Interstate 35 Dallas-to-Austin corridor and luring them in with two separate storefronts, each with bakery cases filled with dozens of varieties of kolaches endlessly replenished by its 106 employees. It has been in existence since 1983, when it started out as a liquor store, selling kolaches on the side from a now-defunct local bakery. Selling booze next to the freeway at a time when the perils of drunk driving were beginning to incite alarm turned out to be the wrong business model, so the wholesome kolache took center stage.
Barbara Schissler, the CEO and president of the Czech Stop, sketched this history for me as we sat in a plastic booth in her establishment during a rare lull. Clerks in faux old-world Slavic vests waited on a handful of customers as polka music played over the speaker system.
“I don’t have a clue,” she said when I asked how many people stopped in for kolaches on a typical day. “It just never ends. One customer after another after another.” She said she had a piece of paper in her office on which a former manager had once tried to calculate how many kolaches the Czech Stop sold per month. When she showed it to me later, neither one of us could quite decipher the exact totals, but the bottom line seemed to be in the neighborhood of 24,604. That’s 24,604 dozen.
She took me on a backstage tour to see the giant rotating ovens, multiple proofing vaults, and walk-in refrigerators the size of suburban garages. Across the street in a separate warehouse was another enormous kitchen, with its own stock of industrial ovens and refrigerators, a forklift, and a customized golf cart for shuttling baked goods back and forth to the twin storefronts.
As for the kolaches themselves, I found the Czech Stop’s to be consistently fresh and—given the demands of mass production—reasonably authentic, based on a family recipe that Evelyn Cepak, who manages the original storefront, bequeathed to the institution decades ago. But like the specimens from Hruska’s or Weikel’s, they were only glancingly familiar when I compared them with the kolaches of my childhood, which were not square and pillowy but dense, dark, and round. I’m not saying Nana’s kolaches were objectively better, but their mojo had been so powerful it was hard not to think of any other kolache as merely a wad of dough.
Of course, there is a difference, or ought to be, between a commercial-grade kolache and one that is lovingly crafted at home. Last summer, I began musing about the idea of removing the Lednicky kolaches from the reliquary of my memory and bringing them into the sunlight of the Westfest kolache-baking contest. I had no illusions—well, I had a few illusions—that my once-a-year tradition would vault me into the Jedi ranks of amateur bakers. I had never quite succeeded in perfectly reproducing all the subtle notes in Nana’s kolaches, but I had come close enough to think that I was ready to step into the arena.
It helped that the rules were not intimidating. There was no entry fee, and all that was required were six kolaches made from scratch yeast dough, all average size and with the same filling. My entry would be my tried-and-true fruit mixture, three parts prune to one part apricot. Out of the several dozen kolaches I made, I selected the six that were the most fetching and drove them on a hot, windy September Sunday to the West Community Center, a blank-looking building across the railroad tracks from the fairgrounds where Westfest itself was under way. I noticed at once that my kolaches looked nothing like the perfectly shaped, evenly browned, fluffy entries I saw under plastic wrap on the folding tables, but the kindly ladies who accepted them into the contest betrayed no alarm.
Winners would not be announced until three in the afternoon, so I left the judges to their work and drove across the train tracks to Westfest. By the time I parked my car, a fierce wind was blowing dust and dead grass into the eyes of the festivalgoers and shutting down the carnival rides. Westfest is usually a massive three-day celebration, but because of the simoom-like conditions, the grounds were almost vacant, with few customers lined up at the food booths offering pork rinds and kettle corn and, of course, kolaches. The entrance arch that greeted visitors with the Czech phrase “Vítáme Vás Na Westfest” (“We Welcome You to Westfest”) shuddered in the wind.
Along with most of the visitors, I sought refuge in a metal-roofed pavilion where a polka mass had just begun—liturgical music played to the sprightly accordion tempos of songs such as “The Huntsman’s Waltz” and “The Happy Wanderer.” When the mass was finished, I strolled over to the Czech genealogy booth, where a handful of harried volunteers fought to keep their documents from being swept away by the wind. Among the books on the table were passenger lists of nineteenth-century transatlantic ships.
I scanned the lists for John A. Lednicky, my great-grandfather. I didn’t know much about him, only that he had died in 1931, almost two decades before I was born, and that he had emigrated to the United States as a young man from somewhere in what is now the Czech Republic toward the close of the nineteenth century. He would have been part of a steady surge of Czech migration that had begun in the 1870’s, as rural cottagers found themselves unable to compete on their family homesteads with cheap American wheat prices and the mechanized farming that was changing the practice of agriculture. He made his way to Kansas and became fairly prosperous as the owner of several general stores throughout Brown County. He married twice, first to a Czech woman named Victoria (my great-grandmother), who died young, and then to another woman, also Czech, whom I dimly remember and who was known to several generations of the family as “Mommie.” It was Mommie (the “+ momma died” of the recipe) who passed her kolache-making wisdom down to her stepdaughter, Gladys.
I didn’t find a “John Lednicky” in any of the books at the genealogy booth. Which ship he took to America, what port he landed in, remained a mystery, though to call the details of my own Czech heritage a mystery was to give it a greater degree of urgency than I had ever really felt. Here at Westfest—where everyone else laughed heartily at the Czech wisecracks the priest had made in his sermon at the polka mass, where friends stood around a map of the Czech Republic comparing notes about the people they’d visited in their home villages—I felt like a fraud.
I continued to lurk around Westfest as the ferocious winds grew stronger and the festivities all but shut down. By mid-afternoon, I was back in the community center, waiting for the kolache judging to begin. I sat with about fifty other people on folding chairs as the judges finished their deliberations behind a plastic room divider. A teenage girl—Miss Westfest—stood off to the side, wearing the native Czech costume known as a kroj: a gauzy white apron over a long blue skirt, a blue vest over a puffy-sleeved blouse, and a flowery tiara with colored ribbons hanging down in the back. Almost everybody else was middle-aged, and their native costume was a T-shirt, a pair of shorts, and a ball cap. Nobody was talking much. Most of us just stared down at the linoleum, knowing that the next few minutes could bring either kolache glory or obscurity.
The room divider opened, and Mildred Dokupil, the Westfest associate director in charge of kolaches, announced that there had been 105 entries, the most ever. She was pleased about this.
“We’re always looking for new contestants to challenge the people from this area and give them a run for their money—or a run for their dough.”
She began to hand out the trophies, each of them decorated with a clay kolache she had made herself by hand. Somebody named Frank won first place for prune and apricot. Somebody else won second and third place. One by one other categories were called—hot link, cheese, cream cheese—and one by one the winners went up to the front of the room to receive their trophies while I waited in the back, increasingly aware that not only had I not placed but my outlier kolaches were going to be spared from coming in at 105th only because the judges would not have had the time or inclination to rank the entries all the way to last place.
My God!” Mimi Montgomery Irwin exclaimed when I showed her a photo of the kolaches I had entered in the contest. She is the co-owner of the Village Bakery, which her family established in West in 1952 and of which she told me, “We’re like Poilâne, in Paris. We have a standard to maintain. Someone has to maintain the classic tradition.”
By the horrified look in her eyes as she stared at my kolaches, I had the impression I wasn’t maintaining any standard at all. When I told her I smushed them down just before baking them so they would be flat, she actually gasped. She said the art of kolache- making was all about lovingly tending to the dough so it would rise, though she did concede the point that in the Czech Republic kolaches were usually on the flatter side.
We agreed that I needed an education in exactly how a Poilâne-grade kolache is manufactured, so a few weeks later I drove back to West, passing the Czech Stop at the freeway exit on my way to the Village Bakery, a modest little storefront in West’s historic downtown. Mimi took me directly into the kitchen and introduced me to her beloved old Middleby-Marshall oven, a floor-to-ceiling contraption with a gas flame burning at the bottom and five or six baking trays rotating along the interior by means of a pulley system. She told me the oven had been bought in 1969 or 1970 and over time had been seasoned by use like a cast-iron skillet or a wine barrel. “It’s a labor of love to keep it alive.
“We don’t use convection ovens for kolaches,” she explained. “They’ll leave the dough too dark and raw in the middle. They don’t give you that overall thorough beauty. And don’t even get me started on electric.”
The other equipment included three big Hobart industrial mixers for making the dough from scratch, sixty-year-old wooden tables for rolling it out, and the magnificent Eberhardt rounder, a steampunk dream of a device that presses down onto an unformed mat of dough and neatly transmutes it into several dozen perfectly formed balls that are the basis for the individual kolaches. With this machinery the Village Bakery creates between six hundred and a thousand kolaches a day, double that on Saturdays, and fills a steady stream of orders for special occasions.
“If someone prominent in town passes away, we bake, because we know people are going to be coming in from out of town and they’re going to want to take something to the family. Same thing if there’s a wedding. So you have to read the West News like you’re an analyst for Paine Webber.”
For several hours I observed some of the bakery’s nonmechanical assets—their names were Jamie, Leslie, Lurethia, Louis, Rose, Linda, Debbie, Pam, and David—as they mixed the dough, peeled fruit by hand, boiled it down, cut up sausage, and performed a dozen other tasks with wordless synchronicity. Their craftsmanship was humbling when I compared it with my own sloppy technique, and the communal silence in which they worked was faintly unsettling, giving me the feeling once again that I was somehow an exile from a culture I had barely known existed.
After the dough had been mixed and balled and proofed and had risen twice, several of the women stood over the unbaked kolaches and poked them, creating the pocket that would hold the fruit. They all used two fingers, and Mimi said that she could recognize their individual fingerprints in the dough. “Every artist has a signature.
“Can you see why this is so important to me?” she asked. “It’s a tradition that has to be preserved. It has to be.”
She spoke in a tone of reawakened fervor, the result of having had a long career in the wider world as a New York–based fashion marketing executive. But after her father died, after she lost friends in 9/11 and spent three months cooking for firefighters in Lower Manhattan, and after her mother suffered a stroke, she came back home to West to run the family business.
Earlier in the evening, while we were waiting for the dough to rise, Mimi took me next door to the Village Shoppe—a dress store also owned by the family—so I could meet her mother, Georgia Morris Montgomery. Mrs. Montgomery, a trim 94-year-old woman in a red flowered blouse and brown slacks, told me that her father came to America before World War I, sailing across the ocean with a summer sausage his mother had given him to eat on the voyage. He established himself in West, where he met his wife, whose family came from the Czech village of Frýdek-Místek. He eventually started the Czechoslovak Publishing Company, which produced newspapers for the tight-knit Czech emigrant population in Texas.
To hear Mimi and her mother tell it, you couldn’t really buy a kolache in Texas until the Village Bakery opened in 1952. People baked them at home, and they were served at weddings, funerals, and church bazaars just as they were back in the old country, but when it came to finding a kolache on the spur of the moment, Texas was a retail desert. “After a football game once,” Mrs. Montgomery said, “our Catholic priest and two gentlemen who owned Ford dealerships in West and Mexia came to dinner at our house, and we happened to make kolaches. They dared us to start a bakery.”
Mrs. Montgomery had her grandmother’s kolache recipe. Her husband—whose family had been in Texas since the 1820’s—had a master’s degree in chemistry. It was his job to take the recipe and apply the food science necessary to make it work on a large scale.
Mimi thinks it was in the fall of 1953 when her father invented the sausage kolache. “He and my grandmother had been trying to make sausage bread, and my dad just said, ‘Oh, why are we killing ourselves? Why don’t we just take a link and put it in the dough?’ ”
They called the thing a klobasniki, which means “little sausage” in Czech and which is how the Village Bakery still refers to it. Mimi will say the words “sausage kolache” if she has to, but there is that standard to uphold. A Czech koláč is not a meat sandwich, it’s a pastry. Therefore, the sausage kolache, like the chicken fajita, is an etymological contradiction and cannot technically be said to exist.
I sat in the dress shop talking to Mrs. Montgomery for another half hour or so. When I told her my grandmother had been a Lednicky, she nodded and repeated the name, but pronounced it “Lednitski.” That was the way they said it in West, she said, where a Lednicky—Jerome J.—was chairman of the bank.
It sounded strange to hear my family name pronounced that way, a new note of dissonance that I recognized as being part of the slow-moving identity crisis that had begun decades ago when I unpacked that box of kolaches from my Uncle D. D.
For the next six months, I continued my statewide kolache blitz, driving anywhere there was a rumor of a good bakery: Temple, Hallettsville, Schulenburg, Zabcikville, Calvert, Hillsboro, Yoakum. I went to the Kolache Festival in Caldwell and hearkened to the yearningly titled Czech national anthem, “Kde Domov Můj?” (“Where Is My Home?”). I attended more earnest kolache judging (“And in the apricot division, our winner is Nicholas Faust from Snook!”). I visited the Texas Czech Heritage and Cultural Center in La Grange and talked about kolaches with their friendly and informed staff, and I probably would have visited the Czech Heritage Museum and Genealogy Center in Temple, the Burleson County Czech Heritage Museum in Caldwell, and the Czech Center Museum in Houston and talked about kolaches with their friendly and informed staffs as well if I hadn’t started to think I was maybe overdoing it a little.
What was I looking for, really? What did I hope to find as I drove through all these Czech counties, ingested all these kolaches, and visited the famous painted churches in Praha or Ammannsville or Dubina that had been erected by homesick Czech emigrants to remind them of the ornate churches of their homeland? It couldn’t really be about kolaches anymore, because the kolaches were all starting to look and taste the same. At every stop, I sampled an apricot one to keep my judgment consistent. I wrote down in my notebook phrases like “dough slightly salty—good or bad thing?” or “cute fruit pocket” or “intriguing popsika.” But my criteria, I knew, were peculiar and unfair—and maybe I still didn’t even really like kolaches that much. In my kolache quest, actual quality had become a side issue. I was not impartially looking for the best kolaches, I was looking for something else. Somewhere on earth, I reasoned, there must still be kolaches more like the ones my grandmother had made—not airy and perfect but unproofed, unrisen, somehow ancient.
The search continued to widen—really widen—until I began to realize it was leading me toward the ultimate destination, toward the fires of Mordor, where the original kolache was forged. Which was how, on a very cold day last November, I found myself on a train traveling east from Prague to Frýdek-Místek, which had been one of the centers of Czech migration to the United States. Mrs. Montgomery’s father had been born there and, as it had turned out, so had my own great-grandmother, Victoria Juřička. Ten miles or so away from Frýdek-Místek was Brušperk, the village that my great-grandfather had come from. Lednickys still lived there, I was told. They had been informed that I was coming and that I had some weird thing about kolaches—and they were waiting to meet me.
On the train I reviewed an email from Hana Michopulu, who writes a popular food blog in the Czech Republic. I had written to ask if she could recommend some bakeries where I could locate something along the lines of an ur-kolache, but she only confirmed the impression I had gathered from other people I had talked to. In the Czech Republic, there were no Kolache Shoppes or Kolache Factories. There were no kolache-industrial complexes like Czech Stop or Hruska’s or Weikel’s. Kolaches are still a closely held home tradition—some 20 percent of families bake them once or twice a week—but they have never exploded into a commercial phenomenon on their native soil the way they have in Texas.
Hana mentioned I should search out something called a frgale, which is a gigantic pizza-size kolache. She also warned me off the mass-produced kolaches that were available in grocery stores: “Pls don’t eat this.”
But I did anyway. The three-hundred-year-old inn where I spent the night in Frýdek-Místek was across the parking lot from a busy grocery store. In the bakery aisle I found two kolaches so tightly shrink-wrapped that I had to use my keys to pry them out. Everything was right about their appearance—right by my peculiar regressive standards, anyway. They were round, flat, and baked until they were dark brown, and the fruit on top was sort of smeared on rather than sitting elegantly in a deep pocket. That they tasted like the styrofoam tray with which they had been packed was immaterial. They were different enough from Texas kolaches, close enough to the Lednicky ideal, to sustain the belief that I was on the right track. I had arrived at the ancient birthplace.
Frýdek and Místek used to be two different municipalities facing each other across the Ostravice River, which divides the Czech provinces of Moravia and Silesia. My hotel was on the Frýdek side of the river, and in the morning I took a stroll along a street lined with kebab restaurants and thrift stores and happened upon a bakery. I walked in hoping to find a kolache wonderland, but what kolaches they had on hand were casually displayed in bins with loaves of fresh bread and croissants and various kinds of rolls known as rohliky.
“Koláč, prosím,” I said to the woman behind the counter, a little thrilled to be ordering a kolache in the heart of Moravia and using two of the four words in my Czech vocabulary to do so. I pointed to a round poppy seed kolache that had been sliced along the sides to create a flower-petal shape, with a cherry on top. I also pointed to a more-familiar-looking prune variety. They tasted okay, certainly better than the shrink-wrapped version I had tried the night before, but I was disappointed by the fact that they had not been given pride of place among the other baked goods. It made me wonder if we Texans, as is our way, had just up and created our own outsized preoccupation with kolaches, blowing them completely out of scale in a way that would bewilder our Czech forbears.
When I got back to the hotel, I met up with Martin Pytr, a guide and translator I had engaged through a Prague-based company called P.A.T.H. Finders, which helps people who are looking for information about their Czech ancestors. We got in his car and drove across the river, where he wanted to show me the one remaining street and town square of a village called Koloredov, which many decades ago had been enveloped by the larger town of Místek, which had in turn been subsumed into Frýdek-Místek. Koloredov, he said, was where my great-grandmother had been born.
The old town square—the náměstí—was hidden behind modern apartment blocks and shopping centers, but we walked along a side street and up a stairway and soon emerged onto a beautiful urban clearing paved with cobblestones and surrounded by three- and four-story stone buildings painted in pastels and subtle shades of white. The businesses on the first floor of these buildings were modern, but the signs in the windows advertising burritos and tattoos did not seriously interfere with an impression of timeless calm. A statue of some saint with outstretched arms—neither Martin nor I could make out the eroded inscription at its base—anchored one corner of the square, and in the opposite corner rose the tower of the Church of St. James, with its oxidized pear dome. This was the church, Martin explained, where my great-grandmother had been baptized.
It was cold and we had an appointment in Brušperk, so we didn’t linger. Anyway, my thoughts were too large. They kept circling back to Victoria Juřička. This woman was unknown to me except through her name and a photo I had seen of her grave marker in Kansas. She had been brought to this church as a baby, had grown up and sailed across the ocean to the American Midwest, had married and had children and died at the age of 38, and had bequeathed—among other things—my own future existence.
The village of Brušperk, the birthplace of her future husband, my great-grandfather Johann Adolf Lednicky—known in America as John—was only a twenty-minute drive away, through a rolling landscape at the base of the Beskydy Mountains, beyond whose northern summits lay Poland. A weather inversion had been bedeviling the Czech Republic all week, and haze from the steelworks surrounding the nearby industrial city of Ostrava weighed down on an otherwise enchanting pastoral tableau, with castle towers and fourteenth-century church steeples rising from the center of the villages we passed every three or four miles.
In the town square of Brušperk, a small cluster of my Czech kin were waiting for me. They were the descendants of František Lednicky, who had stayed behind in Brušperk when his brother Johann emigrated to America. I met them all in a confused rush, and there was no time to sort them out, because Marie Lancova, one of František’s granddaughters and an insurance consultant who spoke excellent English, told me that we were expected in the mayor’s office.
She ushered us into the municipal building facing the square and into a room where the mayor and the vice mayor greeted me at a conference table on which were arrayed three or four plates of kolaches. As Martin translated, introductions were made (distinguished visitor, member of the Lednicky family, well-known American writer, etc.), the Brušperk guest book was offered for my signature, and gifts were presented—lavish photo books, histories, brochures, maps, and some sort of local liquor.
As the mayor spoke, I looked at the kolaches in front of me, indecently eager to give them a try. Then I glanced around the conference table from one Lednicky face to another: Marie and her husband, Jaroslav, a retired coal miner; Marie’s red-haired cousin Ludmila Zidkova; Ludmila’s father (and Marie’s uncle), Vaclav Sugarek; and Jan Krulikovsky, another descendant of František’s, who seemed to have an encyclopedic recall of the family’s history. The Lednicky resemblance was not immediately overpowering, but it was there: wide faces, straight noses, a characteristic mildness in the features.
When the mayor had finished welcoming me, Vaclav presented me with an idiosyncratic portfolio of the Lednicky family history. He was a vibrant, inquisitive man well into his eighties who spoke several languages, wrote poetry, and painted scenes of the American West—wagon trains and Indian battles—on pieces of bark from trees that had grown near a sacred spring in Brušperk.
“Uncle Vaclav was a steelworker,” Marie explained, “but he”—she searched for the proper English expression—“he looked at the stars.”
I turned the pages of the portfolio, which featured intricate hand-drawn genealogical charts, poems, photos, and reflections. I found my own name in the list of people descended from the young man who had left Brušperk in 1880 and, according to Vaclav, gambled everything on a new life in America. There were photos of family members going back generations. Some of them I knew about, like my grandmother’s brother Victor Lednicky, who had moved to the Philippines as a young man, been imprisoned by the Japanese when they invaded, and survived to become a major industrialist. There were others I had never known existed: the soldier who had been conscripted into the Austrian army and died in an infantry attack against the Russians in the First World War, the partisan who had been murdered by the Nazis for acts of resistance and whose picture was displayed in a place of honor in the city hall.
We exchanged current family photos—“Ah,” Marie said when she saw a picture of my two-year-old grandson, “he’s a Lednitski!”—and then went on a walking tour of Brušperk, one of the many picturesque villages in the district, among them Příbor, the birthplace of Sigmund Freud, less than ten miles away. We followed a steep street leading upward from the town square to the top of a hill where the white-and-gray baroque tower of St. George’s church commanded the view. St. George’s had been standing in one incarnation or other in the center of the village since 1267. We walked through the cemetery next to the church, where generations of Lednickys lay beneath immaculate gravestones. Beyond the cemetery wall was rolling farmland. An old white windmill, its blades missing but otherwise in respectable shape, stood all by itself in a field, surrounded by a sagging wooden fence. This had been Lednicky land once, Marie said, and this was the old Lednicky windmill. This was the home that my great-grandfather, in order to make a place for himself in the world, had decided to forsake.
Five miles away in the village of Stará Ves nad Ondřejnicí, where my ancestors had gone to school in a converted old castle with a drawbridge, we stopped in at a local bakery called Pekařství Šeděnka. The manager, Jaroslava Máchová, told me that I should have come yesterday. That was the day they baked kolaches, a product that accounted for only about 10 percent of their overall production. But she had heard from Martin that I was coming and had saved some for me from yesterday’s baking, along with one of the pizza-size frgale that Hana Michopulu had told me about.
I went back to my hotel in Frýdek-Místek carrying the big bakery sack. I meant to go to sleep early, but there was a wedding party going on downstairs and my room was vibrating with the pounding bass notes of “Hey Jude.” Unable to sleep, I kept thinking of another wedding that had taken place long ago but that I had witnessed, in a way, earlier that afternoon. At St. George’s church, in Brušperk, the local priest had met us at the gothic entryway, unlocked the doors, and led us inside. The church was empty of people but crowded with baroque flourishes, with painted statues of the saints and of the Infant Jesus of Prague and of Panny Marie, the Blessed Mother.
Marie had told me that it was here, in front of the main altar presided over by a marble statue of St. George, that my great-great-grandfather—named, like his emigrant son, Johann Lednicky—had married Josefa Nováková, my great-great-grandmother. The wedding had taken place on February 14, 1854. The priest’s name was Franz Thill. The groom had been 27 years old and the bride 32. After they had been pronounced man and wife, Marie said, the bride, if the playful custom had been upheld, would have turned from the altar and pretended to stomp on her husband’s foot. Then everyone would have left the church for a wedding celebration, where tradition dictated that the guests would be served a ceremonial batch of kolaches.
Pretty soon, no doubt, they would be bringing out the kolaches at the wedding downstairs. I thought about sneaking in to grab one, but I was a stranger in town and not really the wedding-crasher type. Anyway, I had my own stash from the bakery in Stará Ves. I got out the bag and ate one of those flower-petal poppy seed numbers, and then part of an apricot one, and then absently sampled the giant prune frgale and—zong!—I was suddenly back in Oklahoma City circa 1953 as, half-enticed, half-recoiling, I took a bite for the first time of one of Nana’s kolaches. It was the frgale that did it: the dark prune filling, the melting buttery latticework of popsika, the taste of the Old World that was now so stirringly close at hand.
The DJ downstairs began to play “Single Ladies.” As I worked my way through the giant pastry and thought about the mountain of personal history I had just encountered, the Czech national anthem flashed into my mind and pushed out Beyoncé. “Where is my home?” the song asked. The question had nothing to do with me. I knew where my home was, and until I was ensnared by my quest for the ancestral kolache, I had thought I knew who I was. But now I was not a Lednicky anymore, I was a Lednitski, all alone with my bag of kolaches in my strange new homeland, waiting for the band to stop playing so I could get some sleep.