Food Traditions In Republic County

Ed Glenn, Director/Curator, Republic County Historical Society and Museum
Featured in The Belleville Telescope August 25th edition –

In 1927, a neighbor to the northwest of Republic County, Willa Cather, wrote the following in her great book, Death Comes for the Archbishop: “A soup like this is not the work of one man. It is the result of a constantly refined tradition. There are nearly a thousand years of tradition in this soup.” More recently, food advocate Carlo Petrini of Italy stated, “Food history is as important as a baroque church. Governments should recognize cultural history and protect traditional foods. A cheese is as worthy of protecting as a 16th Century building.”

These vital sentiments are certainly upheld in Republic County. However it is primarily our citizens who value and uphold local food history and traditions. It is a fact that people of many nationalities settled Republic County. It is likewise safe to say that the eastern side of our county was settled primarily by Czech people (The Czech areas of Europe has been divided many times. People of what we now call Czech descent are actually of Czech, Slovak, Bohemian and Moravian descent primarily). The western side of Republic County was settled primarily by Swedish immigrants. Other Scandinavian countries also settled, (primarily Norway) but mostly by Swedish immigrants. We can of course find German, Irish, French and others among the founders of Republic County, but for the sake of predominant food history and traditions, we will focus on Swedish and Czech here.

Recognizing our pioneering ancestors with food is indeed a tradition upheld in Republic County. The kolache makers in Cuba, Agenda, Narka, Munden, Belleville and Republic (and there are some elsewhere!) are honoring family pioneers and home country food tradition brought to American 150 years ago and later. This is so with those who prepare lutefisk or pickled herring in Scandia, the Kackley area or Norway are also honoring their home country food traditions and history as well.

Republic County, Kansas was created in 1860 by the Kansas legislature. The Pawnee and other Native American tribes had been in and through Republic County for centuries. Early French trappers came through the county, as did Zebulon Pike in 1806. With the passing of the Homestead Act of 1862, farmland was available to anyone who could claim and upgrade 160 acres, after which they would be given title to the land. Many Americans came for the land, as did many immigrants from other countries. The Scandinavian Agricultural Society of Chicago bought land along the Republican River in Republic County, and many people of Swedish heritage came to New Scandinavia as Scandia was first called. Of course, these pioneer settlers brought with them their language, culture and foods. And as author Mark Kurlansky stated, “Food is a central activity of mankind and one of the single most significant trademarks of a culture.”

It would be unthinkable to discuss Swedish or Norwegian foods without lutefisk. This humble preserved cod or other whitefish has taken on legendary status. People tend to like lutefisk or really, really hate lutefisk! Norway and Sweden are both exposed to the sea and fishing and seafood has been a mainstay of their diet since likely before history was written down, certainly for over a thousand years. The Gulf of Bothnia and the North Sea have long provided fish for Norway and Sweden. Herring, mackerel, cod and whiting are and have been fished for many years. Preserving the fish for the very long Scandinavian winters was a bit of a problem. Many silly stories exist for how cod and other whitefish came to be preserved in lye, traditionally wood ashes mixed in water. One story was that the Irish were trying to poison them with lye in their dried fish. One other such story was that plundering Vikings burned down a fishing village, including the wooden racks with drying cod. The returning villagers poured water on the racks to put out the fire. Ashes covered the dried fish, and then it rained. The fish buried in the ashes in the ashes thus became soaked in a lye slush. Later the villagers were surprised to see that the dried fish had changed to what looked like fresh fish. They rinsed the fish in water to remove the lye and make it edible, and then boiled it. The end of the story is that one particularly brave villager tasted the fish and declared it “not bad.”

Regardless of the real story, lutefisk was a mainstay of 19th Century Scandinavian immigrants to Republic County. Ada Lutheran Church long held a traditional Swedish Dinner each December. Mary Lou Anderson shared a story of people going down to Lindsborg, Kansas each year to buy supplies for the Swedish Dinner and Bake Sale. The traditional dried cod for lutefisk was used for years, until a frozen type was made available, which created less work hydrating and rehydrating the cod. The great fear, she said, was that if not prepared carefully, the lutefisk would turn to jelly!

Mary Lou also told on herself. She is of German descent, but attended Ada Lutheran and got interested in traditional Swedish foods. One year she was asked to get the lingonberries for various dishes. These berries resemble our cranberries. Mary Lou didn’t know they needed sugar added and let sit before use, so she got a lot of ribbing about her extremely sour lingonberries! Mary Lou also told about the traditional Swedish sausage called värmlandskorv. It was made of ground beef, pork, onions and potatoes and stuffed into natural casings. Lindy Lindblatt was the master sausage maker and stuffer of his day. Of course, Swedish meatballs and ground beans were enjoyed as well. A great dessert, ostkaka was prepared and needed raw milk for the preparing of the dish. It turned into a custard-like consistency from curdling. Mary Lou lamented the fact that raw milk is nearly impossible to get today and so is “real” ostkaka. Sadly, Ada Lutheran no longer has the Swedish supper anymore, but Mary Lou Anderson assures me that some families in the area still serve traditional Swedish foods in December.

It is nearly impossible to have any type of event in the East side of Republic County without Kolaches! This Czech pastry is the most common sharing of Czech an cestry through food. And it is a pastry, to be filled with poppy seed, prunes or fruits. Cottage cheese is allowed, but rare. In a pure act of cultural assault, kolaches have been co-opted by fast food chains, filled with meat (!) AND made with doughnut dough! No, no, no! That might be ok in Texas, but not Republic County.

Kolache Recipe - Make Traditional Czech Kolaches at Home

Kolache baking has long been a point of pride among Czech women (and women who marry Czech men, that is MANDATORY…, well mostly). Fifty years ago, strong disagreements could (and did) occur when the topic of who made the best kolaches in Cuba came up, and it is entirely possible that could occur today as well!

Katherine Wilber said she was willing to share some of her ideas on baking good kolaches. When asked for the secret of well-made kolaches, her instant, one word answer was, “practice!” She always tells new kolache bakers that bad batches will occur, and to tell themselves that “you can do this, you just start over next time.” Katherine did share SOME information. It is important to not have the kitchen too hot or too cold, or your dough will not rise properly. Katherine also related that over the years, people have moved from using water as the primary liquid ingredient to milk, and dry yeast is used instead of wet yeast. Other than that, tradition remains in making these pastries. She also stated that flavors of kolache fillings have expanded as well. When she learned, it was poppy seed and prune fillings, almost exclusively. Those who had an apple tree would fill with apple as well. Now, all kinds of fillings are popular with the younger crowd. Katherine even shared that her husband Don likes an occasional peanut butter kolache!

Of course, Czech food is more than just kolaches. Karla Chizek tells of her husband Guy’s grandmother Albina Chizek teaching her how to cook, Czech style. Among others, she learned to make dumplings, rohliky (a bread roll) and can prepare excellent jitrnice (a type of sausage using various pig cuts and organs and other tasty ingredients!). Karla recalls Grandma Chizek pouring flour, salt and other ingredients into her hands so she could get the “feel” of the right amounts for different dishes. Czechs (and others) in Republic County long sought out Dale Huncovsky’s homemade bologna at the Cuba Cash Store, a staple Czech food indeed.

It is still not unusual for people to make their own bologna to this day (writer’s comment: If you haven’t tried it, you should!). It is important that these food traditions continue in Republic County. Nothing immediately connects one with their ancestors and heritage faster than food. Nothing connects a community together faster than sharing heritage foods. So young people, no matter your heritage, get Mom or Grandmother, Dad or Grandpa to teach you how to prepare the foods of your ancestors. The love and caring shared at funerals, family gatherings, and social gatherings of all sorts through traditional foods is worth the effort. It connects you with your ancestors and with descendants as you learn, then teach the next generations.

(The Republic County Historical Museum has a few Republic County cookbooks printed over 40 years ago, filled with traditional food recipes from Swedish and Czech cooks of the day. Most are old family recipes handed down over the generations. And if you don’t choose to buy one [$10.00], the Historical Museum will give you a photocopy of a recipe of your choice, just to help keep the food traditions going!)