Grandma Sloan’s Houska

By Lina Perkins Wilder

My family makes houska wrong.

Author’s mom’s recipe card.

Hoska [sic]

  • 2 cakes yeast
  • ¼ c lukewarm water
  • 1 c milk scalded
  • ½ c sugar
  • ¼ c shortening
  • 2 t salt
  • 4 ½-5 c sifted flour
  • 2 T fennel seed
  • 2 eggs
  • ½ c raisins
  • ½ c cut up almonds

In Czech, the word houska means roll, and as one might expect from such a pliant name, the bread has many variations. International cookbooks describe houska as a braided bread roll topped with seeds, salt, or cumin. All of these toppings suggest a savory rather than sweet bread. You can also find recipes for houska that are much sweeter and call for mace, coriander, or lemon zest. Some include citron peel or candied fruit in addition to the raisins. Marie, the proprietor of Little Prague Bakery, in Seattle, and an acquaintance of my mother’s, confirms that this sweet bread is normally called vánočka, but the internet abounds in Czech-Americans who inherited a recipe for a buttery sweet bread called houska. Marie makes vánočka at Christmastime in huge nine-strand braided loaves.

Our houska isn’t very sweet, but it is a Christmas bread (so Marie thinks it should be called vánočka). The recipe calls for braiding, but Mama always makes it in two large loaves. You can braid them, but it’s really too much trouble. It always burns. It is best eaten toasted, with butter and honey. It is flavored with fennel seeds. (Marie says that fennel would be too strong for her customers.) Our recipe comes from my great-grandmother, my mother’s father’s mother, Emma Helen Kolarik Sloan (1895-1992).  

Emma Kolarik was born in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Her parents, Wencil and Helen Zamastil Kolarik, immigrated to the United States, separately, from Bohemia, in the late 1870s. They got married relatively late, a second marriage for him, a first for her. Emma’s mother was almost 40 when she was born. The Kolariks weren’t religious. Emma got “saved” at a rally led by Billy Sunday.

She met Fred Sloan when he came by her home in the Czech neighborhood of Cedar Rapids. He was there selling sweet corn door-to-door using a few words of Czech that he had learned for the purpose. They married in 1919. They had two sons, Fredric (my grandfather) and James.

Emma had high cholesterol and was told not to eat ice cream, but she ate it anyway, in the kitchen, with the serving spoon. Like a lot of evangelical Christians, she was an enthusiastic Zionist. She sometimes said that her family was Jewish, but that probably isn’t true. Her son Jim liked to tell her Czech jokes, just to get her goat. Grandma Sloan made houska during Advent, in braided loaves the size of a cookie sheet. She would cut the loaf into three pieces and send one home with each of her sons’ families when they came over for Sunday dinner. She was 96 when she died.

Grandma Sloan’s short-term memory didn’t work very well during her last years. This is when I remember visiting her. On one visit, I was about ten and I wore my hair in two braids. The ends curled a lot more in the Iowa humidity than they did in western Washington, where the summers were dry. I stood in my braids in Grandma Sloan’s room in the old folks’ home. She greeted each of us, going around. “Oh and how are you? And who is this handsome young man? Oh”—coming to me—“she looks like me when I was a girl!”

A photo of the author as a baby with her Grandma Sloan. (L to R, it’s Heather Simko [the author’s cousin], Paul Perkins [the author’s father], the author, and Emma Sloan [the author’s grandmother].)

 

Mama made houska around Christmas, most years. I never liked it. I don’t like the taste of fennel.

I looked up houska recipes on the internet a few years back and thought that I had discovered the problem: in the recipe I found, the first step in making sweet houska is to make a sponge. My new recipe contained a full four times the sugar called for in Grandma Sloan’s recipe, twice the fat, and butter instead of shortening, mace and ginger instead of fennel seeds, and candied fruit peel and yellow raisins. I made the bread in the traditional braided shape. It was beautiful. It was delicious. It did not burn.

A photo of the houska made by the author.

 

I called Mama. “I figured out why the houska always burns! You’re supposed to make a sponge! So there’s less sugar left in the dough and it doesn’t burn!” Mama was less than enthusiastic. She read me her recipe over the phone. I wrote it on a recipe card along with notes about the new recipe.

A few days before Christmas this past year, I reposted a Facebook “memory” from 2017, a photo of Mama baking Christmas cookies with my two children. My sister commented asking for the houska recipe. My sister-in-law also asked for the recipe. I posted a photo of my annotated recipe card. Mama replied, “I sent a text with the recipe. Best eaten with butter and honey!”

With thanks to Patricia Perkins.

 

 

Pächter Torte

By Simon Newman

Mina Pächter’s recipe book. Credit: Stern and Pächter family papers, Collections of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

15 dkg Zucker (15 decagrams sugar)

Many of the recipes we use are filled with memories. I use pastry recipes that go back to my grandmother, probably even further. As I make them I remember her and my mother, I remember them making pies and tarts, and I remember our family eating them together. Many of my family memories, I realize, are centred around food.

15 dkg butter (15 decagrams butter

Mina Pächter scribbled this recipe down sometime in 1943 or 1944. It had been years since she had made this recipe, years since she had shared it with her family. And Mina knew that she would never again make chocolate hazelnut torte.

15 dkg ger. Haselnüsse (15 decagrams ground hazelnuts)

It is remarkable that this recipe survives. Mina wrote it down and included it with several dozen others that she and some other women wrote while incarcerated in Terezín. Also known as Theresienstadt, Terezín was in Bohemia and Moravia, a German-speaking region of Czechoslovakia. During its early years, the Nazis described it as a ‘model’ camp for European Jews they deemed worthy of special treatment. It was part ghetto, part concentration camp and, despite the Nazi propaganda, conditions were dire and few survived. 144,000 people were sent to Terezín: 33,000 died there, 88,000 were sent on to Auschwitz and only 19,000 survived.

10 dkg erweichte Schokolade (10 decagrams softened chocolate)

For as long as they could, the residents of Terezín tried hard to maintain some kind of life for themselves, teaching children, composing and performing music, painting, and writing poetry. But every day, people died and everyone was malnourished. Hunger was constant. Why would anyone who was surviving on watery vegetable soup and little else remember recipes for rich and wonderful food, let alone write them down?

Oder 2 Eßl. Cakau (or 2 tablespoons cocoa)

Mina and women in this and other camps did remember, and when they could procure paper and pencils or pens, they secretly recorded recipes. Survivors of the camps remember women talking amongst themselves, recalling and comparing recipes, sometimes even arguing about the best ways to create certain dishes.

Zitronenschale (lemon rind)

One survivor of Terezín and Auschwitz remembered that camp residents referred to these kinds of discussions as “cooking with the mouth.”(1) Remembering recipes and foodways was comforting, a reminder of family and culture.

3 Eßl. Starken schwarzen Kaffee (3 tablespoons strong black coffee)

Before she died, Mina entrusted the cookbook to a friend and made him promise that if he survived, he would pass it on to Mina’s daughter Anny, who was in Palestine. The manuscript changed hands several times, but almost a quarter-century after Mina’s death, it came to Anny, by then living in the United States.

2 ganze Eier (2 whole eggs)

For Mina, talking about and writing down her recipe for Pächter Torte was not just an exercise in memory, but a longing for the food of yesterday and the life and family it embodied. It was also preserving that memory for family in the future, an act of faith and hope enshrined in handwritten recipes.

2 Dotter (2 egg yolks)

Written on cheap paper in a faded pencil script, the recipe represented family, culture, and heritage. It allowed Anny to connect to her mother and to remember the foodways that had bound them together during her youth.

Warden ¼ Stunde lang fest gerührt (are stirred vigorously for 15 minutes)

Mina Pächter’s recipes are preserved in the collections of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. 

Dann den Schnee von den 2 Eiweiß (then [add] the snow from the two [stiffly beaten] egg whites

These recipes are evidence of gentle yet powerful resistance to the horrors of genocide. If the Nazi’s Final Solution was intended to erase a people and their culture, then recording, preserving and handing down recipes defied that destructive intent.

20 dkg Mehl (20 decagrams flour)

I believe there is no better way to honor these women than to make their recipes. Weighing out the ingredients and guessing the techniques that were so familiar to Mina that she did not even bother to record them, it is impossible not to think about the suffering of those in the camps. How painful and yet how life-affirming it must have been to remember favorite recipes and the joyful memories of food shared with family and friends. And we can only marvel at these women’s desperation to ensure that at least some of their recipes would survive.

Mehl, geben 1/2 der Masse…

Mehl, geben 1/2 der Masse in eine ausgesch[?mierte] u[nd] ausgestreute Form geben darauf eine feste Marmelade, geben die andere Hälfte der Masse darauf, belegen es mit ein [?] der Hälfte geschnittene Mandeln und backen es 1 Stunde lang. Hält sich 4 Wochen.

Flour, put half of the mixture in a greased and strewn tin [i.e. dusted with sugar] add some firm jam on top, add the other half of the mixture[.] on top, cover it with one [?] of the half cut [i.e. split] almonds and bake it for 1 hour. Keeps for 4 weeks.

Credit: Simon Newman.

References

  1. Susan E. Cernyak-Spatz, quoted in Cara de Silva, ed., In Memory’s Kitchen: A Legacy From the Women on Terezín (1996), (Lanham, Maryland: Rowman and Littlefield, 2006), xxix.

About

Simon P. Newman is Sir Denis Brogan Professor of History (Emeritus) at the University of Glasgow, and Honorary Fellow at the Institute for Research in the Humanities at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. He is completing a book on enslaved people in early modern London but hopes to spend more time cooking, thinking and perhaps writing about historical recipes.

He is grateful to Meg Munck for help translating the recipe instructions. The original recipe can be seen as Image 4 of Cookbooks, Stern and Pächter family papers, Collections of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

 

Consuming History—Or Are We?

By Marie Pellissier 

I’ve always been fascinated by the appeal of food in living history museums—the sound and aromas of someone cooking over an iron stove or open hearth never fails to draw visitors’ attention. Since I moved to Williamsburg, I’ve had plenty of opportunity to see how Colonial Williamsburg uses food to help people connect with the past—and, as part of my dissertation, I plan to explore how this interpretive strategy has changed over time. 

Food has been a critical part of interpretation at Colonial Williamsburg since the museum was established in 1926. Visitors in the early years of the museum expected to encounter “authentic” Southern food in the museum’s restaurants, and to find African-American women cooking in the historic area’s restored kitchens. To understand what sorts of dishes they ought to be cooking, Colonial Williamsburg historian Helen Duprey Bullock turned her attention to eighteenth-century foodways. The souvenir cookbook The Williamsburg Art of Cookery, published in 1938, was the culmination of years of Bullock’s efforts researching and collecting “traditional Virginian” recipes, and provides an interesting study in contrasts. Bullock’s book is designed to be as authentic an object as possible, and yet, the actual recipes were often far from anything that an eighteenth-century Virginian would recognize. 

Helen Bullock, The Williamsburg Art of Cookery, 1938. Image credit: author’s own photograph.

Bullock modeled her project after the first cookbook printed in British North America, E. Smith’s The Compleat Housewife, printed in an abridged edition by Williamsburg printer William Parks in 1742. In a note to the reader at the end of the book, Bullock describes the volume as “a typographical Adaptation [sic]” of Parks’ Compleat Housewife, set in old-style Caslon, “the closest available Approach to the [type] used by Parks.” The paper was specially made, and the binding “is believed,” Bullock wrote, “to be a successful Reconstruction of the Binding” of Parks’ Compleat Housewife. Bullock wanted the museum visitors who saw her book in the gift shop to believe that they were buying an authentic object, as close to owning a piece of history as possible. 

Title page for Eliza Smith’s 1730 book, The Compleat Housewife. Image credit: Library of Congress.

 

The contents of the book, however, are far from original to the eighteenth century. The recipes Bullock has collected are from a hodgepodge of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century sources, and some have been modified for the twentieth-century cook. Some recipes are deliberately constructed to make readers feel a connection to the founders—like “Mount Vernon Pound Cake” and “Martha Washington’s Potato Light Rolls.” Bullock doesn’t demonstrate any concrete links between these recipes and the Washington family, but the recipes do serve to help the reader link themselves to the founding fathers (or, rather, the founding mothers!). These connections reinforced the museum’s emphasis on patriotism and nostalgia for the nation’s earliest days. 

Painting of Martha Washington. Image credit: National Portrait Gallery, Washington, D.C.

 

But the cookbook also taps into a deeply embedded nostalgia for the days of the antebellum South. It includes a recipe for “Robert E. Lee Cake,” which is a light, fatless cake with citrus and coconut filling (much like an angel food cake). The version Bullock offers is attributed to the Lane family of Williamsburg, and dated circa 1870 (though Robert E. Lee Cake did not appear in print until 1879). A punch recipe attributed to Confederate office Colonel Walter Herron Taylor contributes to the conflation of colonial America and the antebellum South. In the section “Of Christmas in Virginia” (which has no parallel in E. Smith’s Compleat Housewife), Bullock describes the “generous Hospitality” to be found on the plantations at Christmastime, when “the Negroes…appeared at the great House to wish each Person ‘Joyful Christmas’.” Recipes linked to Confederate officers and descriptions of enslaved people as grateful and joyful reinforced narratives of the Lost Cause, offering visitors a comfortable image of the past as a simpler time, when racial distinctions and hierarchies were clear and unchallenged. 

Despite Bullock’s efforts to ensure that The Williamsburg Art of Cookery was as physically accurate as possible, the contents of the book were distinctly shaped by the prevailing winds of public memory. Visitors to Colonial Williamsburg in the 1930s expected to see a paternalistic past, shaped by racial hierarchies and stability—but they also expected to see authentic objects, to conjure a feeling of being physically connected to the past. The Williamsburg Art of Cookery fulfilled all of those expectations.  


About

Marie Pellissier is a PhD candidate at William & Mary. She is beginning work on her dissertation, which will focus on the intersection of food, memory, and identity in and of early America. She is the creator of More than a Kitchen-Aid: The Elizabeth Capell Cookbook and co-creator of Explore Common Sense.

The Circus Origins of Pink Lemonade

By Betsy Golden Kellem

Few things whip up an appetite quite like the playground of cotton candy, popcorn, fried food and sweet drinks that accompanies a circus. Pink lemonade in particular has long been associated with the circus, which does not simply claim to enjoy the beverage, but to have invented it: and in a business that relies so heavily on oral tradition (in industry parlance, “cutting up jackpots”), there are two tales about how the drink was therein first created.

Black and white ad, reading 'Iced lemonade, cool and refreshing'. There is a picture of a glass, lemons, and tools for making lemonade.
Iced Lemonade, published, Currier and Ives, 1879. Image credit: Library of Congress.

 

The first comes from Henry E. Allott, whose New York Times obituary (1912) bills him as the “Inventor of Pink Lemonade,” and attributes his creation to a stroke of luck: one day, mixing a batch of plain yellow lemonade, Allott claimed to have knocked a pile of red cinnamon candy into the tub by mistake. “The resulting rose-tinted mixture sold so surprisingly well,” relates the Times, “that he continued to dispense his chance discovery.” 

George Conklin begged to differ. A career showman and lion tamer, Conklin included the creation myth of pink lemonade in his 1921 memoir The Ways of the Circus, crediting his brother Pete with an equally happy accident on the Mabie circus. Conklin stated that one day in 1857, with concession sales going swimmingly, Pete found that he was out of water and there were no nearby natural sources from which he could refill his beverage stock. Racing frantically through the show lot, Pete found the bareback rider Fannie Jamieson in the middle of laundry day, wringing out a pair of her pink tights. “Without giving any explanation or stopping to answer her questions,” Conklin explained, “Pete grabbed the tub of pink water and ran.” Sales of what Pete billed as strawberry lemonade went gangbusters, and “from then on no first-class circus was without pink lemonade.”

Glittering concession stand purveying all sorts of foods and treats at the Colorado State Fair in Pueblo, Colorado.
Modern concession stand at the Colorado State Fair in Pueblo, Colorado, ca. 2015. Image Credit: Library of Congress.

 

And, look… everyone likes lemonade. Lemonade is refreshing and tart and has the whiff of summer indulgence to it. Not everything that was sold as lemonade in the nineteenth century was what you and I and the Federal Trade Commission would regard as lemonade, though: it was common practice, inside the circus and beyond, to serve a form of lemonade that had more citrus in name than composition. 

Some vendors truly did make a point of ensuring the purity of their lemon beverages. Others simply took anything that would make a vaguely tart-sweet combo and floated a lemon slice on top: one 1867 vendor, selling to incoming immigrants to the United States, was said to have offered a dingy mix of molasses, vinegar and water with a few sad lemon rinds floating on top. The standard circus recipe, relayed by Conklin, long involved water, tartaric acid (a fruit-based acidulant compound that lends a sour flavor, and from which cream of tartar is derived), a pinch of red aniline dye (a coal tar derivative now largely used to tint wood stain), and slices of re-usable “floater” lemons for appearance’s sake. (And before you gasp in horror, a modern combination of high fructose corn syrup, petroleum-based red #40 and “natural flavors” may not be too far off.) 

That said, as long as the drinks were cold and the show was good, no one much needed to pretend that pink lemonade came from anything organic: one writer in 1872 concluded that only “a possible purchaser with hereditary proclivities to insanity may be deluded into the idea that strawberries enter into the composition of the potable.” 


About


Betsy Golden Kellem is a scholar of the unusual. A historian and media attorney, she has written for The Atlantic, Vanity Fair, Atlas Obscura, The Washington Post and Slate, and serves on the board of the Barnum Museum in Bridgeport, Connecticut. She blogs at Drinks With Dead People, and is at work on a book about remarkable performing women.