Passing the Czech
May 30, 2019 12:27PM
By Andrea Kszystyniak
When Norm Melichar was a child, he walked the five blocks from his parents’ Omaha home to his grandparents’ every Saturday. There, he and his five sisters would play games, take walks, and cook with his Czech grandmother.
“It wasn’t a choice for my parents,” he says. “We were expected to be there.”
Melichar, now 64, would watch as grandma crafted and cooked and stewed and baked. He’d pop in to assist—peeling potatoes, making salad dressing, and wrapping weenies for the pigs-in-a-blanket recipe. Recipes for chicken paprika, kolaches, pork roast, and dumplings would clear his grandmother’s stove and then enter his mouth.
Now that he has children of his own, he’s taught them some of the recipes. His middle son, Andy, makes dumplings and kolaches. All of his children have learned the family recipe for chicken paprika.
“They weren’t fond of sauerkraut so that’s something that’s lost to the generations,” he says.
These traditions vary from family to family. But for many Omaha Czechs, food is a multi-generational language.
Monica Vankat Brown’s grandmother made vánočka (also called houska) when Brown was a child. The plated yeast bread is flavored with mace (which is made from nutmeg and a Vankat family addition) and filled with white raisins and almonds. Topped with icing, red and green candied cherries, and whole pecans, it’s typically served during the holiday season.
Brown is one of 10 children, meaning her mother never had much time for baking; she was often too busy with her children.
So when Brown’s grandma passed away, Monica tried to make her own vánočka for the first time. But grandma didn’t leave her recipe. Though only 13, Brown figured it out on her own. She and her family have made the bread every year since; Brown is now 62.
Constructing this Christmas bread initially began as a small event—30 or so family members in a house. But then the kids got involved and 20 loaves turned into 40 loaves. To accommodate the growing number of loaves, the family moved the operation out of a house and into a home economics room at Mercy High School.
Every Christmas season three generations of her family—about 60 people—gather to craft 100 loaves to share and eat. That’s 25 batches, baked and decorated by Brown’s Czech family.
“My family, we are very big eaters and food is a central part of every gathering that we have,” Brown says. “It’s almost to the point of being ridiculous.”
When it comes to food staples, every Czech seems to have their own rules of play. And often, those recipes are well-guarded. When Melichar would go to his grandparents to bake kolache, often the dough was already made or halfway started.
“She was kinda funny about kolaches,” Melichar says. “As I got older, I’d ask her for a recipe and she goes, ‘Oh, you don’t want to know that.’”
Brown says when she was growing up in South Omaha, Czech food was readily available. There were Czech butchers, bakeries, and cafes. Old Vienna Cafe, a restaurant on South 24th Street, served traditional Czech cuisine. But over the years, it has gotten harder to come by.
Melichar says a lot of Czech kids growing up now may not know the food unless someone in their family happens to cook it.
The 2016 closing of Bohemian Cafe was a deathblow to an already depleted culinary scene. For Czechs, the Bohemian Cafe represented a connection to food lineage. Melichar’s grandparents hung out there; it was the social place to go. The closure was an elimination of a staple.
“It was like saying goodbye to a friend,” Melichar says.
In spite of familial secrecy and a dwindling local restaurant scene, Czech recipes are still making it down the chain. Millie Svagera Marne, 87, helped her mother grind poppy seeds for kolaches each Saturday. Now, she’s teaching her son David the recipes; explaining how to scald milk to create dough and how to appropriately stomp down the kolache so the filling doesn’t leak out. She says he also wants to learn to make dumplings.
“But I’m working on these yeast dumplings to get those perfected,” Marne says.
Marie Sedlacek, the president of the Omaha Czech Cultural Club, learned about Czech food mostly through eating it—her mother cooked often. Sedlacek also participated in Omaha Sokol, which featured cultural events and dinners attended by everybody in the local Czech community.
Nowadays, some of the people who are most interested and closely related to Czech culture are older, Sedlacek says. But those who remain involved are very invested. Sedlacek says she makes it a point to share recipes with friends and others in the community.
“Cooking something with intention and knowing what you’re doing is another way of conveying love to your family and passing down traditions,” she says.
This article first appeared in the June 2019 edition of 60PLUS in Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.