I found out about Hruska's Kolaches while on tour at Texas A&M University.
I grew up eating kolaches. I assumed everyone else in the country knew about these delicious pastries. Kubsch's restaurant of Kewaunee, Wisconsin made them, so did Muench's of Alverno, where dinner was all-you-can-eat family style chicken, stuffing, green beans, and hand-mashed potatoes. Kubsch's, Muench's and the other Bohemian country restaurants of my youth have all closed; yet Hruska's Kolaches of Etinger, Texas is thriving. Its central location in the triangle of Houston, San Antonio, and Austin draws customers from all directions. Although for a few years in the 1990s Hruska's stopped selling kolaches, they now proudly offers 16 varieties. Their website warns the city folks the kolaches often sell out by the afternoon. Take a half day off work if you really want your choice.
I am a Hruska. My great great grandmother, Mary Hruska, left Bohemia for America back in 1867, settling not in Texas but in Wisconsin. Her departure drove Joseph Konop crazy; he couldn't live without her. So he hopped ox carts and walked from Domazlice, Bohemia to the North Sea port of Bremen, Germany where he boarded a sailing ship that took several weeks to arrive in New York. From there he hopped a train to Chicago and another to Milwaukee where he embarked on a steam ship that plied 75 miles up the eastern shore of Lake Michigan to the town of Manitowoc where he got off and walked the final 23 miles to the budding New Bohemia settlement of Stangelville, Wisconsin. Once there, he resumed courting Mary Hruska and they finally married in St. Lawrence Church, Stangelville, Wisconsin, named after the St. Lawrence Church back in Mrakov, Bohemia.
That's the love story that started our family in the New World -- a crazy Konop chasing a Hruska across two continents and an ocean. Back in the Old Country, Mary Hruska's family didn't like him as he was 12 years her senior and illiterate. Plus Mary Hruska was beautiful, with the high cheekbones of a Slavic princess. The Hruska family thought Mary could do better than the old and very-ordinary Joseph Konop. That didn't stop him. And without Joseph's persistence I wouldn't exist.
On May 4, 1945 my grandfather parked his jeep in the main square of the town of Domazlice, Czechoslovakia, looked up, and saw the building in front of him was named "Hruska," same as his grandmother, Mary Hruska. Of this unexpected experience, grandpa wrote, "Now I knew my past was really catching up with me, but I had no time to go hunting for distant and unknown relatives so I walked around town to see what was happening."
It was the end of World War Two, and in an unlikely string of coincidences my grandfather was liberating the Bohemian villages of his grandparents. Mary Hruska's kolache recipe had come from this same little pocket of Central Europe, and the word "hruska" is Czech for pear. Grandpa knew this because Czech was his first language, the only language his grandparents ever spoke to him, the language that landed Lieutenant Colonel Matt Konop the assignment of Commander of the Advance Party of the Second Infantry Division's liberation of Southern Czechoslovakia. Grandpa's General Patton/Forest Gump/Luke Skywalker adventure in Czechoslovakia is the heart of my show about him, "The Accidental Hero."
I didn't have enough time to get to Hruska's Kolaches in Etinger on my tour to Texas, but I learned quite a bit about the Czech-Tex culture. Many of the Czechs who settled in Texas crossed the Atlantic to the port of Galveston, Texas and headed inland to chase the American Dream. The audience after my show at Texas A&M University stuck around for about 45 minutes to ask questions and tell me about the Czechs of the region. I was there on a repeat engagement sponsored by the George H. W. Bush Museum and Library. Since no one in the audience brought any Hruska's Kolaches I have a very good reason to return. I am picturing a meal of barbecue brisket followed by two or three Hruska's Kolache, a Texas version of my boyhood dinners of family style chicken cooked so tender it fell off the bone at Kubsch's of Kewaunee and Muench's of Alverno.
After the end of the war in May, 1945 grandpa made a trip back to Domazlice to talk to Arnost Hruska, the owner of the Hruska building. Granpa's unexpected encounter with the land of his grandparents ignited a life-long passion for his Czech heritage. As an old man in 1979, grandpa made a final trip back to Domazlice. The Czechs were under the oppression of Russian Communism and the terrible conditions broke his heart. When grandpa died four years later in 1983 the Czechs were still under the thumb of Moscow. The freedom he helped bring in May of 1945 at the end of World War Two had lasted a scant three years. He watched his people go from Hitler to Stalin.
Of course, the Czech story ends sweetly with the Velvet Revolution of 1989. They have been free ever since. And last May the Czechs of Domazlice made grandpa an honorary citizen. Plus, the Hruska building in Domazlice now sports a plaque honoring my grandfather and his special connection to the area. The plaque includes a bronze relief of him being carried on the shoulders of the Domazlice townspeople on May 4, 1945 shortly after he had parked his jeep in front of the Hruska building. He didn't live to see his tribe get its freedom back, but they welcomed him home posthumously anyway. I got to stand in for him, an honor I did not deserve at all.
Below is the only picture I have of Joseph Konop and Mary Hruska. The illiterate, former-peasant Joseph wed his princess, Mary, and saved his money to buy sixty acres of swampy and forested Wisconsin land he transformed into a dairy farm.
My grandfather was born and raised on their farm.
Czech Tour, May 1 - 7, 2017
So far eight people are coming on my May, 2017 tour of the Czech Republic. If you are interested, please contact me.
My Czech performances are:
May 2, Prague (at the American Embassy)
May 4 and 5, Domazlice
May 7, Pilsen
I will have a live webcast of my August 4 show in Domazlice. My last webcast was seen by more than 14,000 people worldwide. More details to follow.
The flowers are always in bloom the first week of May, just as they were when the US Army liberated Southern Czechoslovakia in May, 1945. My Czech friends are eager to become your friends. They will never forget who brought their freedom at the end of World War Two. It is always magical that first week of May in the Czech Republic. This will be my sixth year in a row.