Willa Cather and Kolaches along the Iowa Valley Scenic Byway

“She had only to stand in the orchard, to put her hand on a little crab tree and look up at the apples, to make you feel the goodness of planting and tending and harvesting at last. All the strong things in her heart came out in her body, that had been so tireless in serving generous emotions. It was no wonder that her sons stood tall and straight. She was a rich mine of life, like the founders of early races.”

(My Ántonia, 398)

This summer, I am working alongside Iowa Valley Resource Conservation & Development to create a booklet that introduces readers to food traditions along the Iowa Valley Scenic Byway, a 77-mile route where people of Belgian, German, Meskwaki and Czech descent (among others) live, work and eat. As I catalog recipes and conduct interviews, I am reminded of Roland Barthes’s claim that food is “a system of communication, a body of images, a protocol of usages, situations, and behavior” – basically, that food signifies (29). We are, or at least come to understand ourselves and others through, what we eat. Talking to members of the Czech-American community, the kolache – a round, sweet pastry, often with a poppy seed filling – has become a representative dish of Bohemian industriousness and ingenuity, of what it means to occupy a Bohemian-American identity. While there are debates as to what counts as a proper kolache and what the best technique is to make them, there is consensus that it is a day long job and that a traditional goose feather brush is necessary so as not to squish the dough. The kolache exists at the intersection of Czech-ness and Americanness – a gustatory opportunity for those of Bohemian ancestry to share a piece of their culture and sensibility with willing eaters.

Iowa Valley Scenic Byway Logo

Fortuitously, in the week prior to starting the internship, I picked up a copy of Willa Cather’s novel about Czech immigrants in the Midwest, My Ántonia (1918). As it turns out, there are points of contact between Cather’s fictional eaters and the eaters I have gotten to know during the first few weeks of the internship. In the closing chapter of the novel, the now middle-aged narrator Jim Burden returns to Nebraska after twenty years to reunite with his childhood friend, Bohemian immigrant Ántonia Cuzak (née Shimerda). The Ántonia who Jim re-encounters is hard done by life, with ten children to her name and presiding over the day-to-day operations of the Cuzak farm. And yet, Jim notices within her a deep and inexhaustible supply of love, which she most often expresses through her relationship with food. In the cellar – stocked with dill pickles, pickled melon rinds, jarred cherries, strawberries, and apples – Ántonia says, “You wouldn’t believe, Jim, what it takes to feed them all!” (381). Later, while caressing one of the fruit trees in the orchard, Ántonia remarks, “I love them as if they were people […] They were on my mind like children” (383). Ántonia’s domestic labor is a labor of love, and the blissful expressions on the countenances of her children as they eat is evidence that her careful planting, nurturing, and preservation of foodstuff likewise enriches and fortifies her family, presumably well into the future. My interviews with the great, great, great grandchildren of Bohemian immigrant women like Ántonia (although from Iowa, not Nebraska) have unearthed similar stories of sacrifice, ingenuity, and selflessness, passed down from generation to generation like so many food traditions.

A notable exchange between Jim and Ántonia’s son bespeaks the importance food in constructing a Czech-American identity:

            “Show him the spiced plums, mother. Americans don’t have those. Mother uses them to   make kolaches.”

            “You think I don’t know what kolaches are, eh? You’re mistaken young man. I’ve eaten your mother’s kolaches long before the Easter Day when you were born.” (381)

Through this conversation about kolaches, Cather counters the anti-immigrant sentiment of her time and stresses the continuity between the “American” experience and the “immigrant” experience, without ever reducing one to the other. Ántonia’s son Leo frames the spiced plums as a dish that Americans do not have access to but that he is nevertheless excited to share. In response, Jim reveals that he has already partaken Ántonia’s kolaches, long before Leo ever existed. Here, the kolaches become a point of intercultural connection, where Americanness and Czech-ness can historically intertwine. In fact, Ántonia (and her kolaches) might be what is most representative of being American, according to Cather. At the same time, the novel does not reject Leo’s notion that the kolaches are distinctively Bohemian. The novel’s “both, and” formulation of immigrant identity remains open to cultural difference without recourse to the homogeneous, universalizing American melting pot.

Jim concludes the novel reflecting on Ántonia’s “planting and tending and harvesting,” the physical labor that goes into putting food on the table as well as the affective labor of sowing “generous emotions” within her offspring (398). Based on my interviews with Czech descendants thus far, I would say that emotions – among which, love is at the forefront – continue to see fruit in the form of an enduring food tradition. Kolaches are just one small, sweet expression of the emotional generosity that defines this region of Iowa, and I look forward to tasting what else the Iowa Valley Scenic Byway has to offer.            

Willa Cather and spiced plum kolaches, link to the photo (and recipe!): https://paperandsalt.org/2012/05/07/willa-cather-spiced-plum-kolache/

Works Cited

 Barthes, Roland. “Toward a Psychosociology of Contemporary Food Consumption.” Food and Culture: A Reader, edited by Carole Counihan and Penny Van Esterik, Routlege, 2008, pp. 23-30.

Cather, Willa. My Ántonia. Book-of-the-Month-Club, 1995.

Conversations with Ardene Cross and Gerry Kopriva from Clutier, Iowa.