Photos courtesy of Victoria Rittinger.
Residing in Houston is at least one overweight beagle who loves kolaches. At just the sound of the word, she pants, whines, and jumps higher distances than thought possible to find one. Indulgent pet parenting is to blame, but the reaction is understandable.
What qualifies as a kolache is a matter of some debate, but the working definition for most of Houston is some type of meat encased in fluffy, white bread or some type of sweet filling resting on top of the bread. Yes, that’s a wide spectrum. Technically, kolaches (or kolatches) are Czech in origin and only refer to yeast dough with a sweet filling—fruit, cheese or poppy seed. The meat-filled (usually sausage) kind is called klobasnek, but no one in Texas really calls it that.
The kolache’s origin story for many Houstonians begins with the sausage (or, honestly, hot dog) variety from a local, hole-in-the-wall donut shop on an early morning before school. From there, it’s boxes full of ham-and-cheese kolaches at the office and road trips to Austin with special stops along the way for a couple stuffed with sausage and sauerkraut. It was only when I met out-of-state folks in college that I realized not everyone had been raised on them. No, they’re not the same as pigs in a blanket.
As with most food matters these days, the fog of an authenticity dispute has settled over what was once a simple joy for a schoolgirl fortifying herself before gym class. It’s true, the Kolache Factory chain has borne some corporate kolache mishaps, namely its Christmas season chocolate-and-candy-cane monstrosity. And is the shop’s chicken-enchilada kolache an innovative mash-up of Houston cuisine, or a gross-sounding gimmick? Who’s to say?
Because over on the north side of town, the weekend-only, Cajun-Czech boudin kolaches at Shipley’s sell out before 10 a.m. The lines of anxious people worrying that the last one will be sold out from beneath them aren’t particularly concerned with the legitimacy of fusion foods.
For purists of Eastern European culture, travel is an option. A little further west from Houston, there’s Prasek's in Hillje, Vincek's Smokehouse in East Bernard, Weikel's in La Grange, Hruska’s in Ellinger, or the Chappell Hill Bakery and Deli in Chappell Hill, all serving traditional Czech kolaches with a side of booster-club cookbooks. At the annual Kolache-Klobase Festival in East Bernard every summer, to bite into a sweet cheese kolache is to hear birds sing and polka bands play (They’re called the Czechaholics).
But to get caught up in the question of what is and isn’t a kolache is to ignore some of the food’s major appeal, which is that they offer something for everyone. There’s fatty meat and jalapenos for the old man in the ropers, and strawberry-basil for the foodie. Not to go rogue with the gastronomic relativism, but anything can be a kolache. And for a city like Houston, with its indefinable culture due to its inclusion of so many, that should be something to relish.
As for the beagle, she prefers the kolaches from Shipley’s. The proportion of meat is higher.