Looking back on family vacations growing up, food doesn’t really stand out as a key part of those memories.
Of course we ate, but for the most part, I don’t remember our family usually planning vacations with the goal of trying delicacies specific to the region being visited.
It might have been that as a picky eater, I wasn’t being adventurous about food. It might also have been that as a family on a budget, we usually saved what money we could on meals by eating sandwiches and cheaper foods to leave more money to spend on activities.
It wasn’t until well into my adult years that I even began to think about food as a specific feature to consider when planning travels. Looking back, it would be a treat to revisit some of those past destinations with the specific goal of a culinary experience in mind.
The one exception to this, at least for the last 15 years, has been going to visit family in Houston a few times a year. The two things I miss most from Texas are family members and food. The cravings have shifted a bit through the years, but in the days leading up to a visit, there WILL be at least one craving as the timing of the trip draws near.
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This time, during a visit home over Easter weekend to get some quality time with family, the craving in particular was kolaches. If you have never heard of them, you are probably not in the minority. A few Powhatan friends asked about the trip home before my departure date, and not a one of them was familiar with a kolache. I tried to compare them with a West Virginia pepperoni roll in basic design, but with different fillings, but that too drew mostly blank stares.
For those not in the know, a kolache (pronounced “koh-la-chee”) is a pastry made of yeast dough and filled with various fillings ranging from sweet to savory. The Texas delicacy originated with the tradition of Czech pastries brought over by immigrants in the late 1800s. Those traditional pastries were usually rounds of sweet dough with nestling fillings such as fruit or sweet cabbage.
Various stories on the internet will tell you about the evolution of the kolaches, but since I have no intention of jumping into the “he said, she said” of who popularized them or helped turn them into the Texas staple they are today (seriously, donut shops without kolaches are a real anomaly these days), this column is going to stick with my personal history.
Growing up, my family was pretty loyal to one popular donut shop chain, both because of the taste and the community engagement of the stores. For instance, my late dad used to go and pick two little old ladies on Sunday evenings to bring them to church. While in their neck of the woods, he would stop at the donut shop there and pick up whatever donuts hadn’t been sold to bring to children’s church, which I am sure made him a hero in the eyes of us all.
That same chain of shops sold a limited number of kolache types – ham or sausage, with and without cheese. Rather than the open-faced kolaches of old, these kolaches were entirely enclosed around the filling. A kolache, a donut and some chocolate milk was a breakfast of kings. It was simple but it was enough.
Fast forward to April 2022. A week before departing for Texas, while searching for things to do on family outings with my mom and sisters, I stumbled across a newspaper article about the seven best places in Houston to try kolaches. While it’s doubtful they used a truly quantifiable way of choosing these seven places, it was still intriguing. “I am here for this. Food road trip!!!” read my text in the group message.
In actuality, we hit two of the seven. Their willingness to make kolaches the focus of too many meals waned quickly – not surprising since they can get them any time they want. Still, there will be more visits.
The first was a more traditional shop with mainly breakfast-themed kolaches, both the fruit-filled open pastries and the savory enclosed kolaches. The two choices there were bacon, egg and cheese and cream cheese.
The second shop was more of an adventure and actually posed a decision. Two kolaches is more than enough, but which two to choose? I eschewed the traditional breakfast options and looked at the specialties. Growing up, a young Laura would have never conceived of flavors such as Hawaiian grilled cheese, mac and cheese, butter chicken, pepperoni pizza or smoked brisket in a kolache. Nor would she have been as likely to choose cheeseburger or Philly cheesesteak, my final choices. Some of the other shops we considered had even more unconventional fillings.
To be honest, the artisanal approach to a beloved childhood food was kind of entertaining to explore. But just like others who may have witnessed favroite foods from their younger years embraced as the newest food fad, when the hype is gone, a visit to that same chain my family visited my entire youth to get a kolache, a donut and a chocolate milk will still be a treat.
Laura McFarland may be reached at Lmcfarland@powhatantoday.com.