by Traci Chapman
Yukon’s annual Oklahoma Czech Festival is a celebration not only of heritage, but also of history and tradition. Perhaps more than anywhere else that is illustrated by a decades-long practice – the traditional Czech pastry known as Kolaches.
Those delicacies are made by a group of people known for their love of history and a passion for baking, men and women who have been part of the effort, in some cases, their entire lives.
Janice Van Brunt is one of those veterans. Always known as an organized person, someone who always gets the job done, Van Brunt is a major piece in the puzzle that is the “Kolache Crew,” a group of bakers who have worked for more than 38 years to make sure their Czech delicacy is ready for the October festival.
“Janice is so good at bringing us all together and she has always had so much enthusiasm and love for what we do – it’s really difficult to imagine doing this without her,” Gloria Hlinicky said, as she scooped Kolaches off baking trays and onto cooling racks at Yukon’s Oklahoma Czech building.
Van Brunt and Hlinicky have both been part of the Kolache Crew, officially known as the “Tuesday Night Baking Club,” for decades – “longer than I’d like to remember,” Van Brunt said. While younger crew members have joined the effort over the years, many of those involved are, like Van Brunt and Hlinicky, bakers who spend hours upon hours annually preparing their regional pastry.
It’s no small effort – the group creates more than 30,000 Kolaches in the months leading up to the Czech Festival each year.
Kolaches first begin as balls of dough which raise three times before being flattened and stuffed with fillings. They bake about 20 minutes and then are brushed with butter – a lot of it – while still hot out of the oven. From there, the Kolaches are cooled and put into an industrial freezer until October.
The group begins baking in July, completing 100 dozen creations each Tuesday night, Van Brunt said. Incorporating traditional Czech recipes, they utilize only fruit or cream fillings for their delicacies – 15 different varieties, ranging from peach and apple to cherry and raspberry and any kind of flavor imaginable in between, Van Brunt said.
“We have a specific list of how many of each kind we make and we have lots of people who come back every year to get their favorite kind,” she said. “While we have many of the same group making them year after year, we also have many return customers the same way.”
While bakers put hundreds of hours into creating their Kolaches, the consumption of them can be quite different, Van Brunt said.
“We start selling them in the morning and many times they are gone in an hour, maybe a little bit more and sometimes even less,” she said. “We are always amazed at the line that forms even before anything opens.”
“If you think about 30,000 – 30,000! – Kolaches and they are gone in such a short time – it’s really a little overwhelming to me that they are that popular every single year,” baker Shirley Reed said.
June Calahan has also been a staple of the group for years, working on any project that needs to be done – rolling the dough or putting in the filling, taking trays out of the oven, even washing dishes and just giving moral support.
“June is one of our backbones, she is someone who just always makes our effort more fun and enjoyable,” Julia Mason said. “She’s someone who I’ve always looked up to and so do my children, which is really something wonderful – we are bringing in a new generation who sees the older generation and all it has accomplished.”
Many crew members were part of the original effort 38 years ago. Back then, they didn’t work together in an organized kitchen, but rather created pastries at home, bringing them to the festival individually. While that got the job done at that time, they said it’s a plan that would never work today.
“There’s no way – it’s just too much,” Reed said. “And I really think it would take away from what we are doing, the companionship we feel.”
“We are a fun group, but we get a lot done and we work together very well,” Janice Van Brunt said. “We are very serious about getting this done right and making sure we have what we need each year.”
As this year’s efforts come to a close, the crew is already looking forward to next year.
“It does get tiring and it is a lot, but it truly is a labor of love, and we’re very lucky to do it,” Calahan said.