Now picture Christmas dinner, the meal your mother, your grandmother, your great-grandmother, or maybe even your great-great-grandmother labored so lovingly to prepare.
And now, picture dessert. Even if dessert did not follow most meals in your house, today was Christmas day, and surely, oh surely, your meal would end with a sweet treat and a contented smile. Yes, Christmas day was special for many reasons, and a fancy dessert was one of them.
Now, tell me, what was the dessert served in your home or your grandmother's home December 25, 1941? Was it an angel food cake or a cherry pie? Did you eat plum pudding? Did this detail of Christmas dinner slide into the silence of lost memories?
Marie remembers. Marie, called by her Croatian name, Marija, was eleven years old by Christmastime in 1941. Marie remembers because Mother, referred to by the rest of the Govert community as Mrs. Kulisich or as Nikla, baked a Croatian dessert on special occasions. And Christmas was a special occasion everywhere, including the Kulisich Ranch two miles south of Govert, South Dakota.
On Christmas Eve in 1941, Mitch Kulisich woke at 5 o'clock in the morning, the same as every morning. Mitch braced himself against the cold as he lit the kindling in the cook stove in the kitchen, the same as every morning. Today was special though, this he knew. After 25 years of marriage, Mitch and Nikla had no secrets. Today was Christmas Eve and Mitch knew Nikla was in a baking mood.
Nikla felt the mattress shift and then she sensed Mitch's absence. She lifted her arms and stretched in bed, smiling as she followed the familiar early morning noises ... the soft thud of Mitch's feet against the wood planks as he moved about the house, the groan of the door to the firebox as Mitch added wood to the stove, a scraping as Mitch lifted the bucket to fill the kettle with water, and then a firm thunk as the heavy kettle of water was seated on the cast iron stove to heat.
How Nikla loved this house! One big room where they all slept, an attic, plus a kitchen added as a sort of lean-to. The house was built four feet into an earthen bank and so was warmer in winter and cooler in summer. She was content here.
For the first 19 years of their marriage, they lived in what had been Mitch's homestead shack, a mile to the west. That house had grown into a bedroom, a living room, and a kitchen by the 1920s, but burned to the basement in the summer of 1935. Marie remembers her father sitting in the doorway of the granary after the fire, wiping his eyes with a big red handkerchief. They lost everything and then lived out the Depression cooking and sleeping in the cramped granary. Five years they lived in the granary.
Then, in June 1940, Mitch and Nikla moved their family to the old Kinney place, where this very day Nikla was stretching in bed. And now Nikla was just where she wanted to be, with a big kitchen about 12 foot by 20 foot, large enough for a work space and a separate area for a table and chairs where the family could sit together for meals, and where they could entertain neighbors who came calling.
Nikla came to America from Croatia in 1914, a teenager, traveling alone, speaking not a single word of English. She worked at a cousin's house in a Slav neighborhood in Lead, South Dakota, to pay off her fare from the old country. Two years after she arrived in a country foreign to her in every way, Nikla married this Slav man whose soft thudding footsteps now comforted her in the early morning hours. She moved from poverty in Croatia, to poverty in Lead, to poverty in Govert.
Their life was not without luxuries. Living in this house was one of them. And another was waking to a wash basin of hot water. Nikla had to wonder whether the husband of any other woman in Govert gave his wife, morning after morning, year after year, the gift of hot water in which she could dip her wash cloth. She knew she was among the very fortunate to have married a man who was so strong and capable, yet protective and gentle to her and their children.
Mitch was confident his favorite breakfast would be on the table this Christmas Eve morning. He just knew. Special days were like that - the surprise that no longer surprises, but still pleases. His eyes rested on Nikla where she stood over the wash basin of hot water, brushing a towel over her wet face, his gaze uninterrupted as she lifted her apron from the back of the chair where she left it the evening before. Nikla adjusted the apron, knotting the ties around her waist, as she moved toward the stove, and Mitch's eyes turned with her as she added coffee grounds to the open pot and put on cereal to cook. Corn meal mush. Mitch smiled, his confidence rewarded. Corn meal mush, bread and butter, and coffee. His favorite breakfast. This was indeed a special day.
After breakfast, Mitch hefted his heavy coat over his shoulders, fastening it close around him and, taking a deep breath, he plunged into the cold Harding County air. While Mitch checked the sheep, Nikla opened the door to the firebox to evaluate the wood still burning there. She nodded with approval at the extra wood piled by the stove where her son, Tony, left it the night before. Then Nikla pulled out her cutting board and her knife and set to roughly chopping dried prunes and dried apricots.
Nikla welcomed the familiar chopping rhythm. As she reduced the dusky prunes and nectar-colored apricots to chunks, Nikla gave thanks for the two men who sent the dried fruit to this place so far away. Mike Sentovich, the corner grocer in Slav Alley in Lead, deputized the mailman for his delivery, and Mitch's brother, Anton, sent sacks of prunes from California, big sacks weighed by the tens of pounds. Without the dried fruit, the Kulisiches would have had no fruit at all. Fresh fruit was not easily or inexpensively available to them.
Nikla piled the chunks of dried prunes and apricots in her big sauce pan and threw in a handful of raisins. She carried the sauce pan to the stove and added water from the kettle Mitch had set to boil on the stove earlier that morning. The dried fruit, now simmering in water, re-hydrated, plumping up by the minute.
While the texture of the dried prunes and apricots was transformed to a silky softness, Nikla finished her morning chores. She washed and dried the breakfast dishes and stacked them in the tall, free-standing cupboard. Feeling the satisfaction of a job well done, Nikla swept the wide wooden planks in the floor, and proudly put her house in order. And all the while, Nikla kept her eye on the simmering fruit so the pan would not boil dry.
When the fruit had softened and the sauce had thickened, Nikla removed the pan from the stove to the table. With her hands, Nikla smoothed the bibbed apron protecting her cotton dress. Nikla always wore a dress; trousers, jeans, and overalls were for men, and for her young tomboy daughter, Marija. Nikla's dress was a print, either yellow or green, her favorite colors. Nikla's apron was also a print, either yellow or green ... and, print against print, apron against dress, the effect was just right.
While the fruit cooled, Nikla paused from her housekeeping, paused from her baking, paused from the sights and sounds that made her life here on the ranch near Govert so comfortable and, for a moment, the peace in her domain cracked. The Pearl Harbor attack, now 18 days past, still gnawed uncertainly on her world. Nikla was sure Pearl Harbor was far away, maybe even as far away as her home in Croatia where she had not returned, and now would never return. Safety comes with distance, but a mother knows the distance can never be far enough when she has sons. Tony was 22, and John was 20. But it was Christmas Eve, and Nikla tended to the preparations in front of her, the same way she approached everything in her life.
With the fruit still cooling, Nikla entered into the great mystery of creating strudio. She pulled her mixing bowl and big mixing spoon from the cupboard, her rolling pin, and her baking pan, and set out the bag of flour, sugar, butter, eggs, and the small tin of ground cinnamon. And the can of nuts. And a muslin towel. Nikla was ready.
The towel was the key, and Nikla prepared that first. She spread the towel on the table and sprinkled the towel with flour. Then Nikla broke two eggs into her mixing bowl. She beat them well, until the color was lemony, the color of the yellow in her dress. She added flour to the beaten eggs, the amount depending on the eggs, as Nikla never used measuring cups. When the eggs and the flour clumped into a ball and was no longer tacky to the touch, Nikla patted the ball flat and, placing the disk on the floured towel, she picked up her rolling pin.
Nikla rolled the dough thin, into a circle. Then she spread the fruit over the surface of the dough, followed by what must have been a cup of chopped nuts. She dotted the entire surface with butter, and followed that with a sprinkling of sugar and of cinnamon.
And then Nikla rolled her strudio. Lifting the edge of the floured towel, Nikla gave the towel a quick tug and an upward jerk and the edge of the dough closest to her flipped over. Another tug and jerk of the towel, and then another, and the fruit covered dough turned upon itself again and again until one layer, then a second layer, and then a third layer of the dough formed a roll. The rolling is the mystery of the creation of what would be a stunning strudio.
All that was left now was to spread butter on the strudio and to bake her pastry creation in a medium oven, a temperature Nikla would judge by her senses - which we would describe as 350 degrees. When the strudio was lightly browned, after an hour in the oven, Nikla's dessert was ready for her Christmas table the following day.
Today 11-year-old Marija is 84, and her mother's strudio remains a favorite memory of childhood. She remembers Nikla's dough, when baked, had a crunchy texture, almost like noodle dough. As an adult, grown-up Marie baked her own version of strudio for her children, adding shortening to Nikla's recipe to make the crust more like pie dough. In this way the tradition of Nikla's Christmas strudio was passed to another generation.
The story about making Christmas strudio was to have ended here. You were to have scrolled down to a photo of a stunning strudio, a long, well-turned roll of fruit-filled pastry, browned to perfection, with a slice on a plate to show the symmetry of the spiral of pastry and fruit. With that in mind, my research plan for the story included baking both a strudel and a strudio. As it turns out, writing Marie's story about her mother's strudio was a lesson not to count my strudio before they are baked.
The first thing I learned in this culinary research is that strudio and strudel are not the same thing at all. Although both appear as rolled pastry, the strudel has a fruit-filled center with layers of pastry on the outside. In a strudio, the fruit is dispersed throughout the layers of pastry. In publishing Nikla's recipe, the St. Mary's Catholic Altar Society cookbook functionally translated "strudio" as "fruit roll".
You probably won't find the word "strudio" in a Croatian cookbook; Marie and I didn't. Still, Nikla was not the only Croatian woman to bake strudio. The Lales, another Croatian family with Govert ties, also celebrated special occasions with strudio. Whether the word originated in a community in Croatia or whether it originated in Govert, whether the inspiration was that of Nikla Kulisich or Pauline Lale, whether the word was recorded by history as strudio because of Nikla's Croatian accent or Marie's American ears, "strudio" is the word that survived.
Strudio and strudel are not the same, but similarities do exist. The same floured towel technique is used for rolling both a strudio and a strudel. The filling is the same. But for slicing the rolled pastry, not even Mitch would be able to tell the difference because, straight out of the oven, a strudio and a strudel appear identical. Had I not dipped my hands in the flour like Nikla did, had I not used the floured cloth to coax the dough into roll, I might have missed the probable answer to the origin of the word "strudio". Maybe the word really is the invention of immigrants. Not a strudel, but something like a strudel, so a strudio. Or, as my husband said, having cheerfully assumed responsibility as taste tester, "strudel-ish".
My research strudel turned out quite well. Nicely shaped, golden brown, an enviable result, perhaps beginner's luck. The appearance of my research strudio was, well, not so nice, certainly not stunning like Nikla's strudio. Russ, as official taste tester, reported to me, "I agree the strudio is not as pretty as the strudel, but the flavor is much better". I was surprised. And my taste tester continued sampling the strudio.
Like Russ, Mitch would have happily eaten the strudio I baked but, without a picture of a stunning strudio, my preconceived ending to the story fell into doubt. I could not in good conscience pass off a picture of the successful strudel as strudio. This was, after all, a story about strudio. So I did what any author with a rigid plan would have done: I considered making a second strudio.
And then the muse who is inside of each of us, if only we listen, nudged me. And, for once, I listened. Sometimes we have to be reminded that things are not always what they appear to be. The image of the strudio I had labored over so hopefully was not one I was willing to commit to the public eye, but the flavor was better than that of the more attractive strudel cousin. The strudio was not what it appeared to be. First, it wasn't a strudel at all and, second, my sad little strudio was a happy mash of pie dough and fruit. My muse smiled and went back to sleep.
Things are not always what they appear to be. And, just as my muse repeated to me ... things are not always what they appear to be.
Maybe this story isn't what it appears to be.
Consider this. Applying an economic standard, Nikla and Mitch appear to be poor.
But were they poor? Things are not always what they appear to be.
Maybe this story is not about strudio after all. Maybe this is a story about Nikla and Mitch.
MERRY CHRISTMAS FROM GOVERT, SOUTH DAKOTA!
This story is dedicated to Marie's great-grandchildren.
Listening to the wind blowing through the prairie grass. Kate
[Written with gratitude to Marie Kulisich for her memories.
The photograph in this blog post is used with the permission of Marie Kulisich. In the back row are John, Ann, and Tony. In the front are Marie, Mitch and Nikla.
Gratitude is owed to Robert Jerin, who has been kind to entertain my questions on all things Slavic since 2010. Robert has long been associated with the Croatian Heritage Museum in Cleveland, Ohio, and is the moderator of the Croatian Heritage and Genealogy page on Facebook. Robert was not familiar with a Croatian word like "strudio". Robert advised that the Croatian word for strudel is strudla (pronounced like shroodlah). He suggested the possibility that "strudio" may derive from dialect or family tradition.
The natural concerns of a mother for her sons following December 7, 1941 were to become very real for Nikla. The son she and Mitch named John Govert Kulisich joined the Marine Corp in 1942. John served as a Corsair pilot, and remained in the Marine Corps until he retired as a Master Sergeant in 1962. Tony (formally named Anton after his uncle) was deferred from service in World War II because his labor was necessary to maintain ranch operations.
Marie tells me that wood produces a faster, hotter fire. Wood was preferred in the kitchen for cooking and baking. The stove in the second room was fired with coal. Coal was good for banking the fire at night as the coal did not burn as fast. Paul Ellis operated a coal mine near the Slim Buttes, and he provided coal to most of the Govert community. The wood the Kulisich family burned in the cook stove came from the Slim Buttes, with Mitch and his sons collecting the wood in the fall. If wood were ever in short supply, a Govert family would use whatever fuel was available. Nikla might have baked her strudio in an oven fired by coal this Christmas Eve in 1941.
The cookbook published by the St. Mary's Catholic Altar Society in Newell, South Dakota, is undated, but Marie believes publication preceded 1973.]