More than 5,000 people gathered yesterday in Praha, a ghost town near Flatonia, for the 155th edition of an annual celebration that marks the traditional start of picnic stew season.
Like polka bands and cake walks, beef-heavy picnic stew is a fixture of the Czech festivals that unfold across Central Texas in the late summer and fall. The stew -- sometimes known as Schuster stew in honor of the caterer who devised the original recipe, which event organizers call top-secret -- is little known beyond the state's borders.
"I did a survey of stews from Kentucky down through Georgia, but I never heard of Texas stew," says South Carolina-based stew scholar Stan Woodward, whose oeuvre includes Burgoo!, Brunswick Stew and the celebrated It's Grits! "I'll have to look that up."
According to the stew crew who spent hours tending the cast-iron kettles at Praha, picnic stew's made with beef shoulder, potatoes, ketchup and tomato sauce. The kettles used to be warmed over open flames, but the festival's modern kitchen now houses 18 kettles, neatly boxed so the heat source is safely contained. An old-timer charged with stirring the stew with a paddle notes another change from the festival's early days: Grannies no longer queue up at the kitchen's back door to suck marrow from discarded stew bones.
Praha's stew team yesterday cooked nearly 3,000 pounds of stew to supplement the fried chicken, sauerkraut, green beans and potatoes, served at $8 a plate.
Woodward suspects the Texan stew could be kin to burgoo, the noted mutton concoction associated with German immigrants in Kentucky. Or, he theorizes, early stew masters might have found their inspiration in South Carolina hash.
"Stews are all very simple in the way they're cooked," Woodward says. "They're a way for farm families to socialize. I'd bring my meat and another farmer would bring his."
No matter the origins, Woodward adds, "stews are a central part of early American cuisine."