From Beer Barrel Polka To The Altuve Polka, The Polka Is Still Very Much Alive And Well Today

This article by Ray Spitzenberger first appeared in IMAGES for October 24, 2019, East Bernard Express, East Bernard, Texas.

            During my growing-up years, German and Slavic polka music was so much a joyful part of my life that I suspect the love for polkas must be in my DNA! Although the polka was “invented” in Bohemia, it became extremely popular among Germans, Czechs, Moravians, Wends, and Poles, throughout Europe, and immigrants brought the popularity to America. Just like in Czech-American families, in Texas Wendish families, you could always find an accordion, and several kids who could play it by ear.

            Unfortunately, I was not one of those kids, but I did learn to play the trombone in high school and was a member of the Giddings High School Band in 1949 or 1950 when we were invited to play polka music at the Serbin Church and School Picnic. I do remember our playing for about an hour in a gazebo on the Picnic grounds, and I remember playing the immensely popular (in the 1940’s) “Beer Barrel Polka.” There were three or four people standing around the gazebo watching and listening to us, and two of them were my parents. Obviously we were not the best polka-playing group that ever played for the Serbin Picnic.

            Nevertheless my brief polka-playing experience began a life-long passion for polka music, which I hid during my early college years, because loving ethnic polka music was not very “groovy” among my drama, art, and music major friends who were totally into progressive jazz and classical music. Not too many years later, freed from the “ashamed-to-be-from” and “ashamed-to-really-like” phase of my pseudo-sophisticated years, I began to enjoy, flaunt, and glory in my ethnicity, especially the love for old-time polka music.

            So, naturally, as an Astros fan who loved the polka, I was taken by Polish Pete’s smash hit (in Texas anyway), “The Altuve Polka,” honoring the Astros second baseman, Jose Altuve, in 2017 when Altuve first became a baseball hero in Houston. Polish Pete wrote another piece, I think in 2018, entitled “I Love Those Houston Astros,” completing a full-length recording in 2018. Played by “The Polka? I Hardly Know Her Band,” polka music and baseball played well together. So, Saturday night, when Altuve stunned the crowds by hitting that homerun which takes the ‘Stros into the World Series, “The Altuve Polka” was played and posted on Facebook

with even more oomp-pa-pa than in 2017.

            Naturally I have added “The Altuve Polka” to my collection of fun polkas to listen to and brighten up my day. There have been so many, many joyful-sounding polkas over the years. There were lots of great polka bands in the 1940’s when I was growing up in Lee County, Texas, and, as a teenager, I danced to their music at the SPJST Hall in Dime Box, though I was kind of a wall flower who didn’t dance very well. I loved music, I loved polkas, and I loved to dance in spite of my hindrances to having fun.

            The most famous polka band in the 1940’s was the Joe Patek Orchestra, originally called the Patek Band of Shiner. They were famous for “The Shiner Song” and “Beautiful America” (“Krasna Amerika”). Joe Patek’s recording of the “Beer Barrel Polka” sold more than a million copies. So polka music was alive and well in America in those days!

            And still is. Today, there is the Shiner Hobo Band, following in the footsteps of the Patek Band of Shiner. And there is the Moravian Polka Band of Ennis, Texas, founded in 2009 by seven high school students. They played for the recent Wendish Fest in Serbin, Texas, in September, and were much admired by the huge crowds attending the Fest. And there are many, many more that I have read about in the Texas Polka News.

            I have to end this with my favorite polka musicians, The Dujka Brothers, who were recently inducted into the South Texas Polka Hall of Fame, and whose latest recordings are “Twenty Five Years Making Tracks” and “On St. John Road.” Next month, the Dujka Brothers will be playing for a Royal Caribbean Cruise, which sales from Galveston on November 17. I am proud to say that I knew them when, lol.

            It gives me great joy to report that polka music is still alive and well and played and loved by the younger generation!

-o-

Ray Spitzenberger is a retired teacher and pastor, and the author of a book, It Must Be the Noodles.

Cotton-Picking Joy In the Good Old Days

This article by Ray Spitzenberger first appeared in IMAGES for October 17, 2019, East Bernard Express, East Bernard, Texas.

            Several weeks ago when I took an infrequent drive-around-our-farming-area, I noticed that the fields were white with cotton, and I’m sure that the Farmers Co-Op Gin in East Bernard and the Tavener Gin were open for business.  I always get a little nostalgic around cotton-picking time, because both sets of my grandparents were small cotton farmers in Dime Box, and I have, believe it or not, some very happy memories about picking cotton.  By hand.

            Whenever I have reminisced about the good old days in the 1930’s and 1940’s, I have observed the contrast between picking cotton then and now, often wondering why we would pick all of my Grandpa Zschech’s cotton by hand.  Eventually I learned that it wasn’t just that my grandfather wasn’t affluent enough to buy a mechanical cotton picker, but also the fact mechanical cotton pickers were not manufactured until 1949, and were few in number until 1950.  By then, my maternal grandfather was getting ready to retire from farming. 

            My cotton picking days came in the early 1940’s, peaking in 1944 and 1945, a few years before John Daniel Rust invented the first mechanical cotton picker.  The local John Deere place sold tractors but not cotton pickers, a good thing, otherwise I might not have known the pleasure of picking by hand.

            In the 1940’s, the older farmers, like both my maternal and paternal grandparents, were full-time cotton growers, the younger families were often part-time cotton farmers, with the men making extra money working for the railroad.  While my parents raised everything from pigs and chickens to corn and maize, my grandparents grew cotton for their main income.  One of my uncles ran a gin in Old Dime Box.

            In those days, and in those small farming operations, just about everybody worked for everybody else, as the farms were rather small, the soil was relatively poor, and nobody expected to make more than a living.  My parents, brother, and I would pick cotton for my maternal grandparents, my father joining us after getting off work with the railroad.  When you picked by hand, you were paid by the number of pounds you picked, and since there were no mechanical pickers, you could always earn extra money during cotton harvest.

            Men, women and children picked alongside one another, sometimes the men and women competing to see who could pick the most, but they didn’t know until they got to the weigh-station.  Sometimes, we kids would sit on the adults’ long, long sacks, and cackle with laughter when they would pull and pull on their sack and wonder why it was stuck.  We also took what I considered a picnic lunch, to eat under the trees along the perimeter of the cotton patches, and, of course, water jugs.  The common fare, which we kids absolutely loved, was chopped-up smoke-dried sausage and smoke-dried beef mixed with onions, mustard and vinegar, — about the only lunch you could take in the Texas heat and it not spoil.  As rural Texans, we were all used to the relentless sun, but at night, our backs and knees and hands would ache.

            In the cool of the evening, spending the night with my maternal grandparents, I always enjoyed “carding” cotton, a really delightful change of pace from picking.  You see, for those of you who don’t know because you let the machines pick your cotton, un-ginned cotton has seeds in it and it’s rather clumpy; thus in order to get the bags of un-ginned cotton ready for Grandma’s quilts, my brother and I were enlisted to “comb” or “card” the stuff in the rough, and pull the seeds out.  The carders consisted of two rectangular paddles, each with wire teeth on one side.  You pulled the cotton between the two carders and refined it until it looked a little bit like cotton candy.  It had to be refined and seedless in order for it to be used as a batting between the pieced top of the quilt and the solid sheet of cloth serving as the bottom.  With the small needle my grandmother used for quilting, un-carded cotton would have been very difficult to quilt through.

            By the time I was twelve, I knew everything there was to know about cotton, or so I thought.  With one cotton gin in Old Dime Box and another in New Dime Box, the very air we breathed during ginning time in Dime Box was laced with cotton fiber.  It was so much a part of my life that when I used to tell my brother on-going, to-be-continued, bed-time stories which I made up, they were about cotton.  I even gave the series a name, “The Cotton Kids.”  My brother loved my stories about the cotton fields.  I’ve always been a story-teller.

-o-

Ray Spitzenberger is a retired teacher and pastor, and author of a book, It Must Be the Noodles.

Big Cakes, Cupcakes, and . . . Finally, Mug Cakes

This article by Ray Spitzenberger first appeared in IMAGES for October 10, 2019, East Bernard Express, East Bernard, Texas.

            One thing I never learned how to make was a cake. No doubt because I learned to cook in the 1940’s during World War II, when sugar and flour and many other goods and commodities were rationed by the government. Each household was allowed a certain number of coupons per month for each of the rationed items, and when you used up your ration stamps, you did without the rest of the month. The rationing began with a few items, but more were added as the War progressed. At various times, such things as sugar, coffee, meat, flour cheese, milk, canned goods, shortening, cooking oil, eggs, dried fruit, syrup, jellies, etc., required stamps.

            My family had the advantage of living in a rural area where we had chickens and cows and could produce our own eggs and milk, though not sugar and flour.

            While my mother could allow my brother and me to attempt to cook such easy dishes as goulash, which could be thrown together with leftovers, she couldn’t dare waste sugar, flour and shortening on our cooking and baking attempts. Like other women during the War, she learned to create cakes and pastries without using up scarce commodities. For those who lived in cities, “War Cake” recipes were especially necessary, and many ladies made milk-less, egg-less cakes, — such as the “World War II Ration Cake,” which could be made with brown sugar, water, raisins, and cinnamon. These “Ration Cakes” could be very tasty, and people came to love them and continued to bake them even after the War.

            The “Victory Cake,” the “Crazy Chocolate Cake,” and the “Weary Willie Cake” were very popular, though the Victory Cake did require one egg. The Crazy Chocolate Cake called for no milk, no eggs, and no butter. Believe me, nobody used cake mixes in those days!

            Having a sweet tooth, I have always loved cakes, all kinds, — fruit cakes, lemon cakes, white cakes, carrot cakes, angel food, etc., etc. So naturally during my bachelor years, I did try to learn to bake cakes long after the War but produced enough flops to give up on the idea. And I’m talking about baking cakes using cake mixes. In my early attempts, the cakes always broke into a dozen pieces when I tried to dump them out of the pan, or the dough didn’t rise, or it rose too much. Gave up for good . . . until recently when I discovered “Mug Cakes.”

            First of all, let me make it quite clear that there is a big difference between a “Mug Cake” and a “Cupcake.” A cupcake is as complicated to make as a big cake, only you use a muffin tin rather than a cake pan.

            The cupcake was invented in the United States in 1796, probably by Amelia Simmons. It became very popular in the 1800’s, because it took less time and was not so easily burned in hearth ovens as were big cakes. But by my standards, cupcakes were still difficult to do, and I wouldn’t have to make them in a brick oven in a stone-lined fireplace. Cupcakes were just a smaller version of big regular cakes.

            The first inkling I got about a “Mug Cake,” as they are now called, to be differentiated from a “Cupcake,” came as a gift to us from a friend, called “A Cup of Cake.” It consisted of a package of cake ingredients the person had mixed together herself. You spooned some of the mix into a cup, added water or milk, and microwaved it for a minute.

            Well, I couldn’t figure out how to replicate the mixture after we used it all up, so life went on without such easy little cakes. A month ago, I saw on Amazon.com something advertized as a “Mug Cake.” What an awesome discovery! You could buy a box of four packages of mix, choosing from several options, — a chocolate, a lemon, and a carrot cake. Pour the package in a mug. Add three teaspoons of water or milk. Microwave for one minute, ten seconds, and you’ve got one of the best little cakes in America! I now make cakes, finally!

-o-

Ray Spitzenberger is a retired teacher and pastor, and author of the book, It Must Be the Noodles.