Meet Rita, Eat Kolache

I’m so thankful to Rachel Held Evans for including my story about my mom, Rita Brdicka, in her Women of Valor series today. Please click here to go to Rachel’s blog and meet Mom, and then come back to see her in action in her kitchen.

Mom at 80 celebrating.
photo by Jessi Lueck

If you’ve known my mom any length of time, say a week or so, you’ve likely tasted her sweet, flaky fruit- and nut-filled yeast horns. She’s been making them for 60 years and is asked to bring them to almost every lunch, dinner, party, picnic, quilting bee, baby shower and neighborhood meeting she’s invited to. She’s also mailed dozens of batches to me, my siblings and our kids who aren’t fortunate to live nearby and eat them straight from the oven. She and the recipe were even featured in the Chicago Tribune a few years ago. They’re that good, and she mixes, rolls, fills and bakes them with ease.

The recipe came from her good friend and neighbor Rose Kolenich, who got it from her Czech neighbor. Our whole family calls them kolache, but that’s not technically what they are. Kolache are made from a sweet bread dough cut the size of a dinner roll, flattened out with a dollop of fruit or poppy-seed filling in the center, like a puffy Danish. Mom’s kolache have a similar filling, but the dough is flaky like pie crust and rolled up like a crescent roll.

But why am I trying to explain them when Mom can show you herself how it’s done? Craig captured her in action during a visit we had with her and Dad at the beginning of the month. Click here for the recipe, as featured in the Chicago Tribune (scroll past the herb and cake tips). The recipe calls for 2 cups of butter, but Mom uses half butter and half margarine. 

Summer Reading Spot

Off the Shelf

“What are you going to do with that?” I was surprised to hear the accusation in my voice as Craig pulled the book off the shelf.

“I was telling a friend about Anne Lamott today at work,” he replied, “and I want to loan her our copy of Traveling Mercies.”

“But that’s my copy.”

“Yeah, I know.”

“You want to loan her my copy of Traveling Mercies?”

“Yeah. Is there a problem?”

In fact, there was a big problem. Traveling Mercies belonged on the bookshelf, where I could see it, touch it, maybe even pull it out and read it. When I first read it in early 2000, I fell in love with this smart, funny, slightly neurotic woman with an unexpected and unapologetic love for Jesus. She brought lightness and grace to my faith, along with a freedom to not vote Republican. Her presence on the bookshelf was an emblem of discovery, and now Craig was ready to send her away.

We have 125 linear feet of bookshelves in our house (yes, we measured), all packed with books. Stacked up, the books would reach as high as a 10-story building. At least two-thirds of them are Craig’s. That’s 80 feet of art history, art technique, biographies, faith exploration and leadership principles. Couldn’t he find something of his own to loan his artist friend?

I didn’t know how to tell Craig what I was feeling. It sounded silly even to me, and I knew he wouldn’t understand. He takes a rather populist approach to our books. He pours himself into whatever he’s reading – with a pencil in hand and Post-it Notes beside him, he underlines, stars, notates, rereads, digests, even reads a passage to me if I’m so inclined – but once he’s finished, he happily lends it out, no matter how dog-eared, no matter if he sees it again. If he finds value from reading John Ruskin, Dr. Gerald May or Philip Yancey, he’s sure you will too.

I, on the other hand, approach my books with the reverence of a priest. I remove the dust jacket of a hardcover volume to keep it from being torn. The only writing on the pages is my name in the corner of the title page. I sit and read for hours. When I finish a book, I slide it back into the jacket and into its opening on the shelf. I imagine the author wants to become my best friend as much as she has already become mine. I want to see the book on the shelf, to feel the author’s presence in my life.

When I connect with a book, I connect with the author. I hold on. When Craig connects with a book, he uses it to connect with others. He lets go. And hopes someone is there to grab it. But I wasn’t ready to release Anne just yet.

“It’s such a powerful book,” I finally responded. “Why don’t we buy your friend her own copy?”

Bachelor Buttons

Elmer Fudd … without the Rifle

The following story is taken from Untangled: Straight Talk from Passionate Gardeners, a collection of stories and tips published this past spring by the Extension Master Gardeners of Johnson County, Kansas. Our publication team contacted (nagged?) our members for months to get their gardening advice. If you garden in the Midwest, I hope you’ll check it out.


My college-aged daughter told me recently that when she was young she found it strange that I loved bees and hated rabbits. The stinging insects she feared I saw as vital pollinators, and the furry rodents she loved I saw as plant-destroying foragers. I spend lots of energy every spring either cursing rabbits or erecting barriers to keep them from my tender plants. So, few would expect me to write an ode to rabbits. But one time, years ago, their incessant gnawing turned out to be an effective pruning technique.

That spring I had a patch of bachelor buttons that had reseeded from the previous year. The plants were several inches high when I went to bed one night and ¼-inch high when I awoke the next morning. Somehow they survived the assault and again shot up several inches. Again the rabbits nibbled them to the ground. Undaunted, the plants continued to grow, and by then the critters had graciously moved on to other garden pleasures. Within a few weeks the plants were fuller and stronger than they had ever been and yielded a bumper crop of perky blue cornflowers that summer.


The tomato shape is just as perfect as its various flavors. Growing them is a finer art than illustrating them.

Full-Flavored Enjoyment

It’s apple and pumpkin season, so naturally I want to devote one more post to tomatoes. Today I’m revealing the two most important practices I follow to ensure maximum tomato enjoyment, one of which I alluded to yesterday. The first is particularly timely now that locally grown tomatoes, here in the Midwest at least, are not as available.

  1. I don’t buy tomatoes at the grocery store. I’m just not all that fond of the taste of sawdust. Tomatoes at most stores were picked green and shipped across who knows how many states or how many oceans. I once learned in a lecture by a horticulture professor that some commercial tomato growers choose varieties more for their transportability than their flavor. I encourage you to enjoy the full flavor of tomatoes bought from local growers in the summer. The rest of the year experiment with other vegetables on your salads and sandwiches.
  2. I don’t refrigerate tomatoes. They lose their flavor and taste like sawdust, only colder. If your tomatoes are starting to develop age spots or attract fruit flies from sitting too long on the counter, make a giant salad and eat them up. Or saute them in olive oil with an onion, garlic and basil for a simple pasta sauce. Or eat them the best way possible, biting into one just like you would an apple. Just be sure to hold a napkin under your chin to catch the juice.

Three Tomatoes

A bumper crop from Lee’s garden. Obviously this is not from 2012 but from 2011 – from my photo archives. I love painting from my own photos.

Sweet Recognition

This past summer my eight tomato plants yielded eight tomatoes. Not eight on each plant. Eight total. Temperatures reached the mid-90s by mid-June and passed 100 before the month ended. There they stayed, between those two extremes, until Labor Day. It never rained. I stayed inside. My plants withered.

It’s the first time I’ve ever given up on my tomatoes. They’ve always been my greatest summer treat, thanks in part to my Tomato Friend at Family Tree Nursery.

If you only buy tomatoes at the grocery store, you might not realize that they come in way more colors than red and way more flavors than sawdust. They don’t even have to be round. When you decide to grow your own, you can grow pink, yellow, orange, purple and striped varieties. They can be tart, sweet, acidic and mild; oval, pear-shaped, pointed and squatty; as small as marbles and as big as dessert plates; juicy for eating fresh and meaty for using in sauces. And they can mature early, late and any time in between. For a decision-challenged person like me (my life motto is “It depends”), the choices are paralyzing.

So I was grateful one spring to be alone in the tomato rows of Family Tree Nursery with an employee watering seedlings. “What’s the difference between Sweet Million and Sweet 100?” I asked. “I’ve heard about these Husky Gold tomatoes. What do you think of them?” She patiently answered my questions and at least a dozen more as I wandered the aisles and returned for more help.

I eventually left with five types of tomatoes, along with various peppers she sold me on. Except during a brief stop I made for herbs a few weeks later, I didn’t see her anymore that season.

I returned the following spring, ready to wade through the rows of tough decision making. At least this year I had my plant tags from the previous year and knew where to get started. I spied my Tomato Friend, as she was about to be dubbed, again watering seedlings. “Oh, hi,” she said, as I walked by. “I was wondering if I would see you this year. We got in a new orange-colored cherry tomato that everyone’s excited about. It’s super sweet. I put one aside for you if you’d like to try it.”

I looked over my shoulder, sure she was talking to someone else. But I was the only one there. How had she remembered me and our brief conversation about cherry tomatoes 52 weeks earlier?

Of course I tried the new variety. And of course the Sun Gold she saved for me was my favorite tomato that summer. Come to think of it, it’s still the sweetest variety I’ve ever eaten.

Four Vases

With watercolor I have to paint by faith, not just by sight.

I apply my heart to what I observe in hopes that I can learn a lesson from what I saw.