Photo by Caitlin Abrams
Ján Gadzo of Andrej’s European Pastry
Ján Gadzo is an enormous fellow, a man-mountain, a tower of strong flesh, all of which gives a certain credence to the family legend that his ancestors were for many centuries guards for the princes and ladies of the House of Habsburg, a royal line that went extinct in the 18th century. I met the very big, but also very sweet Ján Gadzo, of Chisholm, at Good Earth in Roseville one cold night, where he ate curried shrimp (“Not too spicy!” he told the waiter) and told me about his current life, as guard to a different sort of royalty, his family’s Christmas cakes. Gadzo makes those Christmas cakes, called potica (poh-teet-sa) through his company Andrej’s European Pastry, and sells them all over the Twin Cities. They look plain today, just golden rolls, but they emerged from pitched battles over walnuts, in a bygone era.
That bygone era began in 1949, when he was born in the small village of Strážske, in what is now eastern Slovakia. It was a quiet town then—almost medievally quiet—just small cottages among the lowlands and a pair of churches in the middle of it all. Gadzo grew up in one of those cottages, a long single-floor structure that held a pair of bedrooms in the front, a large main room with a cooking hearth and a big table in the middle, then storage, stables, and the door to the yard where the chickens lived. Every morning Gadzo would gather a bit of grain for the chickens, head out with a basket for eggs, and collect any walnuts that had fallen from the single walnut tree overnight. “If you didn’t get there fast enough, there was a mean old man who would come with a hooked stick and steal your walnuts,” Gadzo remembers. If Gadzo beat the old man to the walnuts, he would carry them up to the cottage’s rafters to dry, where they were guarded by the family cat. All fall he would gather walnuts, a few at a time. This patient harvest was aimed toward one day alone: Christmas.
Running on a track toward the same destination were poppy seeds. Every spring, silvery white flowers would rise from the poppy patch, and eventually shrink to blue-silver seedpods the size of a child’s fist. In the fall, the seedpods would harden, the seeds inside loosening enough so that you could shake them like a rattle. On the coldest days, the children were allowed to get out the old wooden poppy-seed hand grinder. “Hour after hour—you could grind for six hours and maybe get a cup of poppy seeds,” says Gadzo.
As the days shortened, the children’s excitement sharpened: Soon, the poppy seeds and walnuts would be eaten. As the holiest day of the year approached, Gadzo’s mother began to prepare. She was a beautiful woman, he remembers, born rich, but married happily poor after the richest man in the village refused their arranged marriage because an illness made her deaf. She never heard again, but was a lifelong talented lip reader, and so devout she went to both of the village churches: the Greek Orthodox one and the Catholic one.
Just before Christmas she gathered the best butter, the finest flour, and the last eggs of the laying season. (Before electric lights in henhouses chickens stopped laying in December and didn’t start again until early spring, in time for Easter.) She took the children’s carefully ground poppy seeds and blended them with sugar. She combined the precious walnuts with sugar as well. On one table she rolled out an eggy yeast dough, thin as a sheet, on which she spread the poppy seed mixture and rolled it up. She rolled out another sheet of dough, spread the walnut mixture, and rolled it up as well. She always baked the precious breads, known in Slovakian as orechovnik (walnut roll) and makovnik (poppy seed roll), on December 23.
“On the 23rd, you mostly go nuts,” Gadzo remembers. “You sit there and that smell is killing you.” The cakes exerted a practically magnetic pull through the cottage, Gadzo says—those cakes, around which the whole year revolved, were finally here, though not to eat quite yet.
Most of the following day, Christmas Eve, was spent in church, except of course for the annual excursion into the woods with a hacksaw and sled, pulled by the family dog, to collect a Christmas tree. Once home, the pine tree practically filled the cottage’s great room. The family would clip candles in tin holders onto the branches and sing, all the while smelling the cakes. At night the family ate a pious meat-free dinner of bobalki, a sort of dough ball, sauerkraut, and a cabbage bean soup.
“We’d sit around the table till 10 or 11 o’clock at night, then go to midnight mass,” Gadzo says. “Oh, it was cold. Those churches never had heat. But the organ music was so beautiful, on a cold night, you felt like the stars could hear it.”
In the darkest of the dark night, the children tumbled into their beds. Then only a little while later, as the sun rose, “I would sit up in my bed and holler: ‘Poppy seed roll!’” Gadzo recalls. “My brother Joe would sit up and holler: ‘Walnut roll!’ We didn’t go anywhere all day. There were no presents in those days. Oranges, sometimes, but not presents. All day, we would eat that poppy seed roll and walnut roll. It was the best taste in the world.”
Then, Gadzo’s little village was pulled into all the brutality of the 20th century. Communist-forced collectivization came, and the family farm with its poppy fields was turned into a state chemical plant. Gadzo’s mother was forced to become a janitor. Gadzo became a cocky, hard-drinking teen. He eventually took up with dissidents and then, in trouble with the communists, took a night train to Yugoslavia and literally ran through the barbed wire on the Yugoslav border until he reached an Austrian gas station. A refugee camp, an American uncle, and a willingness to fight for the Americans in Vietnam eventually led Gadzo to New Jersey, where he became a heating and cooling systems engineer.
One fateful week in the brutally cold January of 1976, he was flown out to Hibbing, to work on the ventilation system. While there, he met the fine-boned Chisholm native, Jean Latick. “I fell deeply in love in the romantic Doctor Zhivago surroundings,” says Gadzo, becoming starry-eyed at the memories of snow-sparkling January outside the taconite mines in Hibbing.
Jean and Ján married, and for many years the Christmas cakes of his childhood were nothing but memories. Then in the 1980s, he thought of making them for friends. It became an all-consuming holiday project, taking over the couple’s Chisholm kitchen for days. Eventually they started baking them to sell, labeling the Christmas cakes “potica,” the name by which they were known to the Slovenian immigrants of the Iron Range. The cakes became so popular that the Gadzos moved production to Tobie’s Restaurant in Hinckley. Just this year they became available in the Twin Cities, to people who know nothing of Iron Curtain Slovakia, never mind pre-Iron Curtain sleepy village Slovakia.
They taste exactly the same as they did when he was a boy, says Gadzo. Every time he tastes one the memories come flooding back: the chickens in the yard, the walnuts from the precious tree, the loss of all the family land, and the sprint through barbed wire to the endless freedom and love of the Iron Range. The difference is that he never has to fight the old villager for walnuts—though sometimes he kind of misses the old jerk, especially at Christmas.