Hidden among the endless farms around the blink-and-you-miss-it town of Slovak on Highway 86 in Prairie County, the heavenly scent of homemade cinnamon rolls escapes from the Sts. Cyril and Methodius Church parish hall kitchen the moment the door is opened.
Inside, in its most basic definition, are a group of about 12 women and men dubbed the Slovak Bakers who get together a few times a year, usually in the summer and fall for three or so days a week to bake from scratch traditional Slovakian dishes with their own interpretations to sell for special orders or contribute to the church’s annual Parish Fish Fry in July. On May 28, Arkansas Catholic was greeted by 10 bakers.
However, what occurs outside the mixing bowls, the oven doors and the sinks where the pans are soaked and scrubbed is, as Vangie Baldwin explained, “evangelization with baking.”
“We feel like we all have to help generate monies for the church,” Virginia Lisko said. “We always talk about spiritual things too and things happening in our lives, times we felt the Holy Spirit was there with us.”
Since the late 1990s, the Slovak Bakers clad in their hair nets and aprons have been mixing up laughter and baked goods — including cream cheese rolls, long pecan rolls, kolaches and pinwheels — primarily for the annual parish fish fry, scheduled for Aug. 7 this year. However, the demand for the treats grew and now the bakers raise money for the parish’s Altar Society through individual orders. They also raised the money to refurbish the kitchen, support local charities like pregnancy resource centers and organize funeral dinners.
“We purchase cassocks, father’s vestments, altar linens, candles, the wine, anything in the sanctuary,” Lisko said.
They raise an estimated $5,000 to $8,000 a year.
For the fish fry, they’ve been able to contribute about $1,000 to $2,000 that goes to the church.
People who order the baked goods from the surrounding cities of Stuttgart, Des Arc, Hazen and even as far away as Little Rock all learned of the bakers by word of mouth, Lisko said. It depends on the dish, but usually, the bakers make 15 to 20 dozen of a dessert. Their Hobart mixer is made to hold 36 cups of flour, Lisko said, and often does.
This time, they were baking apricot and pecan kolaches for a wedding reception at St. Edward Church in downtown Little Rock. They also decided to whip up 24 dozen cinnamon rolls for current and future orders.
It’s a great cause and ministry, but the friendships are the most rewarding.
“We have as much fun as we do work,” said Roberta Uhiren, dubbed “Mother Superior” by the bakers.
“Because she bosses us,” Shelia Bednar said, with loud laughing approval from the bakers. “When they all get to talking, I say, ‘Get to work,’” Uhiren laughed.
Uhiren usually shows up about an hour or so ahead of the group. Today, it was around 7:30 a.m.
“I’m an early riser and Tommy (Strabala) usually meets me,” to get everything set up for the day, Uhiren said.
The church community of about 100 “envelope holders” has roots in the heritage of the Central European country of Slovakia, Lisko said.
When immigrants from east European countries like Slovakia and Poland came to America, they brought with them recipes and a desire for hard work. In the Arkansas community, the immigrants started farming that still exists today.
Francis Chudy, in charge mostly of the clean-up, and her brother-in-law Connie Chudy are the only full-blooded Slovakians in the baking crew. Many others have married into Slovak families.
“I baked all the time,” Francis Chudy said of her childhood, making traditional dishes like holubky (stuffed cabbage). “I really enjoy coming and helping people. I’ve been coming just about two years. I just help them fill everything and clean stuff.”
Connie Chudy carefully squeezed the apricot filling into each square of his flattened dough, making sure to create the perfect kolache, a sweet Central European dessert. But before he’s done, the ladies have grabbed ahold of his homemade muscadine wine.
“Well, I brought two instead of one because I know the one didn’t last very long,” Chudy said.
Chudy is joined by other men, including Joe Berg and Tommy Strabala.
“I retired and I came out here the first Friday service and she caught me,” Strabala said of Lisko and Uhiren. The group attends Mass and breakfast the first Friday of the month.
“They said, ‘Since you don’t have nothing to do, do you want to come out here and bake?’ I thought I could do the manly thing, help with all the lifting and stuff. I came in and they gave me an apron and a rolling pin. It’s hard to say no to a lady when they ask for help.”
While the bakers stand at the long steel counters sprinkling flour, rolling the dough, sipping their wine and laughing, Catherine Bednar, who is Lutheran, sits quietly at a nearby table cutting up dried apricots. She often cooks lunch for the group and without her, the desserts would be nothing more than dough shells.
“She cleans all the pecans,” Lisko said.
And how many pecans?
“Open the freezer,” Bednar asked Lisko, who opened the door to easily thousands of pecans collected mostly from area pecan trees by community members.
Ask the group about any mishaps in the kitchen and the laughter gets louder as the memories start pouring out.
“We have to be together when we say that,” Lisko said, summoning to the ladies, “Hey girls, come here she wants some funny things we’ve had happen while baking.”
After all, when the bakers spend about eight hours a day in the kitchen, there’s bound to be stories. Bednar and Lisko explain that they no longer pull 17-hour shifts like they did “when we were younger.” “We’d stay here until 11 or 12 at night waiting for things to cook,” years ago, Lisko said.
One time Lisko carefully placed the containers of cinnamon rolls in the back of her car, only to be told by her granddaughter as they were driving away that the back door to her Ford Expedition was open.
“There were cinnamon rolls laying on the highway,” but luckily, they landed face-up in their containers, Lisko said. “We picked them up and delivered them.
Still, Vangie Baldwin can top that.
“We were mixing ingredients … I had already put the eggs in one batch and Roberta comes and puts more eggs in and we wound up with a double batch, it was all gooey,” Baldwin said, with Roberta adding, “It was coming up over the mixer.”
“But they came out good,” Lisko said.
Then, besides the charred baked goods and the spills, a most important lesson was learned, Bednar said, “One thing that we found out is that everything can be fixed except when you get too much salt. The scariest thing is getting the salt and the sugar mixed up.”
It’s just a glimpse of the laughs the group has come to love and wish more people would join in on. The youngest member is Susan Lisko, at 51, to the oldest, Francis Chudy, at 89.
“It’s open to anybody in the parish that can come, but most of the young women won’t come,” “Mother Superior” said bluntly. “We’re not a sorority.”
“We just tell everyone come spend an hour or whatever needs to be done,” Virginia Lisko added. “Every little bit helps.”
Pastor Father Phillip Reeves, who stopped by the kitchen to feast on the giant juicy cheeseburgers courtesy of Connie Chudy, said he’s been at the parish for two years and this group is an important part of the community.
“The best thing is it gives them the opportunity to come together and socialize,” Father Reaves said. “If I had cinnamon rolls to eat every day I’d have them for breakfast” despite being a diabetic, he joked.
The bakers sell their Slovakian recipes in a cookbook titled “Simply Slovak.” The recipes are out there, but the spirituality of fellowship and baking with lifelong friends can only be experienced by stopping by the parish hall.
“It’s just about getting to know each other. It was really amazing when we started getting together like this, it’s the people that you’ve known for years and you sit right behind people in church for 20 years or in a Sunday school class with them, but once you get in a group like that sharing your experiences you get to feeling close,” Bednar said.
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