Volga Germans bring wheat, cuisine to Kansas

By Kirsten Lee

America the Beautiful, written in 1893 by Katherine Lee Bates, sings of amber waves of grain. Upon driving through Western Kansas in June, many sightseers will see field after field of this amber wheat. Wheat grown in Kansas has a rich background filled with stories of heritage and multiple settlements.

Wheat is not native to the Kansas plains and valleys. What is this story?

The railroad company used posters such as this to recruit immigrants to Kansas.

It begins in the 1700s when 25,000 German settlers moved into Russia along the banks of the Volga and Karaman rivers. The settlers were first attracted to Russia by Czars who promised independence and exemption from military services. They became known as Volga Germans. Their close-knit colonies flourished, maintaining strong German customs and language within the Russian prairie lands.

Volga Germans came to the United States in 1874 after much encouragement from Carl Bernhard Schmidt, a German-speaking Santa Fe railroad agent, and  the promise of farmland and free living accommodations from the Santa Fe Company which would assist them in settling in Russell, Rush, and Ellis counties.

After the Russian Czar Alexander II withdrew his promises, the German settlers were looking for such an opportunity as this, and took it.

Bring Russian plains agriculture to Kansas

With this move to Kansas, Volga Germans brought their years of experience in Russian prairie agriculture and expanded the wheat production exponentially in Western Kansas.

The Kansas Historical Society states that Volga Germans “In 1874 alone added an estimated one million dollars to the Kansas economy.” In June 1902 the Kansas City Star remarked upon their success saying, “They refute the statement so often heard in Kansas that a farmer cannot make money growing wheat alone. They have grown nothing except wheat for twenty-five years and are prosperous.”

Janice Dinkel, a professor of social work at Kansas State University, who shares this Volga German heritage and the desire of carrying on their traditions, stated that “with this mass production of wheat, many Volga recipes show flour and grains as a staple ingredient.”

Dinkel also stated that it was a norm to see larger families in Roman Catholic Volga communities. “Everything had dumpling, bread, or flour in it. This really allowed it to stretch and feed the many mouths of the family,” she said.

One recipe that Dinkel remembers is called Pudding and Dumplings, which she found to be “chocolate pudding served over dumplings.” “It was a Friday staple for my ancestors. Yuck! But it was cheap and since they couldn’t have meat on Fridays, it was what worked,” she said.

Professor keeps family food heritage alive

There were several other recipes Dinkel brought to the table. One was a family recipe for bierocks. Dinkel said that her Aunt Butch bequeathed the recipe to her and now it her responsibility to make them for every Christmas.

She said that one Christmas she tried something different with the recipe and her whole family knew it. “Believe me, they rejected it. I can’t get away with anything different. They are just that much of a tradition in our family.”

Another recipe Dinkel described was one for galuskies, also known as cabbage rolls.

In her family, these rolls are made for every Thanksgiving, which is once more a strong tradition that can’t be changed or knocked. These recipe calls for steamed cabbage leaves filled and rolled with a mixture of hamburger, pork, rice, onion, garlic, salt and pepper. After being prepared, the rolls marinate in a crock with sauerkraut for about an hour and a half.

“These rolls do not have the flour base, but they were known for being an inexpensive meal that still carried on the strong German ties of sauerkraut, pork, and hamburger,” she said.

Festivals dot the landscape

If one is not advantageous enough to try out one of the many Volga German recipes from scratch, one way for Kansans to get the taste of this delectable food heritage is to visit Hays Kansas for their Midwest Deutsches Oktoberfest, not to be confused with the Fort Hays State University Oktoberfest.

The Midwest Deutsches Oktoberfest Associates started this separate festival due to the digression from the original celebration of Volga German heritage, to a celebration surrounding the homecoming festivities of Fort Hays State University.

The Midwest Deutsche Oktoberfest is an annual celebration of the Germans from Russia heritage of Ellis and Rush County. Admission is free, and is held at Ellis County Fairgrounds. Festivities include abundant varieties of food booths, refreshments, beer, crafts, and activities for guests alike to enjoy.

As they state on their website www.midwestdeutschefest.com, “The immigrants who settled in this area during the 1870’s used recipes that evolved from Germany to Russia and now America.  Although some of the ingredients and names for the foods they prepared varied from village to village, if you had eggs, flour, potatoes and cream, then you could always make a delicious meal!”

Bierocks Family Recipe
From Janice Dinkel

For dough
2 ¼-ounce packages  yeast (proof with some of the water and a little sugar)
6 – 6 ½  cups flour
½ cup sugar + 2 tablespoons
2 cups warm water
2 eggs, well beaten
½ teaspoon salt
½ cup butter + 2 tablespoons, melted

Combine proofed yeast, 2 cups flour, sugar, water, eggs, salt and butter. Then add 4 to 4 ½ cups flour to make a sticky dough. Knead and let rise 45 minutes or until double.  Roll out a little thicker than a pie crust.  When ready to fill, cut in 3-to 5-inch squares.

“The filling consists of hamburger, finely chopped onions, cabbage, salt and pepper.  Sometimes I add garlic salt.  Cook all of this until the hamburger is browned and the vegetables are very soft.  Drain, drain, drain – filling can’t have much fluid in it when you put on dough,” Dinkel said.

Bake at 375 for about 20 to 22 minutes (golden brown).

Galuskies Family Recipe
From Janice Dinkel

1 large cabbage
1 pound ground beef, 85/15 lean to fat ratio
1/3 pound ground pork
1 cup rice
1 medium onion chopped fine
Garlic salt, to taste
Black pepper, to taste
2 pounds sauerkraut

Steam cabbage until outer leaves are soft.  Remove from pot and cut out core.  Remove soft leaves and return to pot to soften inner leaves, continue process.  Drain leaves.

Combine beef, pork, rice, onion, garlic salt and pepper. Shape into ovals.  Wrap ovals tightly in cooked cabbage leaves.

Put sauerkraut in large crockpot. Add cabbage rolls and cook until meat is done and rice is cooked, about 1 1/2 hours.