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Chisholm baker keeps potica tradition alive
By Chris Julin
Minnesota Public Radio
December 28, 2001

The holidays are potica time. Up on the Iron Range, the pastry called potica is a holiday treat. Eastern European grandmothers have made it for generations. But it's hard work, and not many people make it at home any more. A few bakeries still make potica by hand, the way the grandmothers used to. Andrej's European Pastry in Chisholm is one of them.

If you don't know potica (pronounced puh-TEET-suh), here's what you're missing. Imagine buttery pastry dough, rolled so thin you can see light through it. That's covered with a layer of brown sugar, spices, and walnuts. Then it's rolled into a small log-shaped loaf, and baked. Each thin slice of potica is a spiral of pastry and moist, sweet filling. Most people who taste potica like it a lot.

Potica is a spiral of pastry and moist, sweet filling.
Potica is a spiral of pastry and moist, sweet filling. Most people who taste potica like it a lot.

On a recent weekday morning at Andrej's European Bakery in downtown Chisholm, customers were picking up kolaches and strudel - but the real draw seemed to be the potica.

Arlene Lorich was buying four loaves. She knows how to make potica. She learned from her mother-in-law, years ago. It took them all day to make a few loaves. And that's why Arlene Lorich is buying potica to give to her grow-up sons.

"It's too hard," she says with a chuckle. "I've tried it. Mine don't come out that good."

Jan Gadzo laughs, too. He's standing behind the counter in a white apron, and a big, proud smile. He runs Andrej's European Pastry. He named it after his father and his son. From this little storefront on Chisholm's main drag, Gadzo and his two employees crank out 240 loaves of potica a day.

Gadzo says you can't roll out real potica dough in a machine. He says when potica dough is right, it's wet and gooey, and it jams mechanical rollers. So Gadzo and his workers roll all their dough by hand.

Jan Gadzo rolls out potica dough
Chisholm baker Jan Gadzo insists on rolling potica dough by hand for the proper consistency.
(MPR Photo/Chris Julin)

"Yes, this is very, very labor intensive," he says in a Slovakian accent. "But after first 10,000 poticas you get so used to it. It basically takes me about two minutes to make one."

If you want to know how Gadzo came to be making potica in Chisholm, Minnesota, it's a good idea to pull up a chair.

The story starts with Gadzo as a little boy in eastern Czechoslovakia. He harvested walnuts from a tree in the yard. His mother used them to make potica. Only, it wasn't called potica in Slovakia. The name potica is an Iron Range thing.

"In Slovak we call this orechovnik," he explains. "O-R-E-C-H means 'orech.' Orechovnik means 'walnut roll.'"

Gadzo's story moves on to his teenaged years in the 1960s. He tried to escape from Czechoslovakia twice. Both times, he ended up in prison. The authorities beat him and threatened to kill him. On his third try, he snuck out of the country, and eventually found his way to an uncle in New York. He became an engineer. He worked on heating systems at big industrial sites, and that brought him to a mine on the Iron Range.

Before long, he met a woman from Chisholm. That's his wife Jean. They settled down in Chisholm about 20 years ago. When they were newlyweds, they visited Jan's aunt in Pittsburgh, and she served them some of her orechovnik. Jean Gadzo recognized it right away as the potica she'd grown up with on the Iron Range, and she declared it the best she'd ever eaten. When they got back to Chisholm, Jan decided he'd make his wife some potica.

"So I called my auntie in Pittsburgh," he remembers. "I knew how to make it but I needed the English translation and recipe and stuff like that. So, she just sent it to me. I doctor it up a little bit, my way."

Gadzo says his wife liked his potica. "And all of a sudden," he says, "all her friends and everybody come, and say, 'This is good!'"

Gadzo entered his potica in a local township fair, winning a blue ribbon. He started selling potica during the holidays. He and Jean did the baking at their house in the evenings. The demand for their potica grew, and a few years ago they turned their porch into a commercial kitchen. But the business kept growing.

Jan quit his day job a few months ago and opened the bakery in downtown Chisholm. His son Andrej, a college student in St. Paul, is working in the bakery over the holidays. He's been helping his dad market potica in the Twin Cities. Andrej has spent the last few weekends at Lunds and Byerly's giving out potica samples. He says potica sells itself.

Gadzo's son, Andrej, helps with potica production
Gadzo's son, Andrej, helps with potica production during the holidays.
(MPR Photo/Chris Julin)

"At least half the people who come by my table have heard of it, or remember it," Andrej says. "Some people just take a sample, have never tried it before, their eyes go about the size of dinner plates, and they grab a potica."

Success has its costs.

Jan Gadzo says he can't make enough potica to keep up with demand, but he doesn't think he can afford to hire more full-time staff. He could he start using machines, but then the potica won't be the same. He says he'll sit down in January, after the holiday rush, and try to decide what to do.