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Povitica is a mouthful, starting with its pronunciation. Even long-time customers of the indulgence at Strawberry Hill Povitica in Kansas City commonly mispronounce poh-va-TEET-sa.
Povitica is a Slavic word for a delightfully rich bread that can be found in Eastern Europe as well as in Eastern European immigrant communities in the U.S. The only bakery in the U.S. that bakes povitica year-round, however, is in the Kansas City suburb of Merriam, Kansas. The family that runs the bakery has the distinctly Irish name of O’Leary.
Yes, this story has a lot of explaining to do.
Metropolitan Kansas City sprawls across parts of two states. It is dissected in places by the Missouri River and the Kansas River, although nobody calls it the Kansas River. They call it the Kaw River. (That’s a whole ‘nother story.)
By the early 1900s, a small community of Slavic immigrants had settled on the Kansas side of the Kaw River where it meets the Missouri. As rivers tend to do, the Kaw and the Missouri flooded, destroying much of this community. So folks moved their homes and businesses to higher ground on top of a hill that was covered by wild strawberries.
Among those who moved to Strawberry Hill was the family of Daisy Uzelac of Serbia. Daisy had a fabulous recipe for povitica. Although it was a lot of work, Daisy would make loaves of povitica for the mail carrier, family priest, sick neighbors, and others in her life.
People started paying Daisy to bake bread, although she never really had a business license, a kitchen health inspection, or any of those pesky details.
Finally, in 1984, a few years after Daisy’s daughter Maryanne married an Irish immigrant from across the Missouri River, Harley O’Leary convinced the family to take povitica to the next level. That’s why an Irish name is on the business selling Slavic bread in the middle of America’s heartland.
For nearly 30 years, the intoxicating aroma of thousands of loaves of warm povitica, fresh from the oven, wafted through the Strawberry Hill neighborhood. Business was good. Eventually, the O’Leary family made the difficult decision to expand the bakery, even though it would require leaving the close-knit community that gave it life.
You’ll now find Strawberry Hill Povitica in a colorful, massive facility next to an automotive dealership in suburban Kansas City.
Photo Credit: Bruce N Meyer
The opportunity to taste povitica is presented as soon as you walk in the door. A large wooden table, positioned to great guests, is filled with free samples of all 16 flavors of Strawberry Hill povitica. Grab a cup of free coffee from a nearby pot. Feel free to bounce a little to the polka music that fills the room.
While munching on povitica samples, there’s plenty to admire: Old family photos, well-worn rolling pins, colorful strawberry insignias, and a collection of mixing bowls fill the shop. Through a large glass window you can peek into the bakery where dozens of bakers work through the various stages of making Strawberry Hill povitica. The fourth generation of O’Learys is usually mixing bread dough.
Photo Credit: Bruce N Meyer
On a typical day throughout the year, the bakery creates about 1,200 loaves. But as soon as Black Friday hits, that number jumps to about 5,000 a day. While grocery and specialty stores throughout Kansas City carry Strawberry Hill Povitica, the vast majority of loaves are sold direct to consumers. Other than to active duty military overseas during the holidays, it’s rare that Strawberry Hill Povitica ships anywhere other than the U.S.
The company produces 16 mouthwatering flavors including apple cinnamon, pumpkin spice, poppy seed, lemon cream, chocolate chip cream cheese, and strawberry cream cheese. The most popular flavor is English walnut. While Missouri produces a healthy crop of black walnuts, the O’Learys have learned that they’re simply too bitter for a good povitica. Instead, they use Missouri honey to sweeten English walnuts from California. Strawberry Hill Povitica is the 19th largest consumer of English walnuts in the world.
Most people enjoy a fat slice of warm povitica as a breakfast treat or dessert, served with a cup of hot coffee or tea. Some customers believe that the apple cinnamon flavor makes the best French toast ever. Others say it’s the best bread possible for a grilled cheese sandwich. Few complain about topping povitica with a scoop of ice cream. Order a few flavorful loaves and see what sweet combinations you can create.
In the sanctity of your own kitchen, you can pronounce povitica any way you like.
To learn more about the Eastern European community where Strawberry Hill Povitica originated, visit the Strawberry Hill Museum & Cultural Center at 720 North 4th Avenue in Kansas City, Kansas. Check the calendar for afternoon tea or special lunches, all including a slice of povitica.
Diana Lambdin Meyer is a southern Illinois farm girl who grew up in the Shawnee Hills, Illinois’ only viticulture area. Now based in Kansas City, Missouri, she and her husband Bruce travel the world in search of good stories and good photos. Follow their travels at mojotraveler.com. www.mojotraveler.com