My visit to Duquesne this year lasted 4 nights and 5 days, however they seemed to rush by in a matter of hours. My mind produced destinations I wanted to visit faster that I could keep up with. In between the time I was visiting my Aunt Peg and other relatives, I managed to carve out time to explore some old haunts, connect with old friends and even meet and speak to a Duquesne legend who is an area guru when it comes to “all things Duquesne.”
It was so heartening to know that some hunky traditions are still observed in the area. On Tuesday, I visited my cousin Jeff Volk and his wife Helen (nee’ Hruska) on Eliza Street in West Mifflin. A “Bobalki-fest,” for lack of a better description, was occurring at the time of my visit and this event definitely constitutes a tradition.
Bobalki (also spelled bobalky, babalki, babalky) are Slovak baked balls of dough. They can be served sweet with ground poppy seeds and honey, or savory with sauerkraut and onion. They are a favorite for Slovak Christmas Eve – Velija and every year, I looked forward to this Christmas Eve treat!
As I entered their home, I immediate was transported back to “Christmas Past,” just like Ebenezer Scrooge. I was hit with the unmistakable fragrance of yeast working its magic on the dough they were using to make the bobalki. I remember going into my Aunt Mary’s house on Martin Street and being hit with the same smell. She would be in the middle of baking her poppyseed rolls and nut rolls for the Holidays. The dough would be in a huge bowl on the kitchen counter, and a dish towel would be draped over the top of the bowl to keep in the warmth in order to help it rise.
When I entered Helen’s kitchen last week, she and two of her friends we completely focused on preparing and baking the bobalki balls. They had been baking since 9 a.m. that morning and had already prepared over 12 pounds of the tiny loaves. They had a goal of a total of 35 pounds of flour before they would call it quits for the day. Not only were they preparing the bobalki balls for their own family’s Christmas celebration, but they would distribute all of the bags throughout their extended family as well.
With assembly line precision that Henry Ford himself would be proud of, each person methodically completed their assigned task. Necessity was the mother of invention when it came to cutting the proper amount of dough to be baked into the bobalki loaves. One of the ladies discovered that an empty prescription medication bottle formed the perfectly sized dough ball for the recipe. One person was preparing and kneading the dough, one lady was rolling the dough and the last person cut and arranged the raw dough on the baking sheets. Each person’s job would shift at this point, and they would begin the baking process with same precision as the dough prep process. Cookie sheets were flying in and out of the oven, timers were being set and reset to assure proper baking times and one person was packing and sealing the final product once the baking was completed. Then, the process would begin all over again as another batch was started.
As much as the precision of the team impressed me, the entire visual impact of the scene impressed me even more. It was the epitome of “Home for the Holidays!” A toasty warm kitchen, family and friends gathered together baking for the holidays, Christmas carols playing on the radio, the heavenly smell of baking bread, even their little dog running around the kitchen quickly gobbling up the occasional little roll that would drop to the floor. Yet again, a picture perfect scene for Norman Rockwell to have painted for the Post. Thank you Helen and Jeff for that wonderful memory.
The following day, I had the pleasure of meeting an old friend, Denise Hudak-Ventura, for coffee and conversation, as well as being introduced to a new friend, the Duquesne guru I had mentioned earlier. On my way to meet Denise, I drove past the Duquesne Post Office on North First Street. There were several people making their way either up or down the front steps of the building. It reminded me of another Christmas event of my youth. Do you remember when our parents mailed out large amounts of Christmas cards? My mom and dad would mail them to every aunt and uncle (even though we would visit them during the holidays), to every cousin, neighbor, friend, distant relative, every doctor we went to, the nuns, and the priests at Holy Name. Each year, my job was to stamp and sort the cards for mailing after my mom had addressed them. I would separate the cards into piles by the city and state to which they were being mailed. Zip codes hadn’t been introduced yet, so the sorting assisted the post office in doing their job. I would secure the separate stacks by tying them with string so they stayed together. I remember that the post office supplied special labels that would be slipped under the string to identify the stacks as “Duquesne Only,” or “Out of Town,” or “Out of State.” Once my job was completed, my dad and I would make a trip to the Duquesne Post Office to mail the cards. We’d hand the cards over at one of the windows and soon, they were on their way.
To continue, I was on my way to meet my old friend Denise for coffee. We had gotten together last year during my visit and we resumed our conversation this year as if it had only been days since we last saw each other. We filled-in each other about what has been happening in our lives since we last met, and then understandably, moved on to “the good old days.” We each had stories to relate that we had long forgotten. It was such a refreshing conversation and time flew by quickly.
I was very excited for my next adventure that day. Denise had arranged for me to meet another lifetime resident of Duquesne, and a real expert on the city, the people and the history of Duquesne. We were soon on our way to Penn Taft Pharmacy on Pennsylvania Avenue. There, I had the absolute pleasure of meeting Bill Gallagher of Gallagher Drug Store fame!
As we entered Penn Taft, my mind immediately went back about 3 decades to the time when my dad was living and always would by his lottery tickets there. Whenever I visited him, he would send me to Penn Taft to buy them for him. His idea was that by someone else buying them for him, he’d be fooling the “Lottery gods” somehow and he’d win. Not a sound strategy if you ask me, especially since it never worked!
We approached the pharmacy counter and asked the young lady if Bill was available. After she quickly called his name, out popped Bill Gallagher from behind the counter. People seldom to appear as you expect them to be. For some reason, I expected Bill to be very tall and rather reserved. Instead, the gentleman that appeared exuded warmth and a booming personality immediately. He was about the same stature as my dad, standing about 5’ 8” and possessing a full head of white hair. With an outstretched welcoming hand, Bill immediately made me feel at home and as if we had been friends for a long time.
Bill invited me to have a seat in the row of chairs that stood in the aisle and served as a waiting area for their customers. Without much fanfare, we immediately began talking about “All things Duquesne,” his store, the people, the gossip from years ago and his history at Gallagher’s Drug Store. In the course of about 30 minutes or so, he provided me with so many interesting tidbits of information that my head was swimming.
We spoke a lot about people we knew in common. The conversation then turned to people who had commented on some of my posts that he knew. He spoke about Tom Lane and his “movie star looks” as Bill described them as well as other commenters that he knew. The conversation shifted to my childhood friend, Lou Andriko, and to no surprise, Bill acknowledged that he knew Lou as well. In fact, I had a surprise thrust upon me at the mention of Lou’s name. Bill indicated that Lou’s mom, Betty, worked at Penn Taft! In fact, she was working at that very moment. Bill stood up and called her name and out she came from behind the Pharmacy counter! I hadn’t seen her for at least 40 years! She looked at me with a puzzled look after Bill asked if she knew me. I quickly re-introduced myself to her, and the look of surprise, astonishment, love and warmth was immediate! The 40+ years that had separated our last see each other became non-existent. We gave each other the warmest of hugs and began to bridge the years with as much information about one another as we could absorb. The years have been very kind to Mrs. Andriko. She looks fantastic! After about 90 minutes or so, I said my goodbyes, and Denise and I departed. I have a good deal more to relate from that visit, but I will hang onto some tidbits for a later date.
I found an article from the Post-Gazette that addressed the closing of Gallagher’s. It will be two years since it closed in December of 2009. The article’s author does a great job of capturing the bitter sweet emotions of that event. I can only imagine how Bill must have felt at the moment he locked the doors of his store for the last time.
Here’s an idea, let’s all send our Christmas wishes, our memories and our thanks to Bill this Christmas. Send your greetings to Bill by writing a greeting in the comment section of this post. Bill checks and reads The Duquesne Hunky every day, and I’m sure he would love hearing from all of his friends.
I have included two pieces from the Post-Gazette for you to check out. The following is a very unique 360° photo of Bill’s ol’ work area at Gallagher’s. It is part of a series on the Post-Gazette’s website entitled “Pittsburgh Revolution.” It gives you a unique perspective into Bill’s world!
I have also included the article that I referred to earlier, first published on 12-17-2009. Once you read it, I’m sure you’ll want to send your wishes to Bill. Let’s all let Bill know that he is appreciated and that truly, “It’s A Wonderful Life!”
Landmark Gallagher Pharmacy, a fixture for nearly nine decades in Duquesne, will close, soda fountain and all, Dec. 31
Thursday, December 17, 2009
By Kate McCaffrey, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
It’s Christmas Past that haunts Bill Gallagher.
Step into his Gallagher Pharmacy in Duquesne and you step back in time. The sounds of Frank Sinatra bounce off the tin ceiling. Black swivel stools line a wooden counter, which holds an old soda fountain. On the nearby pharmacy counter is a large laminated photo of Duquesne High School graduating class of 1932. It’s from a newspaper, and on the back are ads: 10 cents for three loaves of bread; dentures for $12.50; 45 percent off a round-trip ticket on the Pennsylvania Railroad.
Above the counter, a large illuminated sign reads “Prescriptions” in bold, black letters.
It’s behind this lit banner that Mr. Gallagher, a pharmacist, has spent most of his life — 61 years to be exact.
This is his store. They have aged together, he said.
Mr. Gallagher, 79, is retiring at the end of the month and closing this iconic part of Duquesne history. The pharmacy has been an integral part of the community for the past 87 years. It’s a landmark where townsfolk went for credit, coffee and company.
Cherry phosphates and ice cream sodas aren’t served anymore. Now the patrons who used to come here as high school kids looking for a date return for coffee and conversation.
Mr. Gallagher said if he had a quarter for every time a woman came in and told him she’d met her husband here, he’d be rich.
“Lots of very successful marriages have happened because of this store. With the exception of one, they were all fabulous marriages. They would meet at the table and introduce themselves and then would dance [on the dance floor] downstairs.”
Now Gallagher Pharmacy closes at 2 p.m. An “out of order” sign hangs from the soda fountain. The few shelves in the store hold only a couple of items — aspirin, Dr. Scholl’s foot pads, laundry detergent and paper towels. Mr. Gallagher recalls that his grandfather came from County Mayo, Ireland, and he’s quick to catch your name if it’s an Irish one. He admits he has the so-called Irish gift of gab: Everything in the store has a story, and he points each out, jumping from one history to another.
May 1, 1948. That was his first day of work at Gallagher Pharmacy. He was 18 and a “soda jerk” every night that summer from 5 to 10 p.m.
He was paid 30 cents an hour — $1.50 a shift — to clean up spilled Cokes, round up the straws all over the floor and mop up the stickiness. Even though he already had a job working at a grocery store, he needed the additional money to pay for tuition at Duquesne University. He wanted to become a pharmacist, like his uncle, Matthew Gallagher, who founded the store.
It was his uncle who bought the 5,000-pound safe that sits behind the pharmacy counter. Its weight has cracked the tile floor and has forced Mr. Gallagher to reinforce it from below. He’s not entirely sure how he’s going to get it out when it’s time to close.
Matthew Gallagher bought the safe during Prohibition, a time when pharmacies would get shipments of Canadian whiskey, which doctors would prescribe as pain medicine. But every time Gallagher’s received a shipment, the pharmacy would be robbed. Cash and drugs were never stolen — just the whiskey.
Mr. Gallagher still uses the safe. Even so, he has been robbed at gunpoint three times, he said.
Across the room from the safe are three sturdy files, about 100 years old and filled with old credit bills.
Mr. Gallagher still uses those files. He said “an honest” fellow can still get store credit here. If a bill isn’t paid in 30 days and if Mr. Gallagher never sees that person again, well, that’s just the nature of business, he said. He doesn’t send bills by mail.
“These are all simply good people. When the doors close, I’m sure they’ll take care of me. It might take three or four months, but they’ll pay me. This is not an affluent community. A lot of these people live on $700 or $800 a month. They’re good people, but it’s a struggle for them,” he said.
He also makes house calls, delivering medication to “sweet old ladies” who can’t drive.
In the basement is a wall lined with boxes holding prescription forms written by doctors dating back decades. Each box holds 1,200, and Mr. Gallagher estimates he has about 70,000. He’d like to move them out and put them in his garage.
Downstairs has a history entirely its own. The basement has held a barber shop, dances, meetings, wedding celebrations, a spot for a band of 12 and dance studios. Now it holds an inventory of wheelchairs, crutches and a ladder.
After college and after working as a bacteriologist in the military, Mr. Gallagher returned to the pharmacy, which he bought from his uncle. He met his wife, Agnes, at the store. After they wed on Thanksgiving Day in 1961, she helped him at the pharmacy.
“My life is built around this store,” he said.
And that makes retiring a hard decision, he admitted.
“They say that what I should be doing is thinking that I’m opening up a whole new life. Well, you can’t shut out everything in the past. I like to hang onto nice memories, when I have a nice one, hang on to it …. They sustain you.”
Kate McCaffrey can be reached at email@example.com or 412-851-1867.
First published on December 17, 2009 at 10:10 am
I decided to include the recipe for Bobalki as well, just in case you feel especially industrious this week. Enjoy!
Sweet Bobalki Recipe – Slovak Bread Balls with Poppyseeds and Honey
Makes about 36 Slovak Sweet Bobalki
Prep Time: 15 minutes – Cook Time: 20 minutes – Total Time: 35 minutes
•2 cups water
•3 tablespoons plus 1 tablespoon sugar
•2 teaspoons salt
•5 tablespoons canola oil or butter (if not fasting)
•2 packages active dry yeast
•6 cups all-purpose flour
•1/2 cup poppyseeds
•1/2 cup honey
1. In a medium saucepan, bring to boil 2 cups water, 3 tablespoons sugar, salt and oil. Cool to lukewarm. Meanwhile, dissolve yeast in 1 tablespoon sugar and 1/2 cup warm water.
2. Place flour in the bowl of a stand mixer or a large bowl. Add lukewarm water-sugar mixture and yeast mixture. Combine thoroughly and knead until smooth, about 7 minutes in the mixer and at least 10 minutes by hand. Cover and let rise until doubled.
3. Punch down dough and turn out onto a lightly floured surface. Roll dough to 1/2- to 1-inch thick and cut into pieces that will result in 1-inch balls when rolled between the palms of the hand.
4. Place on a parchment-lined or well-floured cookie sheet with dough ball sides touching. Heat oven to 375 degrees. Let rise, covered with oiled plastic wrap until nearly doubled. Bake 15-20 minutes or until lightly browned. Cool completely.
5. Meanwhile, grind poppyseeds in a mortar and pestle with a little water or milk and set aside. When bobalki are cool, break the balls apart and place in a colander. Pour just enough boiling water over bobalki to soften but not turn them into mush. Drain well. Pour warm honey and ground poppyseeds over all. Stir lightly and serve immediately.
6. Savory Bobalki: Instead of using poppyseeds and honey, rinse a 1-pound can sauerkraut and squeeze out all moisture. Sauté with chopped onion in butter (or oil if following a strict fast). Mix with bobalki and season with salt and pepper to taste. Source: Charlotte Pribish Conjelko, Indiana
Don’t forget to sent your comments and Holiday Wishes to Bill Gallagher by commenting below! Happy Hunky Holiday!!