A Picky Boy in a Hunky World
At 68 years of age, I am finally willing to admit that I was a VERY picky eater as a child, as a teenager, as a young adult, most of my adult life. However, now that I am a wee bit older, my palette has certainly become more expanded and I’m willing to try most foods that I never would have considered in the past. I do draw the line at peanut butter however, which I consider one of the scourges of humanity. I am happy to give mad props to Dr. George Washington Carver promoting the value of crop rotation and its ability to replenish soil with vital nutrients. However, his proclivity for the inclusion of peanuts in one’s diet never sat well with me. But I’ve digressed…….
Like any self-respecting hunky family, my childhood home was equipped with two of the most essential accoutrements needed in any hunky’s home. First of all, we had the essential “Pittsburgh toilet,” and we were privileged to have our version of a “basement kitchen” as well.
There was a total of 11 homes on Thomas Street, the street I grew up on. As a nosey little kid, I managed to worm my way into every one of those homes at one point or another. The neighbors always felt it was necessary to offer me a cookie or some other sweet treat when I visited, and that often ended with me overstaying my welcome and just following them around the house. Out of the 11 homes on Thomas Street, at least 7 had some form of a basement kitchen.
The basement kitchen was basically a stove and a refrigerator, plus a place to store some pots, utensils and a table of some sort. Virtually all of the kitchen’s appliances and furnishings were either used in the home’s “main floor kitchen” previously until new items were purchased, or were hand-me-downs from a family member, friend or neighbor. Regardless of where the items came from, they all served the same purpose, to either keep the main floor cooler during the summer, or to corral the sometimes “pungent” aroma of hunky recipes.
As a very picky hunky boy, I was always terrified of what was being concocted by my parents in the depths of our basement. In fact, at the age of five, I was faced with a life altering decision as a result of a meal I was going to be required to eat. In those days, we had to eat what was put in front of us or we would go hungry. (In reality, my mom would most likely sneak me something to eat after supper when my dad was distracted.)
When I was five, I was facing a lunch that included homemade pea soup and plain cheese sandwiches. I remember sitting on the sidewalk at the front of our house, stacking pebbles around some sort of utility cap that was embedded in the cement. Mom came down the driveway to let me know that lunch would be ready in about 10 minutes and told me what we were having. I was absolutely horror struck!! Although I had never tried pea soup before, I was absolutely certain that I hated it and that it would make me gag. I pleaded and cried for her to not make me eat it, but to no avail. She stood there with her arms crossed for a few minutes while I hopelessly wailed. Then she calmly said that she would call for me from the kitchen window when it was ready.
With tears flowing, I decided that I needed to do something drastic to get out of beingforced to eat PEA SOUP!! There couldn’t be any worse torture than that! And so, I made my life altering decision. At the age of five, I decided to run away from home. Now, to put this into perspective, understand that most five-year olds aren’t known for using great judgement, and I was no exception. At that particular point in time, I decided running away was the best way to avoid the fate that awaited me at lunch.
Without any provisions, I made my way into St. Joseph’s Cemetery, and marched my little butt up the hill from Thomas Street. At the top of the hill, I turned to the left and began to walk toward Mifflin Street. After just a few steps, I began to experience a feeling of dread. For at that time, I heard my mom calling from the house, and then as I watched, I saw her at the end of our driveway calling my name. Oh boy, was I in trouble!!
I watched as our neighbors, Anne Yasko and Rudy Gregory came out of their homes to talk with my mom and find out what the problem was. I hid behind a tombstone and watched in horror as all three pointed to the cemetery and began to walk together toward the gates. At that time, Mrs. Gregory came and joined the group to begin the search for Little Jimmy Volk. I was cooked!
I quickly looked around to find the best place to hid. They were grown-ups, so a small space seemed to be my best choice. I ran toward the exit gate to Mifflin Street and decided to hide in the bushes that surrounded the statue of Jesus near the gate. I wiggled my way into the bushes and sat while I peered through the leaves at the group of adults that were calling my name and walking toward me. I kept very quiet so I could hear what they were saying. Then, I heard Mr. Gregory start calling out to me…”Jimmy, where are you. Come on Jimmy, come on out.” I knew I’d be in trouble, so I just sat quietly as all four of the adults looked around to see if they spotted me. I WON’T give in!
The stand off between the search party and I lasted for hours, at least that’s what I thought. In actuality, it was only about fifteen minutes according to my mother. During that time, Mr. Gregory brought out the big guns in order to find me. As I peered between the leaves from my hiding place, I watched as Mrs. Gregory handed him a small paper bag. The next words out of his mouth struck the final blow and ousted me from my hiding place. I heard him bellow, “Jimmy, I have a bag of cookies if you’d like one!” That did it!! As quick as a flash, I emerged from my hiding place. With a big smile on my face, I approached Mr. Gregory with my hand out. I was as excited as a dog who was expecting the bone that someone was holding in their hand. However, my joy and anticipation were quickly dashed when I saw the look on Mom’s face. Yes, in deed, I was in BIG trouble.
As we all walked back to Thomas Street, Mom lectured me on how scared she had been, and how the neighbors were so worried about me. Every member of the search party at one point or another looked at me and just shook their heads in solidarity with my mother. When we finally reached our house, Mom told me to apologize to the neighbors for worrying them and for making them have to search for me. I also had to thank them and tell them I wouldn’t do it again. With that said, I turned to make my way up to the house, but my mother quickly grabbed my hand and gave me a healthy swat on my bottom. The ultimate in humiliation!!! A swat in front of the neighbors!!! “Now get in the house and finish your lunch!”
With that, I burst into tears and ran into the house. My fate was sealed, pea soup it was.
That pea soup was just one of the many atrocities I saw being concocted in our dungeon scullery, the cauldron of doom, the source of all things unnatural. As I got older, I became more and more familiar with the frightening things that my Hunky family referred to as delicacies. Perhaps the scariest was my parent’s favorite Studinia a.k.a. Jellied Pig’s Feet. In our upstairs kitchen, I was used to seeing my mom lovingly making ham barbeques or boiling some hot dogs for my brother and me. It was very reminiscent of a typical scene from Ozzie and Harriet, complete with my mom’s ruffled apron. Now, put yourself in my shoes when I happened to witness the preparation of their “favorite!” I walked down the steps to our cellar and saw my mother standing at the basement kitchen stove. She calmly turned and smiled at me and said, “Hi Honey,” but quickly returned her attention back to the stove. In her hand, she clutched a huge fork with what looked like a dismembered foot speared on the end. She was holding the disgusting item over the flame of the stove as little sparks of fire danced across the pink skin. “Mom!!! What are you doing?!? Ewww!” She then calmly informed me that she was making pig’s feet, and was burning off the hair and blackening the skin. Then, to my shock, she told me to come over and help her!!! At that point, I quickly turned and ran up the steps and outside. I was convinced that what I just witnessed in the basement would haunt me forever. But, just like any kid, once I got outside my attention was quickly diverted, and I most likely began playing or exploring the neighborhood.
I’m sure many of you enjoyed eating pig’s feet, perhaps you still do. Being a picky hunky, I never was able to get it passed my lips. I remember seeing bowls of Studinia lined up on the basement table, filled to the rim with slowly congealing liquid and the toes of “little piggy’s feet” poking through the top of the liquid. If I would bump into the table, they toes and the jelly would jiggle in response which in turn made me nauseous. Of course, my dad, knowing how I felt about the thought of eating pig’s feet, loved to eat them in front of me at dinner. He would call my name, smile and then somehow let the jelly ooze out between his teeth. He got the biggest kick out of doing that. Fortunately, I eventually got used to it.
Two other items come to mind that raked right up there with pig’s feet as far as repulsive sounding and what I just knew were disgusting tasting hunky delights. The first was blood sausage, a.k.a. krvavnička or krvavica, that was usually prepared with pig’s blood, fat and a variety of herbs and spices. My dad loved blood sausage made with potatoes and onions, my mom wasn’t a fan however. Dad would cook the sausage in a frying pan first, and let it cook until the casing would burst, and look like the aftermath of war. Seriously, how could anyone eat that smeti!
The other item that I refused to try was head cheese, or tlačenka. It was made of pork stomach stuffed with offal (entrails and internal organs of an animal used as food) and leftover parts of pig’s heads and legs. My dad would usually buy this so call “delicacy” at Kennedy (aka “Andy’s”) Meat Market on Kennedy Ave (*Note) or I think they might have had it at Mann’s Bros. on Auriles St. The way my dad would enjoy (obviously the wrong choice of words) head cheese would be on a sandwich with slices of onions and mustard. To this day I will never understand how anyone could enjoy this.
(*Note – By the way, who remembers shopping at Kennedy Meat Market and buying items “on tab?” My father would often send me to the store to pick up some groceries. When it came time to check out and pay, the cashier had a card file next to the register with customer names on the cards. She would total my purchase and then stick the card into the register to add the amount due, to a running tab that had been set up. At some point during the month, my dad go to Andy’s and settle our tab.)
I would be remiss if I didn’t pay homage to the awesome cuisine of my heritage. It is with great affection and respect that I reference some of my family favorites and less “colorful” foods of my youth: stuffed cabbage, kielbasa, perogies, paska, bolbalki, halushki, cheregies, cirák, and of course, poppyseed and nut rolls! It is and was ALL good!
I cannot end this post without writing about the second essential hunky commodity of my hunky home. Believe it or not, this particular item has risen to a level of notoriety that I never dreamed of, while making practical use of the porcelain relic of my youth. I am lovingly referring to the Pittsburgh toilet that graced our basement. In my house, our Pittsburgh toilet was in an area of our basement called the shower room. It was a room located under our front porch and adjacent to our fruit cellar. Since it was somewhat enclosed, it didn’t fit the truest essence of the Pittsburgh toilet definition, but to us, it counted.
If you would like to experience the feeling of using a Pittsburgh toilet, just go onto the Zillow Website, and check out the homes in the West Mifflin or Duquesne area that were built in the 30s, 40s or 50s. If they have photos of any unfinished basements, I’m sure you’ll find examples of the relics of our youth randomly placed somewhere in the basement. In case you are curious, Wikipedia (the online encylopedia) has an official entry for the Pittsburgh Toilet:
A Pittsburgh toilet, often called a “Pittsburgh potty”, is a common fixture in pre-World War II houses built in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, United States and surrounding region. It consists of an ordinary flush toilet installed in the basement, with no surrounding walls. Most of these toilets are paired with a crude basement shower apparatus and large sink, which often doubles as a laundry basin. Also, because western Pennsylvania is a steep topographical zone, many basements have their own entryway, allowing homeowners to enter from their yard or garage, cleanse themselves in their basement, and then ascend their basement stairs refreshed.
As Pittsburgh was historically an industrial town, toilets such as these were said to be used by steelworkers and miners: grimy from the day’s labor, they could use an exterior door to enter the basement directly from outside and use the basement’s shower and toilet before heading upstairs. This usage is largely unverified by historians. The Pittsburgh toilet may have been used to divert sewer backups out of the living space of the house. The toilet in the basement would overflow from the sewer backup because it is the lowest point in the system, and the mess would be relatively easy to clean compared to an upstairs bathroom.
And so my dear friends, I hope you enjoyed this little journey and tidbits of memories. In this difficult time, a diversion is always a good thing. Be safe, stay well, and in the meantime, stay at home.