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.
Wow! This has been an education on a Sunday morning as I (try to) eat my porridge! I have never had pigs’ feet, ‘head cheese’ or blood sausage, but the memories of my dad mocking me at the dining table over some quibble about not eating up the strips of fat from the bacon or the salty rubber gammon or the skin on rice pudding certainly chime with me! I wonder, do they make veggie pigs’ feet?! Probably not, but when I was a vegetarian, he would always try to convince me – with some success one year at Christmas – that, “Boy, this veggie turkey’s good!”
Gee, where to start – Our house on Auriles, which at times housed a couple of the German nuns from St. Josephs who were related to the prior owners, I think, supposedly broke the tank on the toilet in the basement. My dad was able to glue the crack and use the toilet when he came home from the mill or hung around the basement to throw up after an evening at Babe’s Bar or wherever he tipped a few. “Those blankey blank nuns broke my toilet”…I would hear from the cellar at times. Nuns always made me nervous, especially the Byzantine ones with the big hands and stern faces from Saints Peter and Paul up by Crawford St. Sorry, bad memories…
Then the food, well I love pea soup – important ingredient: parsnips. Head cheese, gag me please, but not as badly as the time I mistook a bowl of the pigs feet jelly for lemon jello. Nearly threw up. My mom worked at Manns Bros. until she became ill. She used to bring home stuffed crab cakes from the butcher, LOVED those. All the other hunky goodies, still love them. When I visit Pittsburgh, I buy Polish pierogies at a place in the Strip District.
Dang, now I want some nut rolls, lekvar pierogies, even haluski…pass the paska!
I remember the toilet in Pap’s basement!! Also – the pea soup story is one of my favorites and I know the boys love hearing it too.
Sorry, but pigs feet… 🤢
Love reading these fun stories!
First time posting. Thanks for your efforts in bringing back many memories. You failed to
mention another outstanding gourmet dish: Lentil Soup. You probably didn’t like the pigs feet
Kochanina as previously mentioned by a classmate Joe Kuhla because you didn’t try it with
I lived at 1300 Maryland Avenue. the corner of Maryland and Mifflin on the West Mifflin side
and we did have a Pgh. toilet in the basement with rear yard access. Since I’m remembering,
I want to thank you for explaining the reason for the semi-pro team named Zemps. My grandfather
migrated in 1900 and came from Vranove nad Toplou about 1 1/2 hour bus ride north east of
Kosice in the Presov Region.I can remember conversations and his relating how Agents from
Carnegie Illinois Steel Company came to his village to “recruit” men to work in the steel mill
in Pgh. He did but after a while worked for the P.and L.E. railroad, I think a U.S Steel subsidiary
and retired from that Company. I visited his village in 2008, a town of about 23,000 and found
out that the largest employer is U.S. Steel. As they say:” what goes around comes around”
Emil Skalicky class of ’56, residing in Gettysburg , Pa
Emil, thank you for your comment. I found it very interesting to hear how workers were recruited from Europe! Wow! Also, although I appreciate your vote of confidence for rye bread and pigs feet, I still don’t think it wouldn’t have convinced me to like it. It was just some about those toes!
Hi Emil, hope you are dong well..
Doing well. thanks for asking. Was the last time we met in Jamestown,Pa
(Pymatuning Lake Area) in the late 60’s early 70’s at the Mark Twain Restaurant
or am I thinking of someone else?
Emil, probably someone else, I believe I was mentioning your brother..
When I was in third grade at Holy Name, my brother, Pat was in eighth grade. There was something served for lunch at Holy Name that I simply could not eat And, I was a good eater. Sister Marie Ursula said the was going to the convent to eat lunch and when she got back, that food better be gone. I was crying etc.i could see that Mrs. McConnell and the cafeteria ladies wanted to throw it in the trash. Wondering why I wasn’t on the playground, Pat came in to the cafeteria to find his baby sister trying to choke that shit down. Pat picked up whatever it was(seems to me it was HN version of Spanish Rice) in his hand and threw it in the trash. Just as he came from washing his hands in the boys room, in comes Sister Marie Ursula. She said,” now that wasn’t so hard to eat, was it? Just think of those starving kids around the world . Now, go out and play before the bell rings”. Saved by my big brother!!! The food at HN was awful. My mother always said, “it’s a nice hot lunch and it is only 25 cents”.We lived in West Mifflin so it was too far to walk home for lunch. I am still a good eater. I will eat anything except bananas.
Colleen, I know what you mean about the “Holy Name” version of food. My least favorites were when they served powered eggs or when one of the cooks made stew that was a disgusting shade of green. BUT, you couldn’t best First Friday’s maple rolls and little glass jugs of milk!
You are so right. Those First Friday maple rolls!!!!! The cute little pint glass bottles of milk! I always got chocolate. That cafeteria food was the worst for lunches. I never could figure out why we didn’t pack out lunches. As my mother said “it is a hot lunch and it only costs 25 cents”.
BTW none of those cooks made stew. It was from those big cans!!!!!!!
Most likely true, but one of them always added extra cans of peas.
Unless of course, it was old stew! Lol
My ex was Babe who went to Holy Trinity; the family lived near Ford Street (I think!) His
Parents moved to a new home on the hill in West Mifflin and they had the Pittsburgh toilet in the basement!!!!
I think having a Pittsburgh toilet was a requirement!
Good Lord! I had all but forgotten about the basement toilet. Thanks for the refresher!
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Liz, thanks for the comments. As long as no one barged in on me, it was a perfect place to relax and take care of “business!” 😁
Loved your story about running away from home at age 5. I bet you were one cute little bugger. The comments about pig’s feet, reminded me of my own special childhood horrors. At a similar young age, I remember opening our refrigerator door looking for some snack and being about 30″ inches tall, I was eye-level with some mason jars in the front of a shelf . I looked closely at the mason jars and to my absolute horror I could.make out the outline of pig’s feet in the jars! EWWWE. To my utter disgust these jars contained cloven hooves in jelly! This was absolutely horrifying and hair raising. Did my parents EAT this stuff? No way was I ever eating it. Where did it come from!! Make it go away. LOL You were not allowed to be a picky eater in our family, as you would have to ‘clean your plate’ at every meal. I do remember being very hungry and being served my first dish of halusky. You have to admit, halusky does NOT look appetizing at all! It basically looks like dog vomit on a plate!. My very strict mom insisted I had to at least taste it, and luckily (for me) it tasted pretty good.
So good to hear from you and hope you keep up the Duquesne Hunky for as long as you can type!
Debra, I think we all were required to clean our plates, and I am certain all of our parents used the “starving kids in China” guilt trip on us. Oh, those were the days!
Definitely remember our basement “commode” and never knew it was a Pittsburgh tradition. Thanks for enlightening us, Jim. With only one full bath in the house, it sure came in handy when the upstairs bathroom was being occupied!
Hi Lolly! When we sold my dad’s house I tried to convince the REALTOR that our Pittsburgh Potty was a second bathroom. 🤪She wasn’t convinced…..
Always enjoy your walks down memory lane, to this day & the rest of my life or should it be what’s left of my life (72) I have never tasted the pigs feet!
Dennis, you are a guy after my own heart! I’m with you Buddy!
I THINK I KNEW
Dennis! Does he have a sister Alice? If so, we were friends in
RIVERVIEW!! Lived nearby! What a small world!!!
Jane, it’s so exciting to bring old friends together. Stay well!
I am Rudy Gregory’s older daughter, Catherine, and do remember your family. Thanks for all the memories on Thomas Street and the lifestyle at that time.
I certainly remember you, Judy and of course, your mom and dad! I’ll always have very fond memories of sitting on your front porch steps talking to your family as a little boy. I hope you are well, and that you’ll keep in touch. It was great hearing from you!
Hi Jim: So you’re the Duquesne Hunky, I usually send you e-mails on so many subjects. It was great to read about the picky boy. In fact we are remodeling one of older homes and it has a Pittsburgh Toilet, I did, however, make them put a little wooden screen for privacy, as I want to sell the house when things are more modern. I loved you mentioning all those great hunky foods, my Mom loved the head cheese, made the Pigs feet and especially her great nut rolls. I’m not from Duquesne, but grew up in Munhall, a stone throw away.
Take care and be safe my friend,
PS My daughter and I made 30 stuffed cabbage for Easter! Haven’t made Kockanina in a very long time. My children never would eat it! My husband did and he is Irish!
Thanks for the feedback Patrice. I have to apologize however for not responding to your emails. Whenever I receive an email from someone who has read one of my posts, in my head, I can’t wait to respond. Then I usually think that I’ll wait and include the email in a post, then I lose track of the emails and they fall into that black hole in my mind. I am so sorry. I think it’s time for me to unearth not only your email, but others that were written to me. Thanks for the inspiration! Stay well!
I love pea soup!!! What fun remembering the names of people on Thomas Street. I remember the Gregorys. Judy was about four years ahead of me at Holy Name and North. My brother, Pat was good friends with Ray Snyder. He lived on Thomas Street. BTW you needed to have your ass slapped after that stunt. Today, we are paying big bucks for guanciale. That is nothing but head mea
. Sooooo good and flavorful. I do remember going to the store and “putting it on the book” or some people called it “tic it” which meant put on time. Your dad certainly gave a lot of people credit until payday (every other Tuesday).
Thanks Connie. I have nothing but wonderful memories of every family on Thomas Street. It does my heart good to know that you share the same point of view.
Kockanina pigs feet made on the back porch in the winter.
Jim, those 3 items were the gross to me also. As a kid, I never ate the ethnic foods, but now I do and also make them with the exception of those 3. Thanks for the memories, and, I can just picture a 5 year old running to hide in St. Joseph Cemetery. Take care, best safe Deanne Harris Seese
Thanks for your comment ! I thought I was going to get a lot of people challenging my point of view. But really, who could argue that animal entrails were the greatest thing since sliced bread!!
Thanks for the memories! I lived on Mellon st. Remembered fondly all the neighbors you mentioned. Those were the days!
Hi Donna! I remember you very well. We lived behind you. The Volk’s! Hope you are doing well.
So good to “hear” from you again. So funny, since I, too, was a very picky eater. I remember hiding peas in the mashed potatoes on my plate. Now, not only do I enjoy peas, I have a pot of split pea soup in the fridge that I made yesterday. Thanks for the memories, Jim! Blessings to you and your family!
Thanks Sandy. I actually like pea soup now. Especially when it has chunks of ham and potatoes in it. Does that make it a stew?!?
Hi Megan’s Dad…..taught with Megan at St. Elizabeth….anyway I loved this story….the toilet standing alone caught my eye immediately. I grew up in my grandparents home in the Homeville section of West Mifflin that my mom inherited. I never ever could understand why we had a toilet in the basement with no walls around it!!!! And we had a door into that basement…..Now I know!! My mom came from a family of 11 and many of her brothers were steelworkers. Who knew this was a common thing in the area.
Thanks for commenting JoAnna! I’m sure Megan will be excited when she sees your comment. Just like me!!!
Hi Joanna!!! ❤️
Thanks for the great story. My father/family owned Isadore’s market across the street from Kennedy Meat Market.
Warm Regards Raymond Isadore
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Raymond, I remember you family’s store very well. We shopped there frequently. Didn’t it have the name Isadore or the letter “I” in tile as you entered the store?