What is a “memory food”? Something you still eat that reminds you of loved ones, happy events or a special item.
Yesterday was my Grandma Tworzydlo’s Birthday. No she wasn’t my biological Grandparent… I stayed from a 9 month babe until high school in Western Pennsylvania with my mother’s brother, an carpenter, coal miner and artist with Croatian parents, Pete Bartholovich. He was married to a jolly Polish woman, my Aunt Fran. Fran’s mom Martha Tworzydlo frequently stayed with us once her husband Andy passed in ‘61, she took turns staying with her kids. They actually quarreled over who got to keep her the longest. “You had her for 6 months, it’s my turn!!”
Not knowing any biological grandparents in my life, how lucky it was for me to have the fantastic experience of being in a household with extended family.
I’m getting to the food part.
Martha Tworzydlo was from a Polish mill town bordering Lithuania, and arrived in the USA about 1913. Aunt Fran told me she scrubbed floors to help raise her 10 children while her husband worked the mines. A multilingual woman and very intelligent, she became a naturalized citizen. An incredible story comes to mind about how Martha was told by the doctors to take her two pound premature newborn home, that she wouldn’t make it. She put her in a shoebox surrounded by hot water bottles, and fed her around the clock every half hour. My Aunt Jay was strong, and has some wonderful children. So much for those doctors…
Anyhow this article is about foods that spark the memories. But it’s also about the people who made them. Let’s talk about them.
Wild harvested dishes:
Eggs and Mushrooms:
Grandma Tworzydlo would go mushroom picking with us in the early mornings, while the dew was sprinkling the pastures of the neighboring Trumpka farm, if the name looks familiar to you, his brother was the United Mine Workers Association president. In any case, I’d put my foot on the bottom strand of the barb wire fence to push it down and pull up the top one… she’d nimbly slip right between! Fran scrambled them with eggs the next morning, her strong arms wielding her heavy iron frying pan, and voilà, a great memory food. These were the standard white button field mushrooms that are domestically raised as well, easily distinguishable from poisonous ones. Here’s an article about field mushrooms.
Black Walnut fudge:
This was harder work. Toting them in buckets was not an easy task… If memory serves, we used a wheelbarrow to bring them back from neighboring woodlands to our home. They were picked green from the ground, carried back to the garage and left until the husk turned black. A certain little girl was tasked with tediously cracking and picking one heaping cup full, for a single batch. Heaven forbid there was a last minute request for a double recipe. Back to the chilly garage… it was beaten by hand until the fudge turned to a hard to describe matte gloss, or as Fran would say, it “loses its shine”. Fran’s strong-arms rhythmically going through the thick brown liquid. “Try it” ~she says to the certain little girl watching… then laughing as she couldn’t even get through one stroke. But ohhhh, licking the wooden spoon made it all worthwhile! Here’s a lovely recipe from a fellow who found his dad‘s, handwritten.
Nothing but sublime. Adding that uncle Pete and aunt Fran would boldly preserve entire blackberries. Blackberry pie in the winter was a real tour treat and worth the stickers that we got picking 5 gallon buckets full of them!
Quince – quince crabapple jelly
Nothing finer than quince jelly on a saltine cracker. most of the family preferred it with crabapple, but I liked it straight. Quince is a strange fruit with a lumpy texture. Made by the right hands, the flavor of the jelly is delightfully unique, rather musky and unmistakable, with a light rose color. They grew plentifully along Stringtown Road where we picked them off the ground along with the crabapples. More about quince here.
It was good, dark with a strong taste. Never knew until lately about the health benefits of elderberry. It boosts the immune system! Here’s an article on the benefits of elderberry. (Made wine with it too!)
Poke is poisonous unless picked at the right time. We had it in salads along with homegrown lettuce and dandelion leaf. It didn’t ring my bell but I thought I would mention it. Sometimes you can go back and try a memory food later and enjoy it.
Garden raised food:
Uncle Pete and Aunt Fran had a big garden covering over a third of an acre. Being no stranger to a shovel, having loaded coal from the time he was 12 years old, he would spade by the hour, turning the soil over in neat rows. In the potent piedmont sun and foggy mornings vegetables grew unbelievably well there. It didn’t hurt any that we would get black woods dirt to add to the mix, With the big compost pile spread upon it, the soil was very nutritious. There was such an abundance, it’s hard to tell where to start. Below is a very partial list:
Oxheart Tomato Sandwiches
This is one memory food that can’t be found, but the rich taste of the huge purple tomatoes that would cover a piece of Italian bread with one slice is hard to forget. They truly looked like an ox’s heart! If anyone knows where to get some please message me. (With mayonnaise and pepper of course)
This should actually be a food group! Fran pickled so many things… Of course the original “Kiszone Ogórki” (the way Grandma Tworzydlo said it) ~ using the younger cucumbers and dill from her dill patch. This recipe looks close to what she would have done.
Then there’s the pickled green tomatoes, which was a great way to salvage the leftover tomatoes, before the freezing Western Pa late autumn temperatures at night would have ruined them. The store-bought ones just don’t match up to Fran’s, but they’ll do in a pinch. Thankfully my daughter Anna-Maria who is the chef of my family may be able to come up with a good recipe. She fries them. And notes that if you pick them green, and put them in a brown paper bag they eventually ripen! Anna further tips us off to put an apple slice in the bag.
Pickled watermelon rinds. We would watch Lawrence Welk late at night and polish off a whole jar. Again, the store-bought ones do not match Fran’s, but it’s a decent substitute.
Pickled onions, usually mixed with other vegetables to make a savory “chow chow“
Canning – preserving
Aunt Fran and Uncle Pete canned or froze about everything in their garden. Certain things like green beans required the use of a pressure cooker while they used hot water canning for things like tomatoes and sauce. One of the most plentiful things we had was Swiss chard. It was fantastic fresh, always with some garlic from the garlic patch.
Stuffed Cabbage: halupkis, or “Gołąbki [ɡɔˈwɔmpki]
A favorite story comes to mind of a lonely cabbage patch that they had left untended. The weeds had grown around it, and it was off in the corner of the garden. Taking it upon myself to “rescue“ the cabbages, I pulled the weeds, hoed the ground, and made little “moats” around each raggedy cabbage leaf. This was so when watering them that dirt wouldn’t be washed away around the fragile roots. ~ to everyone’s amazement, they grew to be larger than bowling balls. Fran exclaimed “YOY!!!” … And we merrily cut them up and canned them, of course the ones that we didn’t use for her superb stuffed cabbages “halupkis”. So, here’s a recipe for halupkis, or “Gołąbki [ɡɔˈwɔmpki] as Fran sometimes said. Most of my Polish learned from Granda Tworzydlo was food related.
We ate very little fish, except when we went to the Adirondacks in New York each summer, Uncle Pete made his own trout lures and flies, although I can remember seining in the creek for minnows when we fished locally near Carmichaels Pennsylvania. At that time the Monongahela was not yielding good fish because of the mines that were pouring pollution into it. We would go to the Laurel Mountains which was not too far to fish. We had a hibachi which we would set out by the creek in the morning and fry the rainbow trout and “brookies” fresh out of the water. Occasionally there would be eggs or “roe” that we would have with eggs. A definite memory food!
As an aside I think Pete’s sportsmanlike nature is what led him to begin making so many beautiful stream and Brooke landscape paintings as an artist.
Rabbit and pheasant:
During the mine strikes:
Aunt Fran and Unclr Pete fed us and themselves by hunting in addition to the garden food. We lived through the murder of Joe Yablonski and my uncle dared not cross the picket lines to work. The UMWA union strikes did help mine safety, although a little too late for Pete, and Fran’s Dad, who both had black lung. In addition Pete was injured by a coal shard striking his temple, a poorly protected area with the old style helmets. He truly had a “coal tattoo” as the famous Billy Edd Wheeler song recites. That song was made famous by the Kingston Trio and covered by many Artists.
Rabbit was generally fried in the covered iron frying pan. I only recall eating the legs, which were tough. (Watch out for those shotgun pellets!) Haven’t had them since, though it brings back memories of training his beagles for him. They were great dogs, especially my own, Cecil. Too fast & tall for hunting, he was my pet, and we had many adventures together.
Pheasant was a different story, plentiful and easy to hunt, Aunt Fran made Pheasant Pot Pie. Tender, with potatoes, carrots, onion & peas (which I picked out, being mildly allergic) with a perfect flaky crust. We felt like royalty.
Uncle Pete always hunted with a group of friends or relatives, and never shot a deer as far as I know. Later in his last years, saying “I no longer kill animals for my own pleasure” … but his buddies always did, and the hunting groups evenly split up the cuts of meat. We had deer ground sausage, patties, and roasts, which were treated like beef. An important part of our diet in the leaner times. Aunt Fran treated venison as if it were beef. Although I love to see and draw these beautiful creatures, I’m still partial to venison dishes. My Croatian ancestors were definitely meat centered in their diets.
This is my personal recipe, a derivative of a lamb recipe found in the original “Mama Leone’s” cookbook, by Gene Leone, which Arthur got me at the fabled restaurant in New York City, on my birthday, definitely a great memory. What a shame the place is no longer there. The book is a rare treasure, you can buy it here
- 2 lbs venison lion roast
- Two large onions to throw away
- Garlic powder
- 1 onion
- Olive oil
- One 4 oz can tomatoe paste
- 2- 4 oz red wine
Parboil the cut of deer in shallow water for 20 minutes (and this is where I deviate from the lamb recipe) when parboiling, cut two onions in half and place them flat side down on the meat. They will turn dark as they absorb the “wild” taste. Throw away in the compost pile!
Meanwhile, make your sauce. in a pan sauté a large onion or two until tender, then throw in your tomato paste with equal amounts of water. Bring to a boil, then stir and simmer until the venison is done. lastly, stir in the red wine without boiling it. As Mr. Leone states “if it’s not good enough for you to drink it’s not good enough to cook with!”
Take the venison out of the shallow water, and carefully place on a cutting board and slice into thin slices. You may have to wait for it to cool down a bit to do this successfully. Use a sharp serrated knife.
Arrange your sliced venison into a baking dish or any pan that you can cover in the oven. Pour the sauce over and bake for 45 minutes on 350 heat or until the edges of the sauce brown a bit. Serve over rice. Mangia!
We did not grow potatoes, don’t ask me why… But we sure ate a lot of them. Although the word for potato in Polish is different, my grandma Tworzydlo and aunt Fran taught me “kartofel” which is actually Russian!
Potatoes are the main ingredient in her stellar “perogas” I still have the recipe Fran sent, with “take SOME flour, a couple eggs, salt and make a dough that’s sticky but not too sticky” adding that she was “so happy you aren’t giving up that baby” …wasn’t going to, but okay! Love that letter and still love perogies!
Grandma Tworzydlo let me try her boiled potatoes with butter, parsley and cottage cheese… “it’s for your stomach, old people eat it” she says. I wasn’t old then but loved it.
Other memory treats
Aunt Fran used to always give me a chunk of Philadelphia cream cheese. I liked it better than candy! Still do!
During the holidays Fran would make huge batches of her rolled cookies, or Kolaczi, more of a Slovak dessert. She used a walnut filling for one, apricot pie filling for the next batch, and poppy seed pie filling for the final batch. The dough was rolled out and the pie filling spread upon it, then rolled up and sliced into cookies. Sprinkled over with sugar, and baked. Here’s a fine recipe for rolled cookies.
What’s your best “Memory food”?
Let me know in the comments or privately here