Summers in Schuylkill County, PA were halcyon days in regards to food. This county was unlike most places in the United States. Its Eastern and Western European residents who immigrated during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to work in the stygian anthracite mines brought their customs and foods with them and refused to give them up. There were no Mexican or Chinese restaurants in Frackville; that was foreign fare, although the haluski, halupki, and other dishes eaten here were foreign to almost everyone else in the country. The most exotic dining was pizza parlors and hoagie shops, run mostly by Sicilians, who competed with each other for the residents' hard-earned dollars by boasting the best sauce, cheese or dough. Pizza and hoagies tended to be snacks, not meals, usually eaten after 9:00 p.m. on Fridays when blue-collar stomachs began to growl, long after the standard 4:30 supper. If there was one thing people liked to do in our town, it was eat.
The highlight of the summer in Frackville, a mile-long and mile-wide town of 4,000 souls, was the block parties held by the local volunteer fire companies and Catholic churches. Families who cooked supper at home every night, no restaurants for them, would flock to these events, hauling dozens of bleenies, kishkie and pierogis home on greasy paper plates wrapped in tin foil. Carbohydrates were king. As a child, I found this food a special treat in a town whose citizens boasted that they could squeeze their meager nickels until the buffalo pooped. The only American fare found at these events was hamburgers or barbeque, a term at which Texans would've blanched because it was just sloppy joes made with Manwich and ketchup. The volunteer fire companies and churches competed to do the best cooking. It was a point of pride. To accompany its consumption there were live bands, polka usually, blaring out coal region classics like “Roll Out the Barrel,” and the classic tune “Too Fat Polka.”
Before I get too far into this story, I need to say how I happened to witness the bizarre event of which I am about to tell. It started with my grandmother, Verna, who never worked a day in her life. She also wasn’t much of a grandmother. By this, I mean that she didn’t do grandmotherly things. She was known to literally burn water. She went through three or four heavy stainless-steel copper-bottomed tea kettles each year. She would put the kettle on, go out on her front porch, get talking to someone passing by and forget all about it.
She loved to prattle on so it was fortunate she lived on the main street a block from downtown. Gossip was her vocation (in addition to her nightly Pabst Blue Ribbon beer until she got Type II diabetes). She wouldn’t hear the kettle whistling over the traffic noise and by the time she got back in the house, the kettle bottom would be burned through and smoking, crumpled pieces of copper littering the top of the stove like confetti. It was a wonder she never burned down the house; luckily, it was covered with asbestos shingles.
Verna didn’t cook. I don’t know how my father survived and I guess that explains why he had a twenty-eight-inch waist when he married my mother. Thankfully, my mother could cook. In fact, when my parents were first married and my mother was pressing shirts in a factory eight hours a day, she would cook the night before and put the next day’s meal in the fridge. Then Verna would come round during the day and steal it . My dad had given her a key to the apartment when she insisted-- he was an only child and co-dependent. My parents would come home at the end of a long, hard day to an empty fridge, while Verna and her husband would have a nice home-cooked meal.
Verna never made a single holiday dinner; all holiday meals were at my house. She never even brought over warmed up, canned green beans. This was likely at the request of my mother, who swore she would give us “toe-main” poisoning, whatever that was. I had to look it up in the dictionary and had a heck of a time because it was spelled funny. Ptomaine poisoning came from rotten food, according to my well-thumbed copy of Webster’s Dictionary. This confused me more because I couldn’t figure out why someone would continue to eat something that tasted bad and smelled like roadkill. On the other hand, I later found out that any dish Verna tried to make, other than a Swanson’s TV dinner, tasted awful, so maybe my mother was right to resist.
One year, Grandma Verna decided to roast a turkey for Thanksgiving. My mom told her to wash the bird before she stuffed it so she put dishwashing soap in its cavity. Not only did the stuffing bubble out when the turkey was done, it fizzed like a bubble bath. The turkey tasted like Joy liquid, Verna’s brand of choice, and the whole mess reeked of not-so-fresh lemons. This made quite a fragrant bouquet mixed with the strong scent of mothballs, which Verna liked to put everywhere. Fortunately, my mom knew the drill and had made her own turkey.
I vividly remember going to Verna’s house one summer when my step-grandfather was still alive for the one and only meal she ever prepared for us. She had this giant photograph of a mouse that looked like it was sitting on some sort of tree, which hung above her unused stove. It looked as if it would jump off the wall and was larger than life, a Godzilla mouse, because the picture was three feet high and three feet wide. It was a strange choice for a kitchen but that was my grandmother.
“George,” my mom said-- George was my dad-- “I don’t want to go sit in that kitchen and have that big rat with its beady eyes staring at me while I eat.”
I didn’t mind. I thought the mouse (or rat?) was cute.
Of course, we went anyway since Verna's attempting to cook was a milestone event that both intrigued and frightened us. I don’t recall what the meal was but I’ll never forget the salad. My step-grandfather had planted a garden that year so Verna served homegrown leaf lettuce. She must not have called my mom for advice, not that there was much point to that as she always put her own spin on it anyway. She never thought to wash the lettuce. It still had dregs of dirt clinging to its little hairy roots and there were ants crawling over it, like tiny travelers in from the garden to greet us.
Verna was not cuddly or comforting like the grandmothers on TV or in books. She rarely took me anywhere. I was of little more interest to her than the pole lamp in the corner. When she was around, I spoke about as much as a lamp because no one could get a word in edgewise. Verna was totally focused on Verna. She had expended what squibs of maternal care she had in her on my father, her only child. So, one summer day after lunch when she came by the house and asked me if I wanted to go up to the church with her, I quickly agreed.
“Colleen," she told me, "We're goin’ to help Helen in the church kitchen.”
Since there was cooking involved, I was doubtful but anything connected with a block party was a potential adventure. It would also get me away from my overprotective parents for a bit. They couldn't complain if I was out with my own grandmother, unreliable as she might be as evidence by her negligence with tea kettles. Besides, our town was only a mile long and a mile wide, and luckily for everyone in it, Grandma Verna couldn't drive.
On this particular Friday in June, the church volunteers were prepping for St. Joseph’s block party. The women sweated in the cavernous kitchen of the church basement, grinding up hundreds of pounds of potatoes and vast blocks of cheese. Flour puffed through the air like the fuzzy-floaties of a seedy dandelion landing on the blue-tinted hair and sensible shoes of the women in their cotton dresses and ruffled aprons.
They saw my nana coming. Helen wiped her hands on her apron and ran to pull up a chair.
“We’ve got it all under control, Verna,” Helen said, “You just keep us company.”
I guessed she must have heard about Verna’s skill in the kitchen. I listened to the women gossip a while, but soon got bored and decided to wander outside to the church parking lot to sit on the kerb. It was a good vantage point from which to observe all of the activity.
Outside, most of the men were hammering together scrap wood from pallets to create booths. They were scrambling around like the ants in Nana Verna’s salad. Mr. Franklin, whose job for the last twenty years had been to prepare the bean soup, which he believed was the best in town, (I had heard him bragging more than once), had started the fire under an ancient iron cauldron big enough to cook up a good-sized pig in. He liked to add a dollop of gasoline to get the fire going and had burned off his eyebrows more than once. He wiped his brow as he saw Alfie Masters come over.
“Can I help?” Alfie asked.
Alfie always wanted to help at church picnics, although he was not known for outstanding personal hygiene. What he was known for was “taking fits.” He had epilepsy but no one really knew what that was. They just knew that he sometimes fell down in the grocery store on the stacks of toilet paper, or on the cracked sidewalks, flailing like a cat with its tail on fire.
“I don’t need no help, Alfie!” Mr. Franklin shouted, trying to shoo Alfie away.
He knew the old ladies would have his head if something happened to Alfie but he couldn’t send him over to help with the booths. No one trusted Alfie with a hammer either, fearing that he might "go down swingin’".
I could see Mr. Franklin wracking his brain trying to think of some other task as Alfie teetered over the cauldron looking down at its contents.
“Alfie, go on and--”
But as Mr. Franklin opened his mouth, Alfie’s eyes rolled back in his head and he started jittering and frothing at the mouth. He flew 'tits over teakettles' right into the huge pot of bean soup. Mr. Franklin grabbed the old canoe paddle he used to stir the soup and levered Alfie back out of the muck. Beans and ham bits pooled beneath his glasses. Luckily, the soup was just warm.
Alfie was okay-- just greasy. As he shook himself off and started for home, Mrs. Benson’s poodle jumped out of her yard across the street and followed him down the sidewalk, licking soup bits that dripped down his pants legs. As I said, it was waste not, want not in Frackville. This applied even to the dogs. The folks at the block party commented that Mr. Franklin’s bean soup was the tastiest ever. Little did they know that it 'd had some extra-special, unwashed flavoring. It could've been something Verna had cooked up-- except that it was edible and contained no insects, at least none that I knew of.
Colleen Halupa is a graduate of the creative writing program at the University of Denver. She is a professor, former health administrator and Air Force veteran. She is a multi-modal writer, but primarily writes creative nonfiction. Her topic of choice is the anthracite coal region of Pennsylvania in the late 1960s and 1970s.