DIANE MAKAR MURPHY Preserving the tasty traditions of Valley 'foodways'
"Potica," my mother corrected, saying it "Po-teetzah."
"Povitica," my dad would repeat. It was their own version of the Cole Porter lyrics: "You say tomato; I say to-maHto." But it didn't really matter to me. Either way, it was a mouth-watering nut bread that appeared on holidays and at funerals.
Such trivia interests Elizabeth Nohra, assistant director, Mahoning Valley Historical Society. For example, she's intrigued that a staff member's Puerto Rican father-in-law makes a meat pie called a pastele and uses a tool called a pilon to crush the spices for it. Soon, Nohra and her staff will call churches, ethnic grocery stores, restaurants, and community centers trying to find out more of the Valley's "foodways."
"What recipes and traditions did [immigrants to the Valley] bring over? What stories related to food were passed down? Where is the socializing done? Where do you get ingredients? Where do people sit at the table?" Nohra asked. (In my family, my Croatian grandmother often sat in the kitchen while we ate at the dining room table.)
Foodways are the "utensils, recipes, and food-related traditions immigrants brought with them to their new countries," and Nohra is starting the process of developing an exhibit for the Arms Museum to be based on the Valley's foodways.
The 29-year-old history lover has great affection and enthusiasm for this project. With a Romanian mother, schooled in Lebanese cooking, she's been experiencing various foodways since she was born. Now, armed with a grant from the International Institute, an organization devoted to preserving immigrant history, she and staff are beginning the delightful, but daunting, task of research. Everyone with a family recipe, a special mealtime memory, or an interesting cooking or eating tool is invited to contribute.
"When people come to our area, the first thing they comment on is the food," Nohra said. "Let's face it, we love to eat here. And our kinds of food reflect on the people who are here."
Nohra said it's possible our food traditions live on beyond our other cultural traditions. "Many of the young people at my church don't know the Lebanese dances, but they know tabouli, flat bread, and pita," she said. "Do they carry on the traditional dress? No. But they carry on the foods."
Nohra said, however, that she fears traditions are getting lost as people turn to restaurant chains. "I do think [in our area] you can find places that represent various cultures, but, I guess, I don't think there's enough sharing going on," Nohra said. "Not just preserving, but sharing."
Nohra hopes if people come see the Arms Museum exhibit in the fall, "What's Cookin': Cultural Diversity in Local Foodways," they may see a recipe, write it down, try it, and even develop an appreciation for someone's cultural history - maybe even their own.
One dream is to fund a cookbook with recipes representing all the Valley's ethnic groups and make it available at the exhibit. "All the churches have one," Nohra said. "I'd like to pull them all together and say, 'This is what we are like in the Mahoning Valley.'"
Hopefully, portions of the exhibit geared toward children will share the traditions between generations, she said. Plans for the exhibit also call for a mock ethnic grocery store and a mini-luncheonette.
The MVHS interns are already doing background work for the exhibit, reading ethnic case studies of foodways to see how others have done the questioning and archiving. Next, they will delve into the MVHS collection of photographs, tools, and books.
Finally, they will go into the community to search for stories. But again, Nohra would love it if you would take your story to them. To share your family's foodways, call her at (330) 743-2589.