YOUNGSTOWN — Thanksgiving, Nov. 27, 1958: A time when dolls drink and wet and holiday fruitcakes are eaten, not circling the globe being re-gifted.
If you’re the family matriarch, you wake up early because you’re doing the cooking. You paid $7 for that 20-pound (fresh, not frozen) turkey.
You’ll continue the time-honored tradition and serve the requisite mashed potatoes, yams, cranberries, some kind of bean recipe, stuffing, gravy, dinner rolls and pumpkin pie. Maybe throw in a ham, too.
There’s probably a side dish that reflects your ethnicity. Pasta? Wedding soup? Collard greens? Chitterlings? Gandules?
When it comes to food preparation, there are no shortcuts. You’re old school — “from scratch.” That’s why you got up so early.
You have lots of stores, big chains and small neighborhood markets, to shop at for turkey day fixins — Loblaws, A&P, Kroger, Century, Shuntich’s, Salata’s, Hughes Provision Company, Charlie’s, Sol’s, Nazarini’s, Schiavone’s, Bruno’s, Rulli’s and Rimedio’s, to name a few. Big and small, they’ve all got fruitcakes on sale.
“We had turkey, but we had to have pasta, too, every Thanksgiving and Christmas,” Isabel Mancini said, getting a nod from her friend Ida Phillips. “We always baked bread; it was a sin to go to the store and buy it. I think my father would die all over again if he saw store bread for $2.39.”
The Vindicator caught up with Mancini, 73, and Phillips, 76, at St. Anthony Church on a pizza-making Friday. The women, both young mothers in 1958, grew up in Brier Hill, then a mostly Italian section of the city’s North Side. Mancini now lives on the West Side, Phillips in Austintown.
Phillips’ father, a railroad worker, always made sausage as a Thanksgiving side dish. Fruit and nuts were a must, too, said Mancini, whose dad did construction work.
Annual income was roughly $3,500 — good money — Mancini said. Sure, people earn more now, but everything costs more so it balances out, she said.
The women’s faces lit up as they talked about walking to the little stores in their neighborhood and how much they miss those days. The grocers, if times were tough, would mark what you bought in a book and you’d pay later.
Mancini’s dad never owned a car, and women drivers were kind of a novelty. “One lady up the street drove. It was ‘wow,’ a big deal,” she said, laughing. “I was a hairdresser, worked at home. It was nice.”
Phillips was a stay-at-home mom, too. She loved it.
They raved about shopping downtown, pointing out that nearly everyone took the bus. “Buses were wonderful. Miss one and catch another,” Phillips said. “They ran every 15 minutes.”
Since the excursion downtown was usually a daylong event to take in so many stores, everyone got dressed up. Women wore hats and white gloves. Hat shops for men and women were plentiful.
Thinking back to Thanksgiving 1958, Sarah Brown-Clark has vivid memories of her “working-class, respectable African-American” Parmalee Avenue neighborhood and the wonderful cooking smells inside her parents’ home. She was 9.
“Most people owned, were buying their homes. We had two school teachers, a lawyer, mailman, plasterer, two policemen and a chef. My dad was a yardmaster at U.S. Steel,” Brown-Clark said. “I can see my mother cooking and my dad cleaning up after her. I can smell the sweet potato pie, collard greens — and the [corn bread] turkey dressing she made was to die for.”
Brown-Clark, who still lives on the North Side (“I’m a North Sider from my heart”), said everything was made fresh, nothing canned or frozen. For the holiday meal, out came the china and Belgian lace tablecloth for the 10-seat dining room table. The silver had been polished and the chandelier made to sparkle. Two card tables were set up for extra guests.
Fortunately, Brown-Clark’s parents’ 1955 orange and white Oldsmobile 98 had a huge trunk to hold all the food purchases. The turkey came from Hughes Provision Co. downtown on the “East End” where the main post office now stands.
Anita Limbian, who was a young mother living on the East Side in 1958, said the entire post office block between Walnut Street and South Avenue held coffee houses, family food stores, “beer gardens,” barber shops and Sirbu’s Market, where many Romanians shopped.
She’s pretty sure Thanksgiving a half-century ago was celebrated at her Romanian mother-in-law’s house on Neilson Avenue. Turkey, yes, but maybe not pumpkin pie.
“In the ‘old country,’ pumpkin was fed to farm animals, so pumpkin pie would have been more common to first-generation Romanian-Americans than those who were born in Europe,” said Limbian, now a West Sider. A special occasion such as Thanksgiving meant her mother-in-law’s famous pie, called placenta, a pizza-type flat dough covered with either onion or cabbage, baked with egg and sour cream.
Iris Torres Guglucello, who grew up on Jackson Street on the East Side and was 8 in 1958, said her mother made the “best turkey in the world — a lot of flavor. I really miss it.” Being Puerto Rican, their side dishes included rice and gandules, also called pigeon peas.
“Oh, yeah, everything was made from scratch, but the gandules came in a can: Goya brand. They don’t grow here,” she said. “We shopped at the A&P in the Lincoln Knolls Plaza.”
Desserts included bread pudin and rice pudding with a cream made from water and milk poured over shredded whole coconuts in a sieve cloth. Her father, who worked at Youngstown Sheet & Tube, would use a machete to open the coconuts. Tembleque, which tastes like coconut Jell-O, was also served.
“We shopped downtown, too; there was an A&P and the hot dog place, Jay’s, that my father loved,” said Torres Guglucello, now a South Sider. “The Regent Theater showed Spanish movies on Tuesday and Thursday. We’d catch the bus at the corner of Jackson Street and go to the movies — and I loved the frozen malts in Strouss’ basement.”
Fifty years ago, thoughts turned to Christmas while munching turkey leftovers, not leftover Halloween candy. Installment buying was the norm, but credit cards were starting to crop up.
“We didn’t have credit cards,” Mancini said. “We did layaways. Layaways were big.”
People weren’t extravagant then, Limbian said. Kids’ toys were simple.
For Mancini and Phillips, one tradition that held fast over the years was having their kids’ photos taken on Santa’s lap at Strouss’ downtown and shopping in the huge department store. They have fond memories of the sights and sounds of a bustling downtown.
“Everything said ‘Made in USA’ and the toys lasted from one child to another,” Phillips said. “The toys? Oh, tea sets, strollers for baby dolls.”
Torres Guglucello said she and her sister, only a year apart, “were raised girly girls,” so dolls and tea sets would be their gifts that Christmas. “There was Chinese checkers, too. Monopoly. Probably had a doll that wets. My sister and I always got the same toys. We each had dolls with long hair that we’d braid, put in ponytails.”
Brown-Clark’s toys included a Tiny Tears doll and “Betsy Wetsy — some kind of wet,” board games, roller skates with pompoms (to show off at Reed’s Arena) and a chemistry set. The use of the latter burned a hole in her mother’s rug that was nicely hidden by moving the Christmas tree over it.