By Sean Barron
A brief observation during a typical morning at the St. George Lodge Croatian Center’s kitchen quickly reveals well-run, highly organized and assembly line-like teamwork.
Cooks, dishwashers and those who meticulously prepare food work in lockstep and harmony with one another toward the goal of having hundreds of meals ready in time for guests and lodge members later in the day.
You might say the twin engines of this well-oiled operation are sisters Mary Golec and Nada Bada.
“Both of us cook the old- fashioned way — everything from scratch,” Nada said in summing up the style she learned as a young woman in her native Croatia. “In Croatia, you learn to do things the simple way, not out of a box.”
Nada, 66, and Mary, 73, spoke recently at the St. George Lodge, 3200 Vestal Road on the West Side, about their forays into cooking, as well as their experiences at the Croatian center.
The sisters came to the Mahoning Valley in the 1960s and have spent about 35 years adding their touches to countless meals at the lodge, Nada recalled while taking a break from preparing chicken and soup to feed an expected 300 people. Perhaps the main ingredient of their meals is tradition — everything from food presentation to the 40-year-old pans they use.
“We’re busy most of the time,” Nada said with a dash of modesty.
The sisters, who sometimes arrive at the lodge as early as 6 a.m., often include in their dishes stuffed yellow peppers and other vegetables grown in their garden. On occasion, a special vegetable-based seasoning from Croatia finds its way into soup broth they carefully stir and tend to.
Nada also isn’t shy about doling out instructions and, if necessary, gentle constructive criticism, to those around her.
“I’m very particular,” Nada said, adding that she also takes great pride in food appearance and cleanliness.
Nada and Mary also cook for private parties and cater to funerals, graduation parties and other special occasions, she continued.
The more taciturn Mary, who in 1960 came to Youngstown to visit an aunt and got married, said she’s happy being an integral part of the lodge family.
“I have no special dish,” said Mary, who was preparing and stacking large pans of noodles and arranging pieces of chicken on trays while others chopped lettuce and carrots, arranged desserts and whipped mashed potatoes.
The sisters are a godsend to the Croatian lodge and remain highly dedicated, noted Ron Ples of Canfield, a longtime lodge volunteer who also taught 31 years at Canfield High School.
The lodge, which has an estimated 1,700 members, also features traditional Friday fish dinners, all-you-can-eat buffets on some Thursdays, and special dinners open to the public during November, January and February, Ples explained.
“If we don’t have a dinner, we have an event. There’s something special we hold every month,” said Ples, whose father, the late John Ples, served nearly 50 years as lodge president, vice president and manager.
So, after more than three decades, what are Mary and Nada’s assessment of their time at the lodge?
“We have a wonderful life,” Nada said. “We wouldn’t change it for anything.”
For more information about joining St. George, call 330-799-0914.