By GUY D’ASTOLFO
22Whether in the kitchens of homes in immigrant neighborhoods or the home-grown restaurants that once thrived here — and to an extent still do — meals are an integral part of the Mahoning Valley’s collective memory.
A special event this month will keep those memories alive.
Dubbed “Memorable Meals,” it will take place April 27 at the Tyler History Center, downtown. Memorable Meals will feature the original dishes from Valley restaurants, many of which have fallen by the wayside, and kitchen tables. Guests will be able to sample the dishes.
There also will be informative talks by Thomas Welsh, co-author of the new book “Classic Restaurants of Youngstown,” and live entertainment by jazz guitarist Teddy Pantelas.
Memorable Meals, which has been 14 months in the making, will benefit two groups that specialize in regional food and the city’s past: Grow Youngstown, an advocate for local farming; and the Mahoning Valley Historical Society.
Jack Kravitz (owner of Kravitz Deli) and Welsh are part of the committee that put the event together. The two researched the meals that many find so memorable.
“I see it the event as a celebration of indigenous foods that we think of as classic Valley foods,” said Kravitz, whose Jewish deli has been a fixture on the North Side and Liberty for decades. “There is such a diversity here,” he said, reeling off foods that have got the Youngstown touch: corned beef, pirogi, wedding soup, hot peppers and oil and the spinning bowl salad. All will be featured at Memorable Meals.
The spinning bowl salad took its name from the way it was made, with a machine that rotated to toss the ingredients. It originated at the now-defunct 20th Century Restaurant, and can still be ordered at Kravitz.
Some dishes that are common here are prepared in multiple ways, depending on the ethnicity of the cook.
“Take stuffed cabbage,” said Kravitz. “My mom made it sweet and sour. Italians used tomato sauce on it. Hungarians used no tomato sauce at all, but sauerkraut and its juice. Germans added caraway seeds. The Polish would add no sugar. If there was sugar, they didn’t want it. It wouldn’t be Polish.”
Kravitz noted that folks associate these types of dishes with family and growing up.
Elsa Higby of Grow Youngstown pointed out that locally produced ingredients are one reason why things tasted better in the past.
Her group is introducing local produce into area restaurants, and into the Memorable Meals menu. Meats, eggs and cheese from six area farmers — Douglas and Rosemary Weaver, Salem; Red Basket Farm, Kinsman; G. Burbick Farms, Columbiana; Middlefield Original Cheese Co-op; Birdsong Farm, Garrettsville; and Iron Roots Farm, Youngstown — will be used in the dishes at the event.
“People also associate these memorable meals with the preparing of the food, including gardening,” Higby said. “They remember the time spent making the meals.”
Youngstown’s neighborhoods usually had multiple ethnic groups living side by side, she noted, and the residents shared each others’ cultural traditions. “The easiest portal to community has always been food,” said Higby.
Kravitz agreed. “Food brings us together,” he said, citing the area’s many festivals centered around ethnic food.
Cheryl Lewis of the MVHS noted that memorable meals are associated with the immigrants who settled in the area. They opened restaurants that specialized in the foods of their homeland.
Welsh, who co-authored “Classic Restaurants of Youngstown” with Gordon Morgan, expects that there will be lots of reminiscing at the Memorable Meals event. “You will find foods here that you wouldn’t find in other parts of the country,” he said. “Youngstown’s restaurant industry was once cutting edge for a city of its size.”
Welsh’s research into Valley restaurants ranges from 1945 to the present, with a special focus on the city’s post-war heyday. He cited the Dog House chain, which started in Youngstown and spread to 33 states, and the 20th Century Restaurant, which was housed in an eye-catching Miami Beach-style art-deco building
Local cuisine has faded with the rise of chain restaurants, Welsh said, although some spots from Youngstown’s proud past are still thriving: Kravitz Deli, the Golden Dawn Restaurant (North Side), Jimmy’s (Liberty), the MVR (downtown), the Sunrise (Warren) and Handel’s Ice Cream.