Growing up all of our food was fresh. There was no frozen food in plastic bags or microwavable containers. Food either came from the garden, or the large local ethnic market, called the Westside Market. The “processing” and cooking were done at home.
In order to get to “The Market”, as it was called, we took the streetcar. It cost 0.03 cents. The market had every kind of food imaginable – cultures converged there. There were German sausages, Polish pierogis, Greek pastries, Hungarian Chimney cakes, warm chestnuts in the winter, all kinds of fruits and vegetables and live animals: chickens, ducks and rabbits to name a few.
Every Saturday morning my mother and we children took the streetcar to The Market. The street car was jam-packed with a representative of every family in the neighborhood. We all piled in on West 65th street. Good gossip and cooking tips were exchanged by all of the grandmothers and mothers.
Part of my mother’s shopping list always included a couple of live chickens for the week’s dinners of chicken soup, chicken parmesan with pasta, roasted chicken breast, and chicken sandwiches. Occasionally we’d fish out chicken feet from a pot of pasta sauce.
The butcher would wrap up the chickens in newspaper and we carried them home by their feet, their heads upside down. You can imagine a streetcar full of immigrants each with her 2 or 3 chickens firmly in hand. The squawking and the clucking – and that was just the women – not to mention the noise from the chickens – made for a very lively return trip. The entire streetcar emptied on the top of West 65th Street as women and children made their way home.
In order to corral the chickens and not have them running loose, we created a pen using four kitchen chairs. Inevitably one chicken always escaped and made a run for it. And who could blame them?
It was my brother Tony who was in charge of chasing and catching the poor things for “processing”. Having lived through that experience you might understand why we preferred meatballs to chicken anything. After all we never met any cows.
Still my mother was not above sending us to school with the biggest chicken sandwiches imaginable. It wasn’t the chicken that made the sandwich so big. It was the bread. Growing up we never had sliced bread. That was an American thing. As Italians, we purchased loaves of country-style bread from the local baker. And we cut them ourselves. The two slices my mother carved for each sandwich could have served the multitudes in the Gospel version of the loaves and the fishes. We could have fed the whole school with amount of bread she used. She wrapped each sandwich lovingly in newspaper.
As you’ve probably already guessed by now, we wasted nothing in our neighborhood. Everything was used and reused.
If we didn’t eat chicken sandwiches, we ate eggplant or fried pepper sandwiches. I used to beg my mother for bologna sandwiches and sliced American bread. But Oscar Mayer was for Germans. And according to my mother, if we bought American (sliced) bread we’d shame the baker.
Of course such large slices of bread made it nearly impossible to fit into the traditional toasters of the time. We ended up toasting the bread in the oven which made the bread harder than Carrara marble. Thank goodness for coffee as we used it soften the bread by dunking it.
Life was good and flavorful.