FOOD! Glorious Food
Philadelphia is considered one of the top locations for great restaurants and fantastic food. I mean, what could be better than an Italian Hoagie, a Steak Sandwich on an Amorosa roll, a couple of soft pretzels and, of course, a Cherry Wishniak Franks soda? I would take these Philly favorite foods over any high-quality restaurant, any day.
There are those who would say I am crazy. “Why,” they say, “would you take peasant food over high-quality cuisine?” I’ll tell you why. I grew up eating what I call “factory workers’ food,” and it was wonderful. Now I have to say my dad did not work in a factory when I was young. He owned a poolroom. But during WW2, he worked at the Budd plant, and later my mom worked at Gerald Electronics. My grandfather worked in the textile business most of his life. So, what we ate was determined by what we could afford and what our ancestors taught our grandparents and parents. I would bet you feel the same way.
The first aspect of eating “factory workers’ food” is that you probably ate supper at 5 PM or, at the latest, 5:30 PM. This was when the factory workers were getting home, and they were hungry. The second aspect was the type of food. This might be slightly different for families that were Irish, German, Italian, Polish, Jewish, Hispanic or African American and so on. In fact, the dishes from all of these households are often cross-pollinated. The younger you are, the more that happens.
I’ll tell you what foods we most often ate and which day of the week we were most likely to find them on my Grandmother and Mothers’ menu. It would be very cool to hear about your eating habits as a kid. So please post in the comments.
I don’t remember eating much cereal, including oatmeal, as a kid. I was born in 1944. The predominant breakfast included bacon or pork roll, eggs, white bread toast or better yet, snowflake or Kaiser rolls from the local bakery. Occasionally we had scrapple, and my brother, Bill and I liked it almost burnt and crispy. When young, we drank milk that was delivered daily. You had to be sure to shake the bottle to mix in the cream that floated to the top. My grandmothers always also had Danish available.
Of course, this depended on where you were for lunch, school or home. It isn’t worth talking about school food, so I’ll tell you what we ate for lunch after playing in the street all morning. My all-time favorite lunch was Lebanon Baloney, American Cheese, Kosher Pickles (the kind in a barrel), Guldens Mustard, topped with Wise Potato Chips and German Rye Bread. Every time I talk about this, my brother Bill, who lives across the bridge in Jersey, goes out and buys the fixing for this sandwich.
Occasionally, we would have some other types of sandwiches like ham and cheese, boloney and cheese, grilled cheese and maybe Campbell's Soup. Soda was the lunch drink, and it varied. If it was after a holiday, my favorite was the leftover Ginger Ale from mixing highballs at a party.
This depends on which day it was, but there were some givens. Sunday always included a roast, mostly roast beef, roasted potatoes, corn, green beans and maybe peas. No salad. There was often no bread at our dinners, maybe because we ate it all at breakfast and lunch. 😊 More likely, it was because my grandmother always had Butter Cake or Crumb Cake for dessert. Mostly they came from Webb’s Bakery on Front Street.
Friday was a given also because my dad grew up Catholic. We had Mac and Cheese. The good homemade kind. Also, canned Tuna with mayo, coffee from the A&P on Front Street, and dad-like pie. But at some point, he got onto a health kick and gave up smoking and drinking and started eating canned fruit salad. I am not sure canned fruit salad was all that healthy.
Thursday was spaghetti night, and it was great. No, it wasn’t the kind of great meal some of our Italian neighbors made, but it was wonderful. My mom had learned how to make the right sauce, and, of course, that made the difference. Beef meatballs with breadcrumbs were the best.
Mondays, Tuesdays, Saturdays, and Wednesdays were open for creativity. My favorite was meatloaf, but we also might have homemade pea soup, homemade veggie soup, meat cakes (also a favorite of mine), baked ham, scrabbled hamburger or fried or baked chicken. Occasionally, we had chicken pot pie or beef pie.
My grandfather liked to eat fish, especially if he caught it, and he often made Flounder. Sometimes he scrambled eggs and puts the flounder in them. Not my cup of tea. Learned from the hard times of his childhood, my grandfather also liked to lay down slices of white bread in a roasting pan. He put tomatoes on top and then played cheese and baked it. It was very good.
Christmas and Thanksgiving were always Turkey days. Of course, that included stuffing, mashed potatoes, green bean casserole, cranberry sauce (canned) and three different pies or cakes. It was the only time of the year that we had Turkey.
Easter was always baked ham with cloves and bathed in ginger ale, potato salad, a couple of veggies and, of course, cake or pie from Webb’s. New Year’s Day was also a baked ham day, but no potato salad, just masked potatoes. Of course, there was plenty of ginger ale from the night before. New Year’s Eve often meant hotdogs and roast beef sandwiches at midnight. My grandmother always had coffee cake and coffee at 12 on New Year’s Eve.
Soft pretzels, TastyKakes, penny candies, 10-cent ice cream cones, soda such as Hire’s Root beer, Pepsi, sometimes Coca-Cola, Frank’s beverages, Yahoo and Bireley’s Orange or Grape drinks were normal. Popcorn, Good and Plenty’s at the movie were highlights, and Hot Tamales, Hersey’s and other candies came with two features, a serial, newsreels, and sometimes a Yoyo demonstration or bike giveaway.
All these foods, and many I probably don’t remember, always came with a family gathering to celebrate a holiday or just to have a meal together. That is the real appeal of the Philly foods I experienced. It was enjoying them with family and friends.
What were your favorite foods? I can tell you that if you post them, the simple act of describing them will fill your brain with fond memories of days long gone.
Post also on The Kensington Neighborhood Alumni group on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/groups/KensingtonAlumnae
Reading your writings on Food Glorious Food brought back so many memories. My dad made oatmeal for breakfast almost everyday of his life. I would eat it once in a while, but it wasn’t a favorite. Growing up poor, if we didn’t have lebanon baloney, regular baloney or ham and cheese, we often ate ketchup sandwiches, butter and sugar sandwiches and onion sandwiches. We actually enjoyed them. We never had spaghetti because my mother was told as a child that spaghetti noodles were made from worms. It stuck with her so she never made spaghetti. As an adult I love it and make it quite often. When Bauer’s bakery went up for sale, I ended up working for the new owners (Siewert’s bakery). I worked for them until they sold it and to this day I still remain friends with Walt Siewert, his wife Carol passed away around 10 years ago. My brothers and sisters used to go to McCarthy’s (the corner store) and buy Kosher pickles out of the barrel for 5 cents. A pickle could be a meal for us. My family had wonderful times and memories of growing up in Kensington. I always say bring back the old days; unfortunately, they’re never coming back.
Our mom wasn’t a great cook. There wasn’t as much variety in our meals, but we always had enough to fill our bellies. We ate at 5 o’clock, except on Saturdays. That day was usually when I got sent to Leonard’s deli at Kensington and Letterly (?) to get baloney, imported boiled ham, veal loaf, square cheese, and pressed corned beef. We’d get two loaves of fresh Jewish rye bread (sliced and with seeds) and a Kosher pickle from the barrel. Mom would provide a jar so I could bring home some of the juice. My dad would sit in the living room and eat a whole loaf of that rye bread with a pound of butter, all by himself while watching tv. The rest of us made Dagwood sandwiches. It was like an indoor picnic.
As for dinners, the only salad we ever knew of was lettuce and tomato and not served on a plate together. Those two vegetables were only seen on hoagies. In the summer, sliced Jersey tomatoes on white bread with salt, pepper and Hellman’s mayo were worth waiting the other nine months for. Pork chops, meat cakes, hot dogs on a plate, and meatloaf were weekday dinners, except for Friday. Being Catholic we would have macaroni and cheese covered with stewed tomatoes, and corn fritters. My mom’s corn fritters were like corn pancakes. We loved them. Sometimes we’d get treated to fried seafood from Wark’s at Emerald and Huntingdon.
Breakfasts during the week were always cereal. On Sunday my father would make breakfast for us after church. I hated for him to fry my eggs, because the whites were always slimy. With a little prodding and if my mother was in a fairly good mood, I would cajole her into slipping in at the stove and making mine.
I’m now in Florida and do terribly miss some of the foods and especially the baked goods from the mom-and-pop bakeries we used to have. We don’t have any here. Everything comes from a supermarket or Dunkin’ Donuts. What I wouldn’t give for the butter cake from Schmitt’s (2600 Block Kensington Avenue).
Thanks, Harry, for keeping the memories of the old neighborhood alive and well for those of us who shared many of the same memories.