One of my favorite books that I had to read for college was Thomas Bell’s Out of this Furnace. It’s your standard immigrant novel at the turn of the last century, but the reason I liked it so much was that it takes place in Pittsburgh and not in New York City. Bell actually modeled his novel after the experiences of his own family, Slovakian immigrants who had come to America to work in the steel mills in Braddock, Pennsylvania, a small borough located down the Monongahela river from Pittsburgh’s city center. (Braddock was also the site of the first Carnegie library in the United States.) Many people equate New York City’s Lower East Side as the mecca of 19th and 20th century immigration, and yet Pittsburgh was once home to thousands of immigrants from countries in both Eastern and Western Europe.
Pittsburgh’s North Side today is home to the city’s baseball and football stadiums, and yet an area of it was founded by mostly German immigrants in the mid-late 19th century and was collectively known as Deutschtown (German town). Gertrude Stein, one of America’s most famous literary intellectuals, was born to German Jewish parents in Allegheny, Pennsylvania, a historic neighborhood that merged with Pittsburgh in 1907 and was also located on the North Side.
Polish Hill, a neighborhood today that is predominantly African-American, was settled by Polish immigrants in the late 1800s and is home to the Immaculate Heart of Mary, one of the city’s oldest and largest churches and was built in the Polish Cathedral style. Other neighborhoods that were once home to large immigrant populations from Central and Eastern Europe who came to Pittsburgh to work in its many mills are the South Side and Homestead. Today, the ornate Eastern European churches in these neighborhoods serve as daily reminders of the city’s deep and rich immigrant past. One of the great things about these churches is that each year some of them host incredible food festivals. Although I’ve been to Greek food festivals multiple times and a couple of years ago went to a Rusyn one (no I don’t mean Russian; it is a term somewhat outdated by today’s standards that was used to describe ethnic Ukrainians), I haven’t really tried many others, although numerous other ethnic food festivals take place.
This past weekend D and I attended the food festival at St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church in the city’s Oakland neighborhood. Although other Greek food festivals take place, people generally say that the food at St. Nicholas’ is the best. Food is offered both indoors and outdoors, although outdoors, the menu is much smaller and features mostly grilled items like gyros and Greek fries. Inside, everything is offered from quintessential Greek dishes like moussaka and souvlaki to smaller things like tiropita (layers of phyllo pastry filled with a mixture of feta and other cheeses and eggs and then baked) to dolmathes (an herb and rice mixture wrapped in marinated grape leaves and then simmered in a flavored broth). Last but not least there are the desserts-baklava being the most well known, in addition to loukoumades, and diples, many others.
Although your bill can add up very quickly with all the delicious stuff there is to try, all of the food is made by volunteers and so all proceeds directly benefit the church.
While the great wave of immigrants from Europe has long since ended, you need look no further than a food festival in Pittsburgh to see how their descendants carry on culinary traditions.