TRUE STORIES: The bountiful Little Balkans

J.T. Knoll
J.T. Knoll

No matter how grim life got for the immigrant coal miners and their families here in the Little Balkans, summer provided sweet solace in the form of a vegetable garden.

Even into the 1950s, most every house on my paper route had one out back – or on the side. Lettuce, onions, red potatoes, green beans, zucchini, peppers, cucumbers, tomatoes, sweet corn, eggplant, and a variety of melons and squash.

Most had an herb garden as well. Fennil, rosemary, thyme, dill weed and garlic were harvested. In many a yard you could find fig trees. Lots of families grew grapes for wine.

When we lived to Oak Park, Illinois in the 1970s, I planted a small garden out back, but when I returned to Kansas, there was no need for all that sweatin’ and diggin’. Fresh produce was available at roadside stands, from gardener friends, at Johnny Spig’s in the Republic, and, for some years now, the Pittsburg Farmers Market.

My favorites are far and away tomatoes and sweet corn. To bite into a slice of fresh-picked tomato or gnaw down a row of just-shucked and boiled sweet corn is to enter what the Irish call one of the “thin places” — where the distance between heaven and earth collapses.

As a culinary treat for this year’s Little Balkans Days celebration, the 1986 Little Balkans Regional Cookbook has been reprinted and is on sale for $15 at the Pittsburg Chamber of Commerce, 4th and Pine, and the Angela Meyer Law Office, 1325 N. Broadway.  

Not only is it full of local family recipes (and names), it includes a new forward by founding Little Balkans Days president, Penny Armstrong and the original introduction by Little Balkans favorite son, Gene DeGruson.

DeGruson quotes the diary of Margaret E. Haughawout describing an evening spent with Pittsburg native and noted folklorist Vance Randolph nearly a hundred years ago: “We went back to Frontenac and had a supper of salami – the sausage they made the night before – gorgonzola, cream cheese, tuna fish, fresh homemade bread, peppers put up in vinegar, salt and water.”

As the passage indicates, many families also butchered their own pigs and cattle to make sausage and salami (Most times in large gatherings with plenty of wine and beer). They also cured ham and prosciutto and raised chickens, not only for the eggs but also as the main ingredient in a variety of ethnic dishes.

Because of the diversity of our area, Degruson writes, food of French, Italian, or Austrian origin might arrive at the table as casually as dishes which originated in England, Scotland, or Ireland. Inhabitants of the Little Balkans accept this as commonplace.

“Recipes,” he states, “like legends and family history, were passed down from mother to daughter, and, as neighbors developed, from home to home.”

How timely that that Miners Hall Museum will host “Tasting the Past: Exploring Kansas Food Memories,” a presentation and discussion by Louise Hanson this Sunday, August 22nd, at 2:00 p.m. at the museum in Franklin.

Hanson will share her research on how ethnic groups in Kansas have used food to maintain connections to the past. This presentation will explore food traditions from a number of ethnic populations in Kansas, including German, Czech, Italian, Jewish, and others.

Members of the community are invited to attend the free program. Contact the Miners Hall Museum at 620-347-4220 for more information. The program is made possible by Humanities Kansas.

Getting back to the historic food offerings of our area, on Saturday, September 4th, at this year’s Little Balkans Days Festival, there will be two ethnic cooking demonstrations at Lincoln Center.

At 11:00 a.m., Parsons Middle School home economics students will cook Bierocks (German pocket pastries) and, at 12 p.m., Dr. Ron Seglie will cook polenta (Italian corn meal mush. My north Italian grandma combined hers with chicken and tomato sauce.)

Best of all, both demonstrations will include recipes and samples. (I’ll be emcee at the Folklife music stage in the park but I plan to sneak over for a taste … or send an emissary to bring back a sample.)

If you’re anything like me, just thinking about all these gastronomic delights has your mouth watering and stomach growling.

No problem here. I’ve got a bunch of homegrown tomatoes in the kitchen. As the Guy Clark song says:

“You can put ‘em in a salad. You can put ‘em in a stew. You can make your very own tomato juice. You can eat ‘em with eggs. You can eat ‘em gravy. You can eat ‘em with beans – pinto or navy. You can eat ‘em on the side. Eat’ em in the middle. Homegrown tomatoes on a hotcake griddle!”

J.T. Knoll is a writer, speaker and eulogist. He also operates Knoll Training & Consulting in Pittsburg. He can be reached at 231-0499 or jtknoll@swbell.net