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January – Barb Spencer

Yin and yang. Wine and cheese. Hugs and kisses.  Everyone knows they go together.  And if you know Barb Sprock Spencer, you know that for her, food and family go together!  Barb, of Slovakian descent, was the first of twelve women to kindly agree to serve as a “cultural chef” for my new cooking/blogging adventure, “A Yummy Year: Cultures, Cooking & Connections.” Each month women from a variety of cultures will tutor me in the preparation, art, and tradition of their family’s favorite ethnic dishes.  Together, we will explore different cuisines, pay tribute to their ancestors and the countries from which they immigrated and celebrate the power of food to bring people together.

Two weeks before we were scheduled to cook, Barb shared photos of and recipes from “A Taste of Saint Florian”, a cookbook written in 2003 by the Slovakian Catholic Community in United, Pennsylvania. Doing a little research, I learned that the church played a huge part in the lives of thousands of immigrants from central European countries that came to work in western Pennsylvania. These immigrants brought with them their customs, traditions, their Catholic faith and thank goodness, their delicious recipes! Barb said, “All the church ladies had specialties. My mother was known for her Vilia or traditional Christmas Eve Dinner.”

According to the description in the aforementioned cookbook, the Vilia, which originated in eastern and central Europe, was an early evening dinner gathering of the entire family. Though meat was not served, the menu consisted of at least a dozen savory dishes, wine and sweets made by different family members and brought to the celebration.  After much consultation, Barb and I decided we would give it the old college try and prepare pierogi, machanka (mushroom and sauerkraut soup) and kolache!

Barb showed up at my house on a Tuesday morning with arms full! The giant plastic storage bin she carried contained mushrooms, sauerkraut, and walnuts as well as other recipe ingredients, a pasta maker, specialized pots, a pastry mat, rolling pin and I can’t even remember what else!  Luckily, she’s in great shape from weightlifting otherwise she never would have made it!  We quickly got down to business. Barb put the mushrooms on to boil for the machanka. Then she started mixing and rolling the dough for the kolache and directed me to grate the cheddar cheese and peel and boil the potatoes for the pierogies. I have to say we worked well together and probably to no one’s surprise…talked the entire time!

As we peeled and rolled, Barb told me about growing up outside of Pittsburgh in Westmoreland county as the oldest of three children. During her first six years she and her family lived in a small apartment above a bar and dance hall that her father owned and operated. During the week it was a regular “working man’s bar” but the weekends gave way to live music and lots of dancing! The eclectic performers included rock-n-roll bands, polka groups and country musicians who loved playing for the lively dance crowds.  Barb laughed remembering that when the country music performers were scheduled to play her father would say, “The cowboys are coming!”

Asked if her father made a good living, Barb said, “I thought so. I was happy.”  She said that her father worked hard and often rented out the dance hall for wedding receptions, family reunions and other large events. She recalled feeling proud as she helped sweep the sawdust off the dance floor on Sunday mornings and her father rewarding her with a nickel for the jukebox.  As the family grew, they needed more space. Barb’s father sold the bar and purchased a hotel, where the family lived for many years.  She fondly remembers having a lot more space.  She and her siblings were able to play outside, her parents tended a large vegetable garden, and her 95-year-old grandfather came to live with them. “I loved seeing him on the porch when I came home from school.  He was such a cute, old man!”

When she finished rolling the kolache dough, Barb spread the nut filling (grated walnuts, sugar, vanilla, butter, and milk) over the thin, smooth, rectangular surface and together we shaped it into a long thin loaf.  Before scoring the top of the kolache, Barb used a silicone pastry brush to apply an egg wash to give the crust a shiny, golden-brown finish. As she slid the kolache into the oven, I asked, “Was your mother the one who taught you to bake?”  “She didn’t so much teach me as she directed me,” Barb replied.  “There weren’t formal instructions, but I guess I learned by watching her and following her example.”  Once the nut roll was in the oven, Barb pulled out a a full-page article entitled, “A Typical Slovak Christmas Eve Menu” from Jednota, a Catholic, Slovak Union that has its own newspaper.  Who knew? Probably most of us have heard about the Food Sections in large newspapers like The Washington Post or New York Times. But a Slovakian newspaper published in Ohio…now that’s an example of cultural diversity worth celebrating!

While Barb was working on the kolache, I chopped and added onions and then sauerkraut to the mushroom soup. It smelled absolutely amazing and honestly, I was starving!  I asked Barb if we could eat the soup and she said, “Not yet. I have to add the barley.” “WHAT!! There’s no barley in the recipe,” I cried.  Barb explained, “My Aunt Mary made the Christmas Eve soup and she added barley. That’s how she did it so that’s how I do it!”  I had to remind myself not to mess with long-standing family traditions. They exist for a reason. Once I finally got to taste the mushroom soup with the barley it was beyond delicious.  The soup was rich, savory and hearty…and more than worth the wait!

We took a much-needed break for a delicious lunch. Along with the soup we ate toasted ciabatta bread and a fresh green salad made with carrots, celery, purple onion, and avocado. Sitting there with Barb, I was curious to know more about her extended family. “So, Aunt Mary made the soup. Did everyone have an assigned dish?” Barb replied, “My mom, Florence, made the pierogies and Aunt Millie and her son Bob made the mushroom gravy. Everyone else either made kolache or bought it from the church ladies.”  Laughing, she added, “Selling kolache was a great fundraiser!”  As Barb’s story continued, I learned that when her Bubba (grandmother) made pierogies she would roll enough dough to cover the entire table.  Over time as the family grew and the celebration included 40-60 people Barb’s mother made a strategic decision. She purchased frozen pierogies but still made the buttered onions and other toppings from scratch.

I asked Barb if her three adult children loved to cook as much as she and her husband, Jim.  “Definitely…and I eat so well when they visit,” she said.   A few years ago, Barb’s daughter Annie insisted that they make the pierogies for the Vilia from scratch using the old family recipe.  Everyone agreed and they had as much fun cooking as they did sharing stories.  Barb said, it’s amazing to watch her children, nieces and nephews make the pierogies. “It looks like an assembly line in a factory.  Somebody rolls the dough, someone cuts it, one cousin makes the filling, rolls it into balls and weighs it so each pierogi is the same size, another cousin stuffs and seals the pierogies and someone boils the pasta just the right amount of time!” Then she pulled out her phone and showed me a video!  OMG…they looked like a very industrious colony of ants moving to and fro with a clear purpose, which I’m guessing was to eat the world’s best tasting pierogies!

Fortified after our extremely tasty meal, we were ready to tackle the homemade pasta for the pierogies.  We made the dough according to the recipe, but Barb had warned me that additional flour would probably be needed.  “Start off by following the directions,” she said. “And then slowly add flour until you achieve the perfect texture.”  I realize those directions are a little vague, but they made sense to me.  I know dough!  I’ve been making pies for more than 40 years and learned long ago to speak its language. However, this was the first time I had ever attached a pasta roller to my KitchenAid Stand Mixer…I love learning and trying new things! We stood side-by-side, taking turns feeding small balls of dough into the top of the pasta maker and catching the wide, thin strips that emerged from the bottom.  It was challenging, fun and strangely hypnotic and calming.  I had a Zen moment, so engrossed in the purring of the mixer and the texture and rhythm of the dough as it moved through my fingers, I was totally present; mind and body connected.  Surprised at the time by my sense of calm, I later thought, “What could be more relaxing than learning something new from a good friend and patient teacher as we share stories, laugh, honor and remember those who went before us and share our hopes for our children and grandchildren.”

“Next we have to cut the pasta into approximately 4-inch circles,” Barb said.  I didn’t have the right size cutter but luckily, I’m a creative problem solver.  My husband’s fancy dancy stainless steel cocktail shaker that our son gave him for his birthday last year made the perfect cutting tool!  I’m not going to lie, it was time consuming to form the potato and cheese filling into balls, place them on the center of the pasta circles and seal the edges with a fork. As we worked, I learned that Barb is no stranger to hard work.  As a college student Barb worked three part time jobs while she pursued her bachelor’s degree.  She and her husband raised three wonderful children while pursuing full-time careers, which involved uprooting their young family and working in France for a few years.  Later, while working at Hospice of Washington County as a Certified Nurse Practitioner and supervising nursing students at Shepherd University, Barb earned her Doctor of Nursing Practice Degree. In 2019 she founded her own business, Wellness Works, which combines her 37 years of health experience with her passion for physical fitness.  Barb said, “After achieving my health and fitness goals and going from obese to competitive body builder, I started Wellness Works as a way to help others experience the same success.”  As I listened to Barb, I was impressed and inspired.  The story of her work ethic reminded me of a quote by Lou Holtz who said, “Winners embrace hard work. They love the discipline of it, the trade-off they’re making to win.”

We had been cooking for close to six hours when I said, “Now I see why the Vilia is a communal meal, and everyone cooks and brings a dish to share.”  Though we were zeroing in on the end of our delicious adventure, I had to stop. I was scheduled to lead the Prime Time for Women Book Club via Zoom. I invited Barb to join the discussion, but she declined.  Instead, I held up my laptop so all the ladies could say hello to Barb and marvel at her culinary masterpieces!  When the book club was over, an hour and a half later, I entered the kitchen to find Barb and my husband chatting as they wiped their hands and admired the spotlessly clean kitchen. Yay…I got lucky!  No dishes for me!

Though it was a bright sunny day when she arrived, it was cold and dark as I helped Barb carry her cooking equipment out to the car.  I hugged her, thanked her for sharing her knowledge, her stories, her culture, and herself.  I thanked her for a remarkable day.  As I stood watching Barb back out of the driveway, a smile on her face, I was more convinced than ever that cooking really is the best way to connect family across generations, to fondly remember those who have passed and to joyfully anticipate sharing treasured recipes and stories with those yet to be born.



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