Well, it’s not really my first food memory, but it’s the memory that I go back to as the moment that defined my entire relationship with food. Unfortunately I have no pictures of chicken feet from Wholey’s to show you, so you’ll just have to imagine them. They look like exactly what you picture when I say “chicken feet”.
This past week I’ve been back in my old stomping grounds, Pittsburgh, PA. I joke that Pittsburgh kids are like salmon – they can’t wait to leave the backwater and go out into the world, but when they reach spawning age they go right back to where they came from. These returning fish have been bringing with them the things they’ve found in the world at large, revitalizing the Steel City in ways I’m not sure it was really prepared for. Pittsburgh is now topping amazing lists like Most Livable Cities, Fastest Growing Cities, and Greenest Cities (and considering its old reputation as “Hell with the lid off” that last one is amazing). The food scene is rapidly growing.
Part of the reason the food scene in da ‘Burgh is becoming so amazing is that it has this amazing foundation. You don’t have to drive more than an hour in any direction to find farmland. The foodways of the Atlantic states, the Midwest, and Appalachia all converge in the steel valley. And the vast immigrant story of the steel factories brought in workers from Italy, Greece, Poland, Croatia, Scotland, Hungary, the Ukraine, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Russia, England, Germany, and others I’m forgetting. The city has continued to welcome people to the rivers convergence, including a rising Nepalese, Bhutanese, and Burmese population.
As recently as the mid-to-late 80s all of these cultures had their own enclaves in the city and mostly kept to themselves. This formed dozens of culinary archipelagos in Pittsburgh. The steel might have been melting together in the great Carnegie bessemers, but the workers kept their own traditions. And they had their own markets.
Being at the center of three rivers, including the Ohio that feeds into the mighty Mississippi, Pittsburgh was a strategic military and shipping hub for many, many years. The drive for traditional ingredients and foods meant that the markets were very excellent.
One of the best places for the markets in the city is called the Strip District. The Strip District used to be the wholesale district where trucks would unload their shipments and you would rub shoulders with the Nonnas, Yayas, Omas, and Babushkas going to get their daily bread, Sunday roasts, and fresh fish. The Strip District today is a hopping, hip place with $6 parking, food trucks, and art galleries jammed shoulder to shoulder with the old Italian markets, the “Black and Gold” supply shops, coffee roasters, and Korean groceries. The cheap music venues have been moved on in the face of increasing rent. The Heinz factory has been converted into fancy lofts and a history museum. Penn and Liberty are clogged with SUVs and Priuses instead of diesel-smoke-spewing semis.
(Not all the changes are bad. There was a dark time when I thought the Strip District was going to become just a cutsie little tourist stop. However the influx of hipsters and their drive for serious food seems to have reversed that trend. The Mole Hole and the Fudgie Wudgie shops are gone. I firmly believe that once a location gets a dedicated fudge shop it becomes a Disneyland-esque shadow of its former self, pandering to tourists.)
Still, not all of the traditions are lost. Pennsylvania Macaroni Company, Prestogeorgie’s coffee roasters, My Ngoc Vietnamese food (which was still named My Dung in my childhood), and of course the original Primanti Brothers. Standing like the lord of the district at the end of Penn Avenue is Wholey’s Market. Wholey’s began in 1912, founded by Robert Wholely. It’s still family run and it’s not unusual to see Sam Wholey in his button down shirt sweeping the floor, stocking the corn, or scaling fish (to the consternation of the gentleman who’s full time job is scaling fish). He is the current president of Wholey’s & Co. Inc., but two of his brothers contribute greatly as well. And they are preparing the members of the fourth generation of Wholey’s to take over the family business.
In 1959 Wholey’s moved to its current location in the Strip District and became known as Wholey’s Seafood Market. It remains the best place in the city to buy fish. They are famous for their fresh fried whiting sandwiches, to the point that they opened an international division just for shipping fish. From the largest cold storage warehouse in Pennsylvania they can ship frozen fish anywhere in the world.
Which means I’m finally at the point where I can tell you about my most important food memory. It was the day before Christmas Eve, and I would have been about ten years old. Mom took me and my sister down to the Strip for the Christmas food shopping. We were loaded up with coffee, fruit, flowers, biscotti, pizzelles, vegetables, sausages, and bread. Probably mom gave me a few bucks to get some clam strips from the Wholey’s Deli (I’m still a sucker for those clam strips). Wholey’s was the last stop because fish needs to be kept cold.
Wholey’s today looks exactly like the Wholey’s of my childhood. Line of sparkling, bright eyed fish laid out whole on ice, piles of shellfish to select from, tanks full of live rainbow trout and Jurassic-sized lobsters, and exotic frozen foods like alligator tail or turtle meat. Overhead a toy train chugged away, whistling occasionally. Mom fought elbow to elbow with the little old ladies of various nationalities also looking for fish. Mom purchased a few pounds of anything that caught her eye to make our traditional Christmas Eve cioppino stew (if this was the year she bought crab legs then it also would have been the year my sister revolted and had a grilled cheese sandwich instead). It smelled like dozens of warring perfumes and I would often stand close to the fish counter because I preferred the smell of the fresh fish. The fish scaler was (and is) a born entertainer and would put on a show of breaking a whole fish down into fillets and pretending to kiss the fish on the lips (only sometimes was the head still attached to the rest of the body).
After the fish was purchased, we would move on the butcher department. Guys, eating off the fifth quarter did not begin with hip chefs like Chris Consentino. Wholey’s has always offered for sale wrapped packages of every part of the pig except the squeal. I was far too mature at age 9 or 10 to be amused by the animatronic cow head presiding over a freezer full of hamburger and trying to cajole children into singing “Yankee Doodle Dandy”, so I wandered around the butcher department as my mom waited patiently to order her roast for Sauerbrauten (she was quite the adventurous cook).
Then I ran across it. The chicken feet. Unlike the pig parts your could totally tell that these were chicken feet. Pork stomach in a styrofoam package is a vague misshapen lump that’s not really identifiable. But chicken feet are an entirely different story. They had the bumpy, yellowish skin and toenails. TOENAILS! Chicken feet. For sale. At a grocery store. And that was when the thought occurred to me that has shaped my entire approach to food and the culinary world.
“They are selling CHICKEN FEET,” the thought drifted through my mind in search for some kind of logic to cling to. “If they’re selling chicken feet at the grocery store, then someone must be buying chicken feet. And if they’re buying chicken feet . . . ” the light slowly dawned on me. “. . . . then they must be eating chicken feet. There are people who really like to eat chicken feet.” I took up a position next to the refrigerated case to see if I could see someone putting chicken feet in their basket. Somewhere there were people who thought chicken feet were delicious and I was seized with the desire to try chicken feet for myself.
To this day, whenever I hear of a weird food or ingredient I know that there are people who find it delicious. And I want to try it for myself. Why is it delicious? Really, what does it taste like? It must be good because there are people who eat it, buy it, by choice. There are a few lines I’ve drawn that I won’t try out of sentiment (dog, cat, horse), ethics (octopus), or revulsion (seriously, I can’t even look at pictures of natto without gagging a bit). Otherwise however, bring it on. I want to know what the world tastes like. I want to know what the unexpected tastes like. Why do people want to eat the things they eat.
I wish I could say that the story ends with the purchase of chicken feet (my mom had a rule that if we were good at the grocery store we could have whatever food item we wanted) and their subsequent enjoyment for Christmas dinner and a newfound family favorite. But I was too chicken to ask (heh, heh – I crack me up). Anyway, I’m pretty sure if chicken feet – even without toenails – had made it to the holiday table my little sister might have up and quit from the family. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I finally got to try them. And they are indeed delicious. In fact chicken feet are something you can always find in my freezer because I use them to build gelatin in my stocks.
So there you have it. I get sentimental over chicken feet.
And now you know why people buy chicken feet too.
So what about you, faithful readers? What favorite food memories do you have? What shapes your approach to the culinary world?