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A Black drag queen poses with children's books while wearing a animal print dress and a matching fancy hat.

Heritage Highlights: An Interview with Akasha Van Cartier

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Drag Queen Story Hour with Akasha Van Cartier

Heritage Highlights

Rivers of Steel’s Heritage Arts program strives to represent the region’s diverse cultural heritage, from ethnic customs and occupational traditions directly linked to Pittsburgh’s industrial past, to new American folk arts and cultural practices emerging from the region’s diverse urban experience.  Usually passed down from person-to-person within close-knit communities, these cultural traditions are as varied as they are unique, each representing one aspect of what makes southwestern Pennsylvania’s heritage so rich.

An Interview with Akasha Van Cartier

A black drag queen with curly hair hold a lip stick pen to her temple.

 

By Jonathan Engel

Artists pull influence from everywhere—and heritage artists can build community around anything. The subject of this month’s Heritage Highlights is Akasha Van Cartier, the Last Lady of Pittsburgh, an accomplished drag queen with twenty-one years of experience. Originally from Canfield, Ohio, she has performed all over Pittsburgh, including at the Warhol Museum and the Carnegie Library as part of her Drag Queen Story Hour program. Rivers of Steel’s Jon Engel spoke to Ms. Van Cartier about her personal history with drag, her many inspirations, and the ways this community operates through performance.

I came into my own.

How did you first get started in drag?

My first show was at a Youngstown State AIDS benefit. I was one of the last minute throw-ins, because of an accident that had happened. It was my first time experiencing drag, but I realized how much of a difference I could make and how much I could give back to the community.

Interesting. So you were a last minute throw-in, how did you get involved in that show?

I had done some choreography for some of the queens in the show, and I also knew some of the make-up artists. One of the queens had gotten hurt and I knew what was going on, so it was the decision of the casting director that I was going to take her place. I was originally going to school for music education and dance performance, so I think I was going to school to eventually be a drag queen.

Do you remember the first time you would have heard of drag?

The first time I heard of drag, I was around 14 or 15 years old. I started venturing out because I had discovered who I was at a very young age, so I ventured out into finding out more about things. It wasn’t like you could go to a library or, y’know, go online and go to a hookup site or stuff like that, you had to actually know someone and explore situations. And I found a bar that I started going to in Youngstown, Ohio at an absurdly young age-

(laughs)

Because it was in Youngstown, Ohio, it was a frightening experience. But at the same time, it was one of the most relieving and enlightening experiences to realize you’re not alone, there’s an entire community of people out here that are just like you and support you in everything that you do. You just had to find them, and not a lot of people have that opportunity.

Moving to Pittsburgh was… it was my Queer As Folk moment. When I originally moved here, I thought, y’know, I was moving into the life. I didn’t know that it was going to be not Queer As Folk. [Editor’s note: Set in Pittsburgh, Queer as Folk was a Showtime drama that revolved around a group of gay friends. It ran from 2000 to 2005.] Which—I was surprised, but I was pleasantly surprised because, you realize, after a certain point of time, you weren’t ready for Queer As Folk after coming out of Youngstown, Ohio. And I feel like Pittsburgh was that next step up, coming from a very small town to very small town ways in a larger city setting.

After that first show, how did your career develop?

After that show, it was a very quick progression. Because of the money that we had made, I had turned up on the front page of the city newspaper the next day, which was a Sunday—which my parents noticed while they were getting ready for church.

Ahh.

So that was a situation. But things progressed pretty far and fast from there, because it was like, who can say what? You’re now open and you’re out and you’re living your truth and your freedom. People can say what they want but that doesn’t take away from who you are and what you do. I just sorta’ came into my own and realized, everyone’s not going to accept everything, but if you do it and you believe in it… you do you and let them do them.

A Black drag queen in black ruffles and styled wig.

The queens in my family, we’re not just queens.

Are there any other institutions or specific mentors who you learned a lot about drag from?

I was very much a drag orphan. And I think that was sort of by choice, but sort of because I was a ruthless child and I had a really bad attitude. So a lot of people didn’t know how to take me, because my truth was mine and I needed to force it upon everyone else. Which I realize now, that’s not the case. That’s my truth and no one else needs to understand it or deal with it.

But there were significant people who very much affected my drag. I would say, from the Ohio scene, there were queens like Linda Lacee, who would then eventually be in the Pittsburgh scene. And now she’s a male performer in the Ohio and Pittsburgh scene, so she has experience in performing and theater. Samantha Styles was the first ever queen to paint my face and introduce me into what glamor in drag was. I had inspirations like Maxine Factor and Aaron Steel! They were people who taught me how to perform and how drag isn’t just dancing on stage in women’s clothing, it’s musical theater. It’s a part of acting. It’s being a smaller part of the entertainment industry, just on a local level.

When I moved to Pittsburgh, I sort of floated around. I got a feel for things in different families, who taught me different make-up techniques, different bodying techniques. I’m the USA of drag – it’s just a melting pot of knowledge that’s been gained to make me a better person.

You described yourself as kind of a “ruthless child”—I wonder, how does that effect the way you interact with younger queens? Do you try to be a mentor to them?

I do have an extensive family tree of queens underneath me that I’ve taken in as my children. And I do encourage drag on many levels. But at the same time, I am that cautious person who believes that your outside life influences your drag life. So if you don’t have that together, then your time in drag is not now. Because that’s going to affect your performance quality, what you bring to the stage, and what people see. Those feelings in our actual life do come across in our performances and what we do as entertainers.

The queens in my family, we’re not just queens. We’re people that have gone on to be nurses and people who are still in school to get engineering degrees. I believe in investing as much time into their drag as into their male lives, because, at the end of the day, it’s the boy behind the mask that’s making it all happen.

Can you describe a little bit what you mean by families?

A drag family is a chosen family that you find that inspires you to do better than you thought that you could do, that instills the factors and the morals of what you can be and have the ability to be over what people expect you to be. They’re the people who have your back when you feel as if blood family has turned against you or you have nowhere else to or you can’t talk to someone else about this situation. They’re that backbone that you can lean on. Any problem, big or small, male or drag, we can handle, because we’re a solid unit that works together.

Before the entire, like, pandemic, I used to try to have, at least once every two weeks, a family dinner. It would be a barbeque or just a large dinner where we all just got together and talked about what was going on in our lives, had a good time, y’know, enjoyed each other’s company. That way, we knew we were still on the same level. If there were any problems, we talked those problems out. Someone wore bad hair? We talk that out. We talk about them. If we talk about you, we care about you. If we’re not talking about you, that’s when you should be worried.

A black drag queen in purple light.

I sort of felt like a local superstar…

Pivoting subject matter a little bit, what about drag appeals to you? What makes you want to do drag?

Drag appeals to me, in general, because I went to school to dance and sing and do music, to be on Broadway. And drag was like that next step down from being famous. Because everyone wants to audition for that part and everyone wants to do that, but only so many people want to do that local aspect. I sort of felt like a local superstar, and that was amazing to me! It was a way to step out of the homeliness and homebody of who I usually am into something much greater.

What communities would you say you perform for? And how does your performance engage that community?

Recently, there’s been not much community to perform for, because of the pandemic. But I’ve performed for many communities because I’ve done many local bingos and brunches, which caters to more of a heterosexual sort of crowd. I’ve done Drag Queen Story Hour for multiple years, which caters to infants to 13, 14 year olds. And then I’ve also performed in the bar scenes, which caters to our college scene to 35…so I’ve catered to infants to ninety-nine playing bingo and above.

I’d like to believe I give an overall sort of wholesome drag that can be accepted anywhere, as entertainment and as theater.

The consistent interest that I think I’m hearing is the desire to do a theatrical performance, would that be right?

Yes, because, when you think about musical theater, when you think about Broadway—that’s what we want to bring to the stage. That Broadway, “we can’t take our eyes off of you” because—are you singing? Are you not singing? Is your costume appropriate to what you’re supposed to be giving? Is your hair swept the right way? When the music comes in proper, does the fan blow your outfit and hair properly? All the production! And if you produce that properly, it can change the entire aspect of what you’re trying to portray.

That’s really interesting to me because, I’m used to thinking about drag as, like, make-up and wardrobe and, y’know, personal kind of stature—

I think of drag from a pageant aspect and, when I think pageantry, I think they give you that large stage for a reason. Stages are meant for Broadway and grand productions, so why wouldn’t you utilize that to the maximum potential? To where people are going to talk about you for years and years to come?

A black drag queen in an A-line red dress with white polka dots reading to kids.

In order to see a better future, for the future of drag, the future of the people around me… I have to change what I’m doing and how I’m doing it.

So you mentioned Drag Queen Story Hour – could you describe it a little bit?

Drag Queen Story Hour is a program where we are drag queens for education. We read stories to children, and adults. We have interactive games, interactive songs, puzzles. We provide an interpreter for sign language as often as possible. It is basically a program to stimulate the children into learning and paying attention to what we’re saying. At the same time, it teaches the adults different ways that they can implement these things at home in order to grasp their children’s attention. To teach them [the children], at an earlier age, how to deal with different aspects of life that they generally wouldn’t be able to experience on an everyday basis.

The program came from queens in New York, who started it, and it just branched out from there. Because there were a lot of queens who didn’t just want to be seen as RuPaul’s Drag Race show queens. They didn’t wanna be seen as just entertainers in the nightlife scene, but they wanted to bring drag into the mainstream and show, we’re not something to be feared. We’re no different than a clown at a birthday party, a dragon at a birthday party. This is just the chosen “princess”, or theme, that we’ve been asked to provide.

I wonder if you could talk a little about why you think it’s important or valuable to expose children to drag, specifically?

Being that I grew up in a religious situation and I was able to branch out and find myself from there, I was told at one point in time that it was sad to take children to Pride because that’s “brainwashing” them. Yet, at the same time, people take their child to church every week, all year long, and they find that as “teaching” them. But it’s not on the same level. So, when I look at it, I think the children need to learn there are differences, there are people out there who are not exactly like you.

They need to be educated, that way they can properly respond to the situations in life that are going to be around them. We need to learn about each other’s diversities and differences, struggles and pains that we’ve gone through to become who we are, because that’s the only way, at any point in time, that we’re all going to be on an equal level of taking care of each other.

I think that’s a really good answer—

That really sounded like a pageant answer.

(laughs) It did! But that’s not a bad thing!

I have a niece- well, she’s like my goddaughter. She was looking at someone in a magazine and said, “Mommy, why is that boy wearing a dress?” And [her mother] said, “Well, Auntie Kasha does, and what’s wrong with that? What’s the difference?” And she said, “Auntie Kasha wears the big eyelashes!”

She’s only five years old, and she realizes, and she asks questions. Her mother is open enough to sit down and explain to her, and be like “OK, so, Auntie Kasha’s a little different.” I remember when, the first time my goddaughter came over to my house and I was there as a boy. She said, “Are you Auntie Kasha? ‘Cause you like Auntie Kasha”. We tried to convince her I was Auntie Kasha’s brother, it did not work.

(laughs)

And ever since then, she’s accepted it. She’s just like “Hey, that’s Auntie Kasha, she’s different sometimes, but I like Auntie Kasha.” It doesn’t mean as much to the children as it does to the adults. And it’s all about what the adults are showing the children. They’re following the lead of the people they are being raised by. I think that, in order to raise a better generation, we have to be better people. And that’s what I try to do!

I know I had my rough years in drag, and I definitely had my troubled years in drag, where I was a terror and people were afraid of me and I had an attitude, but I learned! In order to see a better future, for the future of drag, the future of the people around me, well then, I have to change what I’m doing and how I’m doing it.

That’s when I started reading to children and getting my life together. And I can say it’s one of the best things I’ve ever done.

A Black drag queen wearing sunglasses in a dark room.

Everything stems from that first brick that Marsha threw!

I want to talk a little about the history of drag. Specifically, I wanted to ask, what communities did drag develop from? And why might those communities have developed drag?

I would have to say that, for me, the drag community comes a lot from the melding of musical theater, drama, a lot of the ballroom, and vogue scene… I don’t even know if I’m allowed to say this, but, for me, drag comes from Black culture. It comes from a point of having to hide your identity in order to expose who you really were. It comes from a factor of being appreciated for what you do and not how you do it, because…

There’s 170-plus white queens, and there’s 15 Black queens, and it becomes one of those points of, are you being bumped to be that token Black queen for this show? Because I’ve noticed, ever since the Black Lives Matter movement happened, my requests have gone up, as well as my daughters’. Because people started complaining, if you don’t have one Black queen in this show, that’s of color, we’ll boycott your show. And that’s not why we want to be booked. That’s not why we want to be acknowledged.

There’s always a battle and a struggle, and it’s always in the forefront, but it’s in the background of people’s minds. There’s that struggle in the factor of being seen but not seen.

At the same time, the dancing and the entertainment factor, and the dramatics of voguing and expression that’s inside of that dance also influences and brings out an entirely different flavor to drag that’s celebrated through all cultures of drag. From iconic moves like death drops and, y’know, the girls throwing themselves on the floors, and dips and spins—these are things that would not exist, were it not from the adventurous factor of the voguers, who were Black and Latino queens.

So, for me, a lot of it is a cultural representation in an art form that I feel we brought to life that was taken over and manipulated by white people, as many other things have been. And that’s really the nicest way it can be said.

Across both queer and Black histories, what function has drag played in the lives of queens, both historically and now?

Well, you could it take from the standpoint of the Stonewall riots. They were the first ones to throw those bricks, stand up and say “we’re not gonna take this anymore, there needs to be a change and if violence is the way to make that change, or realize that that change needs to be made, then that’s where we’re going”. I believe that, literally, everything stems from that first brick that Marsha threw! [Editor’s note: Marsha P. Johnson was a Black activist and drag queen from New York City who participated in the Stonewall riots and, according to some accounts, started them.]

When you think about where drag has come from then, it’s strayed a lot from the path of the activism and the standing up for the community that it should be, into pettiness between queens. And as an older queen, it sort of makes me back off the scene, because it’s not the reason that I got into the game and what I want to see continue to prosper.

A Black drag queen with a bare midriff decending stairs with arms open.

They want a show and I’m here to give you a show.

We’ve talked a lot about history at this point. How do you think drag might change over future generations? How do you see it evolving?

I don’t feel that drag will ever stop evolving. It’s for everyone, it’s by everyone, regardless of age or gender. Get up, dress up, have fun. No one can tell you what your drag is, no one call tell you what your drag isn’t, no one can say that your drag is invalid or not worth being drag, because there’s always one fan for everyone out there.

So I think that there’s no limit for where drag is going to expand to or where it’s going to go. I just know for a fact that history repeats itself, so the girls better get ready for that new wave of old school drag. Because us old girls are coming back!

(laughs) I think that’s really promising. What do you feel is the most interesting, or satisfying, part of doing drag to you?

For me, I’d have to say, it’s literally the joy that it gives people. They’ve come here to have a good time. When you can see them, and their eyes light up while you’re on stage, and they’re just soaking up every movement and every word that you give, you know that they’re thinking of nothing else except for the fun that we’re having right here, together. I see that in the eyes of the children when I read to them and we sing songs and play. I see it in the eyes of the people at bingo! They want a show and I’m here to give you a show.

What do you think is the best performance that you’ve ever put on?

(sighs) The best performance that I’ve ever put on? Wow.

I would have to say, my proudest performance—I’m not sure if it was the best performance I’ve ever put on!— but the year I won Miss Pittsburgh. I did a dominatrix performance, but it was a complete dance and spoof number. And I won Miss Pittsburgh, which was the biggest title that you could achieve in Pittsburgh, and I was only 18 years old.

So I had to just come into the scene, and I took the biggest pageant that I could, and it was the greatest moment for me, because I realized I had made it. But that takes you back to that local celebrity. I felt like I was the Michelle Obama of Pittsburgh.

It was an amazing moment and a confirming moment that, maybe you are doing something right and maybe you are making a difference. And now, here we are, y’know, a good 18 years later than that, and I feel like I have made a difference.

 

Read more in the Heritage Highlights series. Check out this interview with Turkish Calligrapher Benjamin Aysan.

A Black man rakes down manganese from a pile.

John Hughey & the Legacy of Black Workers at the Carrie Furnaces

By Blog

By Ryan Henderson, Interpretive Specialist

Ryan HendersonJohn Hughey & the Legacy of Black Workers at the Carrie Furnaces

A Segregated Workplace & A Segregated City

As a major hub for metal production at the turn of the 20th century, Pittsburgh attracted workers not only from across the United States, but across the globe. Though work in the mills was difficult and dangerous, it was plentiful; the mills that lined the three rivers would hire men with little to no experience, with no shortage of positions waiting to be filled. While the first British and German settlers of Pittsburgh came with iron and other metal working knowledge, the successive waves of immigrants who followed often did not have backgrounds in iron or steel. Indeed, international newcomers to the region often spoke little English, let alone had familiarity with metallurgy. Still, these immigrants were able to find a place in Pittsburgh society and began to carve out niches for themselves within the workplace. As a result, Pittsburgh rapidly became a multicultural and multiethnic metropolis during the late 1800s and early 1900s. The many ethnic neighborhoods, churches, and cultural institutions that form Pittsburgh today are a direct result of this era of domestic and international immigration to the city.

However, while many Pittsburghers are familiar with the positive legacy of this era—pierogis, the Jazz culture of the Hill District, the Little Italy district of Bloomfield, heritage groups like the Tamburitzans dance troupe—there is a darker, often unacknowledged element to Pittsburgh’s multiculturalism and industrial culture. While each successive wave of newcomers added to Pittsburgh’s growing diversification, they existed within a firmly established ethnic and racial hierarchy. Those earliest, Anglo immigrants enjoyed power and privilege at the top of this system, while those that came after them—Italians, Poles, Slovaks, and others—had to work to gain entry into this power structure. The same ethnic neighborhoods that Pittsburghers treasure today are, in some part, the result of segregation on cultural lines, self-imposed or otherwise. This hierarchy affected not just social life but working life as well. Access to certain industries was in some cases reliant on having the right ethnicity, with some jobs in the mills restricted to those with certain backgrounds.

While many Pittsburghers suffered discrimination under this system, no group had a harder time finding entry into Pittsburgh’s industrial working class than its Black citizens. Black Pittsburgh was largely segregated from traditionally white parts of the city and, additionally, Black workers found it difficult to enter into predominantly white professions. For much of the latter part of the 1800s, Black workers primarily were known in the mills as strikebreakers, hired by management to help end labor disputes. Some of these strikebreakers, though not all, had become skilled laborers after being forced to work in iron production under slavery, allowing management to go around the specialized skill sets of their striking workforce.

A Black with a hook is dwarfed by a ladle of molten iron.

Ladle being settled into place for transportation.

The use of Black strikebreakers in this manner was a calculated choice on the part of management, as it increased tensions along racial lines. Unions in the late 19th century would not accept Black workers for this reason, as well as racist reasons more generally. This, in turn, proved to be a self-defeating mechanism for unions, as their refusal to admit Black workers created a ready-made strikebreaking force any time labor disputes broke out. At the same time, management continued to marginalize Black workers by electing to exclude them from many positions at mills, keeping them from being able to solidify power within mill culture and carve out a niche for themselves the way other ethnicities had. When they were employed, it was in the worst conditions, being given the most dangerous and unpleasant jobs.

Following the Homestead Strike of 1892 and the victory of management over labor, the issues surrounding union membership became somewhat moot as the union system collapsed for nearly 40 years. This did not help Black workers however, as their usefulness to steel and iron companies diminished with the less frequent need for strikebreakers. While their services would occasionally still be called upon, Black workers in this period saw what little place they had in the mill continue to erode, even as the city’s Black population continued to grow as a result of the Great Migration.

As the previous generation of Black workers had never truly been able to create a system of ushering newcomers into jobs the way other ethnic groups did, many of these new immigrants entered the workforce in other sectors. It was not until after the reformation of the union system in the late 30s and, more importantly, the end of World War II that Black workers were able to enter Pittsburgh’s industrial workplace in great numbers. Following the passage of the various legislation friendly to unions in the early 1900s and, several decades later, the conclusion of World War II, unions began to truly re-enter the iron and steel industry, forcing companies to recognize them once more. This time, unions accepted Black workers into the fold, in part to avoid the issues with strikebreakers that had affected them in the past.

A Black man is drenched in sweat while working.

A worker bending a metal bar into a hook for various tasks at the mill.

John Hughey

An example of the life of a steelworker and ironworker post-WWII can be found in the story of John Hughey, who was employed at the Carrie Furnaces from 1947 through 1982, when the mill ceased production. Mr. Hughey was born in 1925 in Rankin, PA, a community that surrounded part of the Carrie complex. John’s father had moved to Pittsburgh in 1919, coming from South Carolina. He had been recruited by a man who spoke of better jobs and opportunities up north, and the possibilities that would come with working in the booming steel industry in Pittsburgh. Seeking that better life, John’s father moved to the Pittsburgh area, where he was placed in the Edgar Thomson Works in Braddock. What John’s father had not been told was that he would be coming to break a strike. While John’s father found employment for a period as a strikebreaker and gained new skills in the mill, he was dismissed shortly after the end of the strike. Though John’s father was an able worker, he was not white, and Black people with ability did not have mobility in this period.  He became instead a door to door salesman, but the steelworking spark in the Hughey family did not end with him.

It was John who would become a lifelong metalworker, starting at the Carrie Furnaces at 22 years of age. Many young men in this era, including John’s other family members, worked for at least a few seasons in the mill. Many whites in Pittsburgh followed a kinship method of entry into the mill—their father would ask the superintendents to hire their sons, with multiple generations working in the same location. John did not have this same opportunity, and instead walked six minutes to the nearby Carrie to apply for a job. He was hired on the spot, to his surprise, making about $1.85 an hour.

Though John was unaware at this time of the politics surrounding the Homestead Works, this was consistent with the general hiring practices at Carrie. Carrie was the iron side of the Homestead Works, producing the liquid iron that would be transported across the Monongahela River to be turned into steel. Ironmaking, as well as producing coke, was generally considered to be the “worst” job within the steelmaking process. Ironmaking and coking are dangerous, smelly, and extremely dirty. As a result, these jobs were relegated to those individuals who were of ethnic and racial backgrounds that were at the bottom of the socially-constructed hierarchies that existed. In the early part of the 20th century, this meant Eastern Europeans. After Blacks entered the mill system in large numbers following WWII, this meant them. Two men, one Black and one white, both applying to work at the Homestead Works, would likely find themselves steered in different directions.  The white man, especially if he was of Anglo descent, would find himself turned toward the steel side of the river. The Black man, almost always, would find himself pushed in the direction of the Carrie Furnaces.

A Black man lifts a sledgehammer, as if to swing it.

A worker lifts a sledgehammer.

Indeed, even the internal work divisions within Carrie were segregated. On the second night of work, John found himself “promoted” out of the position he was hired to and into the furnace division at Carrie, responsible for duties such as the actual tapping of the furnace. Without any training—a standard practice at the time—John was made into the second helper on Furnace #2.

John had no idea what was going to happen, standing around for hours before being directed to help with the tapping of the furnace—watching with both fear and awe as liquid iron came rushing forth; the 2,700 degree metal flowed like water a few feet away from him. John had been given only an asbestos coat for protection. He had no hardhat, worker’s greens (fire resistant clothing), or other heat equipment, only his street clothes.

Though John kept on as an ironworker, he later noted that this shock treatment was typical for the industry, where 20 men would be hired at the beginning of the day, and 15 would quit by the end, winnowing out all but the hardest men. John would later come to realize that his placement and lack of gear in the hot and dangerous furnace division was also no accident.

At the time he was hired, John guessed that the furnace division was 99% Black, and severely underfunded with safety equipment. Many men’s street clothes burst into flame in the cast house, and burns and blisters were common. Workers there had to buy their own gloves, and any protective equipment they needed. The maintenance division, on the other hand was composed of electricians, painters, carpenters, and other skilled workers and was almost 99% white. These jobs were considered prime positions, avoiding the dirtiest and most dangerous work, and for years were effectively whites only. They often had safety equipment bought for them; workers in the furnace division, meanwhile, would not receive basic gloves from the company until the 1970s. Other divisions also were heavily segregated, with John recounting that the Trainsmen’s Union, separate from the Steelworkers Union, explicitly banned Black membership until the 1950s.

At the time of John’s hiring, the Steelworkers Union was far from equal. “Last to be hired, first to be fired” applied to many Black workers, as they were purposely left until the very end to be hired into positions, and found themselves the first to be laid off in slow economic periods. In theory, the union system should have provided a kind of equality under its regulated system of benefits and advancement, but many Black workers did not experience the same successes as their white peers.

For example, the union ostensibly guaranteed a standardized wage system within the mills that would see a Black and white worker who started at the same job at the same time paid the same. However, it quickly became apparent that while white workers would eventually advance out of these starting positions, many Black workers were left to fruitlessly bid for higher paying, more sought-after jobs.

Work culture for the men who worked in the mills was unique but was still a reflection of the racial attitudes of U.S. society. While working in the dangerous conditions of the mill frequently left men with a sense of camaraderie that transcended racial lines, this was often not able to overcome long simmering prejudices that existed outside the mill’s walls.

This only began to change with the hard work of men like John, who fought to ensure rights for Black workers in the industry. In fact, John and other Black workers at Carrie found themselves in a unique circumstance created by the segregation between the two sides of Homestead; Carrie was, for much of its history after WWII, a majority Black mill. In the peak production period post-WWII, a large proportion of Carrie’s working population was Black, with over 90 percent of unskilled labor and 60 percent of the overall labor force being composed of Black workers.

A Black man in a button down shirt and sweater, sitting in a museum.

John Hughey

Years later, John recalled that Carrie was almost uniquely liberal in the Mon Valley, and while there was certainly tension in the mill, many important positions at Carrie were, nonetheless, held by Black men. All of this meant that John and other Black workers had a much clearer path to holding union offices through millwide elections. In 1949, a mere two years after starting at Carrie, John became a union grievance officer, one of the men responsible for taking issues to management to be resolved on behalf of union members. Five years later, in 1954, John became head grievance officer for Carrie, a position he held for many years.

Though John had to hold this position while also working a full time job in the mill—something uncommon for many grievance officers—he helped to lead several important fights that improved the lives not only of Black mill workers, but of all men who worked at Carrie. He and others pushed for company provided safety equipment, winning things such as greens and better heat gear. The union also pushed for dental and eye care, unheard of in the steel industry, and carried out a strike for better pensions. At Carrie, John helped lead a drive from 1954 that lasted almost 20 years until 1971 to have seniority count as the determining factor for advancement, rather than race.

The union at Carrie made many small advancements over this period leading toward success, to the extent that by the time a consent decree made mandatory changes to the steel industry to protect the rights of minorities, Carrie was already meeting proposed industry-wide standards. Indeed, by the 60s and 70s, Carrie had more minorities in trades than any other mill in the Mon Valley; in contrast, just across the river at the connected Homestead Works had a mere 1%.

John’s hard work, and the hard work of all those fighting for equal treatment, had a tangible effect. John and others noted a difference particularly after 1971, finally achieving a breakdown of the walls that had kept Black workers from certain jobs in the mill, and having ability counted over skin color. These men fought hard to create a better life and workplace that had eluded Black Pittsburghers for so long, and their legacy as pioneers in the field lives on today.

The accompanying photographs are part of the Rivers of Steel Archives. 

If you like this article, you may want to read Josh Gibson Gets His Dueanother story that examines the Black experience as part of the culture around our region’s industrial history. 

Birding from Explorer

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By Angela Biederman, Chief Deckhand  |   Featured Image: Angela Biederman birdwatching on the Explorer riverboat.

“Birding from Explorer” is an ongoing series of articles by Angela Biederman, Chief Deckhand on the Explorer riverboat.  A relatively new birder, Angela shares her observations of migrating birds, as sighted from the boat’s home dock on Pittsburgh’s North Shore, near the headwaters of the Ohio River.

Angela BiedermanMigratory Bird Sightings

There have been several sightings of notable migratory waterfowl from the Explorer riverboat since my initial post in December. While the Surf and White-winged Scoters haven’t been seen since my last report, the female Red-breasted Merganser made the shallow waters near our floating dock home for a while. She was around for almost a month, from mid-December to mid-January, and seemed to become quite comfortable in her migratory layover. I’d often see her out diving for food, even in the worst of weather; and saw her climb out onto shore one time, seemingly less spooked by me than she was at first. Similar to Surf Scoters, Red-breasted Mergansers breed much further north, from Alaska and across northern Canada to Newfoundland, summering only as far south as the Great Lakes. During migration, they pass through the continental U.S. to coastal waters. They winter all along the eastern and western coasts, and along the Gulf Coast, preferring saltwater during the coldest months.

Red-breasted Merganser on Shore

Red-breasted Merganser on Shore


Female Red-breasted Merganser

On December 28, while watching some Pied-billed Grebes near our floating dock through binoculars, another diving duck came right into my zoomed-in view. This new duck was brown with a dark cap, and had light markings on its cheeks.  My initial view of it—and excitement!—made me think the Surf Scoter had returned! But on that afternoon, this duck was in no mood for foraging, and was mostly snoozing with its bill tucked into its back feathers. Its position made it difficult to clearly see any facial markings or its bill to identify it for sure. The views and photographs I did get of it made me question whether it was, in fact, a Surf Scoter.  I had detected some slight variations and went home to look through my growing collection of bird guides.

Specific traits I noticed were “off” about this diving duck were its tail, facial markings, and bill. I had watched the Surf Scoter a lot, and the differences between it and this diver were subtle, but undeniable. Investigating further, I came across the Ruddy Duck. While the breeding male is very distinct, the females (and winter or non-breeding males) look very similar to female Surf Scoters. Some main differences are that Ruddy Ducks have longer tails; females have light cheeks with a dark stripe (giving the illusion of white cheek patches); and their bills are slightly more curved, and blue to bluish-gray depending on the time of year and sex.

First sighting of female Ruddy Duck

First sighting of female Ruddy Duck


Female Ruddy Duck off Explorer’s stern

I saw the Ruddy Duck and Red-breasted Merganser several times over the next week and a half or so, with the Ruddy Duck also taking a preference for the pool around our floating dock. It seemed the least shy of all the diving ducks I had been spotting: it would swim very close to the stern and hull of Explorer, dive if it saw me move inside or come out on the decks, but wouldn’t necessarily swim away. The last time I saw the Ruddy Duck was January 6, and by that point it seemed that it and the merganser had become the best of friends. I saw them swimming side-by-side off the stern of Explorer for a good ten minutes, and managed to capture this video:

The latest exciting sightings happened all in one day, on January 28. I had just sat down to lunch when I noticed several mostly-white birds swimming up the Ohio River towards the stern of the boat. I got up, grabbed the binoculars, and could barely believe my eyes: FOUR Long-tailed Ducks were swimming upriver! As reported in December, I had seen a lone female Long-tailed Duck, but didn’t know if I’d ever see one again. The first of the four was male, with a very distinguishable, long black tail. The other three were females (or perhaps two females and a juvenile), which were fairly easy to recognize because of the one I had seen two months ago. I managed to capture some photos and videos, and enjoy that I was seeing this species again. In a matter of minutes, a tow boat that was heading downriver startled them into flight. I tried to follow them up towards the bow but lost sight of them.  Those few minutes were the only time I saw them.

a black and white duck in the water

Male Long-tailed Duck


four ducks in a line

Four Long-tailed Ducks

Later that day, five more diving ducks were spotted in the middle of the channel of the Ohio. They turned out to be Common Mergansers, distinguishable from the Red-breasted Merganser mostly by some variations of plumage and the shape of their crests.  Female Commons have cinnamon-red heads and a flatter, single crest—which are cleanly demarcated from a bright white chest. They also have a white chin and slightly broader bill at its base. The Red-breasted Merganser has a more faded red head and spikier, double crest—with less definition from her chin to her grayer, mottled chest.

two birds in the water

Female Common Mergansers

In this grouping of mergansers, there were three males and two females.  Before this, I had not seen Common Mergansers to my knowledge (again, birding is something I’ve only recently started doing), or any male mergansers. These five mergansers were around for most of the afternoon, but definitely kept their distance. They mostly rested and foraged in the middle of the channel, or closer to the opposing south shore. Common Mergansers are hardy in winter, and often stay as far north as open water permits. They are fairly common in freshwater lakes and rivers, but rarer in saltwater or brackish water, so they typically don’t head for the coasts.  I did see the Common Mergansers the next day, but one of the males was gone. I haven’t seen any of them since that second day, and wonder which waters they flocked to.

Male Common Mergansers


Five Common Mergansers

Angela Biederman began working for Rivers of Steel as a part-time deckhand in March 2018.  About a year later, she became the full-time Chief Deckhand, and is responsible for maintaining Explorer year-round.  She began working for Rivers of Steel out of interest for the conservation of Pittsburgh’s rivers, and experiencing its landscape in novel ways.  She holds a Master in Fine Arts degree with a concentration in Ceramics, as well as a BFA in Ceramics.  She continues to make art of various media from her home studio.

This photo essay is the second in a series of articles by Angela highlighting her sightings of migratory birds.  All the images of the birds were photographed by her, usually through a set of binoculars with her phone. 

Josh Gibson with a crowd of young ballplayers

Josh Gibson Gets His Due

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By Ron Baraff, Director of Historic Resources and Facilities   |   Image of the Josh Gibson with young ballplayers.

Ronald BaraffThat Gibson Fellow…

“There is a catcher that any big-league club would like to buy for $200,000. His name is Gibson. He can do everything. He hits the ball a mile. He catches so easy he might as well be in a rocking chair. Throws like a rifle. Too bad this Gibson is a colored fellow.” – Hall of Fame pitcher Walter Johnson

Tucked uncomfortably in the consciousness of America and Baseball is the image of one Josh Gibson. Staring up at us as a culture, reminding us that the greatest among us are not always the most well-known, cared for, fairly treated, or respected in their mortal lives. A giant among men, a ballplayer’s ballplayer, a textbook catcher, hitter, thrower, and runner, Josh was a five-tool player forced to live in a time when his many talents could not be on full display for all to see.

Such was the life of a ballplayer of color, from the dawn of the so-called “Gentleman’s Agreement” in 1888 through the breaking of the color barrier in 1947 by Jackie Robinson and the Brooklyn Dodgers. Life was tough; the playing field was not even close to being level. However, there existed a parallel universe in the Negro Leagues—one where men of color could play the great game of baseball, “America’s Pastime”, and achieve heights never imagined or seen since. These men played under the direst of circumstances, denied not just full rights as ballplayers to play on the biggest stage in organized “Major League Baseball” (MLB)— i.e.: White Baseball—but also as citizens. They had to struggle to make gate, live respectfully, and travel and survive in a time when much of the world was closed to them.

Through this darkness shone some amazingly bright, brave, talented, and everlasting lights. Among them were Satch, Cool Papa, Buck, Ray, and Josh, playing ball at such a level in Pittsburgh for the Crawfords, and in Homestead for the Grays, that their names and exploits became legendary.

In 1938, prominent sports editor and later publisher of the great African American newspaper The Pittsburgh Courier, Chester L. Washington, sent a telegram to Pittsburgh Pirates player / manager Harold “Pie” Traynor. This telegram (see below) is an amazing slice of sporting and cultural life—a “what if…” scenario that unfortunately never came to be. It offered the Pirates the opportunity to be in the vanguard of sport, society, race relations, and even the chance to perhaps be remembered as the greatest team (dare I say dynasty?) ever assembled. The 1938 Pirates were a strong team, anchored by future Hall of Fame players Arky Vaughan (SS), Paul Waner (RF), Lloyd Waner (CF), and Pie Traynor (3B). They were in the pennant race until the end of the season, finishing at 86-64, a mere two games behind the pennant-winning Chicago Cubs. What they were lacking was dominant pitching (Satchel Paige and Ray Brown), a strong catcher (Josh Gibson), speed (Cool Papa Bell), and a middle of the order bat (Buck Leonard).

From all reports, Pie Traynor was very open minded about integration. He was quoted in a 1939 interview with the Courier as saying, “Personally, I don’t see why the ban against Negro players exists at all.” He was especially open to it if it improved his club’s fortunes on the diamond. Sadly, the Pirates never responded to the telegram. Why? Perhaps it was fear of retribution from the other clubs in the “Majors”, or maybe it was the knowledge that baseball czar Commissioner Kennesaw Mountain Landis was openly racist and had blocked other attempts at integration—and would likely step in and do so again.

 

A scan of a Western Union telegram

A copy of a telegram sent by The Pittsburgh Courier’s sports editor Chester L. Washington to the Pittsburgh Pirates proposing they hire legendary Negro League players to strengthen the team and spark integration in baseball. The 1938 Pirates never responded to this telegram.

Baseball would stay segregated for almost another decade until Jackie Robinson broke the color line in 1947 with the Brooklyn Dodgers. Over the next 12 years, MLB teams would slowly integrate their teams. The Pirates joined the parade 16 years after Chester Washington’s telegram, when Curt Roberts made his debut at second base on April 13, 1954. By the late 1950s, the last vestiges of the Negro Leagues disappeared from the sporting landscape. Along with their demise came calls to recognize the greatness of their play, their culture, and sporting significance. The men (and even some women…we will save that for another article…) who gave everything they had to their sport needed to be recognized, acknowledged, and accepted as the equals (at the very least) of those who played Major League Baseball during the dark years of the Gentlemen’s Agreement.

Finally, in 1971, Satchel Paige became the first player who spent the majority of his career in the Negro Leagues to be enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame. Josh Gibson followed in 1972.  However, these men and their compatriots still didn’t have an equal place among the Major Leagues until December of 2020, when the MLB officially recognized the seven professional Negro Leagues that operated between 1920 and 1948. This long overdue decision means that the 3,400 +/- players from the Negro Leagues during this time period are officially considered Major Leaguers, with their stats and records becoming a part of Major League history.

The accompanying photograph and copy of the infamous telegram are housed in the Rivers of Steel Archives as part of the Josh Gibson Foundation Collection. Rivers of Steel has partnered with Sean Gibson, great-grandson of Josh Gibson and Executive Director of the Josh Gibson Foundation, to serve as the repository for their collection.

If you like this story, you may want to read The Lasting Legacy of Cap Posey. Cumberland “Cap” Willis Posey was a black man who established himself as a titan of industry on the Monongahela River in the 1800s and his son, Cum Posey, became the not just a ballplayer for the Homestead Grays, but its principal owner, among other accolades. 

Artist Benjamin Aysan with First Lady Frances Wolf and Governor Tom Wolf

Heritage Highlights: Benjamin Aysan

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Artist Benjamin Aysan with First Lady Frances Wolf and Governor Tom Wolf

Heritage Highlights

Communities are built by sharing and traditions are built by sharing across generations.

At Rivers of Steel, our Heritage Arts program brings attention to arts that shape communities, passed down across time from one artist to another. That’s why we’re launching our new interview series, Heritage Highlights, where we will be showcasing artists who work within local traditions and communities.

For our first installment, we spoke with Benjamin Aysan, an accomplished calligrapher and Turkish immigrant to Western Pennsylvania. Benjamin shared with us the roots of Turkish calligraphy and how artists like him have changed it in the modern day.

An Interview with Benjamin Aysan

A middle aged man with dark hair around the ears, deep set eyes and a medium skin tone.

Benjamin Aysan

Rivers of Steel (RoS):  What heritage art do you make and how?

Benjamin Aysan (BA): I do calligraphy using italic letters for custom design art works. I can write names and quotes on any smooth surface: wood, ceramic, leather, etc. for wedding ceremonies, invitation cards, and so on. It depends on what customers order. I use parallel pilot pens, fabrications, and chisel-type pens with varying sizes.

RoS: Who taught you your art?

BA: Eight years ago, I was working as an event and facility manager at the Pacifica Institute in Salt Lake City, Utah. We invited a well-known calligraphy artist from Turkey to our organized friendship dinner. His name is Aydin Cayirli. He was dancing with the letters, using the pens as a part of his hand, and all the watchers admired him. The same day, I invited him to my home to show our hospitality and he gave me more advice about his art. His first tip was “Do not give up, and make more practice”. Since then, I have worked three hours daily and, after one year, I joined a big festival called “Living Tradition” in Salt Lake City. That was my first time meeting people with my art and I was encouraged because people liked it.

We moved from Salt Lake City to Erie, Pennsylvania in August 2015, as I became the executive director of the Erie Turkish Cultural Center. During the past five years, I have been invited as a calligraphy artist many times to friendship dinners in different states on the East Coast, festivals, activities, and as a guest to Governor Tom Wolf`s residence.

Mr. Cayirli`s advice “do not give up” always motivates me.

RoS: What community did this art come from?

BA: Turkish calligraphy is a unique artistic creation, although calligraphy itself is not of Turkish origin. The Ottomans adopted it with religious fervor and inspiration, taking this art to its pinnacle over a five-hundred-year period.

RoS: What community inspires your art?

BA: I don’t have a specific community that inspires me. I make art to reach other communities and cultures, and to improve my art skills. It is a bridge between different cultural backgrounds. When I make art, it makes me feel more connected to the people around me, because the artist is the same as the community.

RoS: From what history did this art emerge? How has it changed over time?

BA: The literal meaning of the Turkish word for calligraphy (hat) is line or way. In essence, Husn-i Hat—calligraphy that uses Arabic letters—comprises the beautiful lines inscribed with reed pens on paper using ink made from soot. In the 13th century, Yakut-ul-Mustasimi, a calligraphist from Amasya, made a breakthrough by using nibs of various widths and sizes in one composition. Later calligraphists followed and developed his methods.

In modern day Turkey, there are two types of calligraphy. The first one is Arabic calligraphy using Arabic letters, Husn-i Hat. In Islam, calligraphy was practiced by writing sections from the Qur’an and hadiths (prophet’s words) and then hanging the copies up in mosques. The other type, which I do, is modern Turkish calligraphy using Latin letters. After the founding of the Turkish Republic, calligraphy written with italic Latin letters became very widespread.

RoS: What is the most beautiful thing you have ever made?

BA: I think, to this day, the most beautiful thing I have made was the piece that I made as a gift for Governor Wolf and first lady Frances Wolf. [Pictured at the top of this page.]

View Benjamin Aysan’s work in the videos and gallery below. In these videos, recorded in the summer of 2020, Benjamin talks about the differences between American and Turkish calligraphy cultures and the need for patience and decency in art.

Father John with his wife and son.

Cultural Heritage Recipe Box – Ukrainian Orthodox Christmas

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Father John Charest with his wife and son.

By Brianna Horan, Manager of Tourism & Visitor Experience

Cultural Heritage Recipe Box: Ukrainian Orthodox Christmas

It’s unlikely that you’d hear the date of December 25 mentioned without thinking of Christmas day. The date of January 7 may not conjure the same associations, but for Orthodox Christians it marks the day of rejoicing for Jesus Christ’s birth.

The difference in dates comes down to calendars and a lot of history. Orthodox Christianity, which accounts for 12 percent of the world’s Christians, continues to adhere to the Julian Calendar, which was introduced by Julius Caesar. In 1582, Pope Gregory XIII designed a new calendar that today has been adopted by most countries across the globe as their civil calendar. The result is that when the Julius Calendar reads December 25, Gregorian calendars read January 7—a difference of thirteen days.

Orthodox Christmas, or Nativity, is celebrated in January in countries in Eastern Europe and the Middle East, including Russia, Ukraine, Israel, Egypt, Serbia, Belarus, Montenegro, Kazakhstan, Macedonia, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Georgia, and Moldova. While religious faith and rituals unite these worshippers, each country has also developed its own unique ethnic cultural traditions to mark the holiday.

As immigrants from these countries settled in the Pittsburgh region, many established Orthodox churches whose congregations continue to observe the religious practices and ethnic customs today. In Carnegie, St. Peter & St. Paul Ukrainian Orthodox Church organizes several events throughout the year that preserve and share Ukrainian culture, including the annual Pysanky Egg Sale, a Ukrainian Food Festival, a Cookie Walk, and several charitable programs that seek to serve and support the community at large.

“The first thing people should know about Saints Peter and Paul Ukrainian Orthodox Church is not to feel excluded by the word Ukrainian in our name,” says Father John Charest, the church’s priest. “We are a church of our community.” He invites non-parishioners to consider helping to prepare, serve, or deliver the three home-cooked meals the church provides each Memorial Day, Thanksgiving and Christmas. Saints Peter and Paul also organizes an event on the third Sunday of every month where clothing, housewares, children’s toys and more are available at no cost. “It’s open to anyone in the community, whether they want to drop off items they no longer need, or have a need and want to look for something,” Fr. John says. He adds that these opportunities are perfect for high school students who need community service hours, and for anyone wanting to get to know the Carnegie community better.

Saint Peter & St. Paul Ukrainian Orthodox Church decorated for Nativity

The church has regular services on Saturdays at 6 p.m. and Sundays at 9:30 a.m., all of which are streamed live from the church’s website and Facebook live, in addition to holy day services. “Anyone and everyone are welcome to join us for services,” says Fr. John. “The Orthodox Church has a beautiful tradition of singing all the services, and our parish is blessed with a wonderful acapella choir that sings in four-part harmony. Anyone who knows the scriptures well will feel welcome in our services as they are all scripture based, and anyone who would like to get to know the scriptures will feel welcome as we have beautiful services followed by fellowship in our church hall.”

From the kitchen of Father John Charest

Father John in red vestments with candles in the foreground.

Father John Charest

The Holy Supper, Svyat Vechir, is shared on Christmas Eve and is one of the Twelve Great Feasts in the Orthodox Christian faith. This twelve-course meal traditionally consists of all Lenten foods, as observers follow a Nativity Fast that begins on November 28 and concludes at the Liturgy for the Nativity on Christmas Morning. Holy Supper is served at the time of the appearance of the first evening star, symbolizing the Star of Bethlehem, and the twelve courses are meant to represent the Twelve Tribes of Israel and the Twelve Disciples of Christ. The courses are each served separately, ranging from bitter to sweet. Honey is meant to represent the sweet moments in life, garlic the bitter days, grains recall the simple and ordinary moments of life and the Daily Bread.

A Ukrainian sweet grain pudding called kutia is a staple dish that is prepared several ways to mark different Orthodox Christian holy days in the month of January. Made with wheat, berries, honey or sugar, nuts, raisins and poppy seeds, kutia is typically the first food eaten during the Holy Supper on Christmas Eve—but before it’s consumed, some is first tossed to the ceiling. The number of grains that stick to the ceiling are an indicator of how prosperous the agricultural harvest will be in the coming year. Kutia is thought to be among the oldest dishes that is part of the twelve-course meal. It likely originated in Neolithic times, and the first written record of it is found in the twelfth-century Primary Chronicle written by St. Nestor the Chronicler. Over the centuries, kutia has made its way into many rituals. Children traditionally brought a portion of the dish to their grandparents, godparents, and the midwife who delivered them, and when a family went to sleep on Christmas Eve, a bowl of kutia was left on the table for the souls of the deceased to enjoy during the night. If the spoon moved, it meant that they were satisfied with the offering. The father of the house would also leave a portion of kutia in front of the house to bribe Father Frost, the personification of winter, so he would not damage the crops.

Father John describes kutia as halfway between porridge and pudding, and notes that the simple and nutritious dish is served for Christmas Eve, Orthodox New Year’s Eve, and Epiphany/Theophany. A lean version, bahata kutia, is prepared for Christmas Eve, with wheat or barley, poppy seeds, honey, nuts and dried fruit. On Orthodox New Year, January 14, a version called schedra kutia is enriched with butter, milk, or cream, and occasionally a splash of wine, cognac or other alcoholic beverage. The dish is pared down as holodna (hungry) kutia, made only with grains and a small amount of sweetener, on Epiphany, January 18, when a strict fast must be observed.

Just as kutia is a foundation of the so many important traditions in the Orthodox Christian Faith, Father John has also found it to be a connection to his heritage and all those who share it. It also happens to be the main element of a childhood memory that his family looks reminisces about together each Christmas Eve!

“Having moved from the east coast to Chicago, and then to western Pennsylvania, I’ve been a part of various Ukrainian Christmas traditions. Having kutia at the Christmas Eve meal was one of the traditions that I saw wherever I was, even down to the exact location of someone’s home or a church hall, all meals began with kutia. At this point in my life seeing kutia means more than Christmas to me, it means being connected to the Ukrainian people like me, whether they are somewhere here on Earth now, have been on Earth, or will someday be born; we share this rich heritage and are united by it.

“My favorite kutia memory is of the year my brother was in fifth grade. His teacher had the students do reports on ‘Christmas Around the World,’ letting the students choose a country to research. My brother, of course, chose Ukraine. The year he gave his report, Ukraine was part of the USSR and it meant a lot for our family (and others that knew he was presenting) that he was sharing information about a beautiful country that should be independent of the republic. He wore a Ukrainian embroidered shirt, brought an icon of the Nativity, a few sheaths of wheat, and of course, kutia. When he was explaining the significance of the kutia and that there is a tradition of throwing it on the ceiling, his teacher paused the presentation and said, ‘Well… Are you going to throw some on our ceiling?’ He recalls standing frozen and wondering if she was serious. She was, and she encouraged him to take a spoonful out of his presentation and throw it up on the ceiling. The harvest must have been great that year as there was still a spoonful of kutia on the ceiling when my mom came to his class around Easter time to do a pysanky (Ukrainian Easter egg) demonstration. Over 20 years later, when I was substitute teaching at that school, unsure of which room this event took place, I looked at the ceiling of every classroom to which I was assigned to see if I might see the kutia thrown by a proud Ukrainian fifth grader. The story has become a legend in my immediate family and gets retold as we take our first bites of kutia on Christmas Eve.” – Father John Charest

Kutia for Christmas Eve Holy Supper

A table set for a holiday meal.

Holy Supper with Kutia

Serves 4, and takes 90-minutes to prepare.

Each ingredient of kutia has a special symbolism. Wheat stands for resurrection, as the wheat plant must die to be able to be planted and give life to new plants; nuts and poppy seeds are symbols of fertility and prosperity; honey signifies good health and heavenly bliss.

Ingredients

  • 2 Tbsp. wheat grains
  • 7 oz. poppy seeds
  • 7 oz. walnuts
  • 5.25 oz. raisins
  • 3 Tbsp. honey

Instructions

  1.  Wash the wheat grains thoroughly and let them soak overnight in cold water.
  2.  The next morning, drain and rinse the grains and cook them until tender over low heat, until soft and crumbly.
  3.  Cool the wheat grains and mix them with 1 Tbsp. of honey.
  4.  Place poppy seeds and raisins in separate bowls and soak them in boiling water for 30 minutes.
  5.  Drain the poppy seeds, add 1 Tbsp. of honey, and grind them in a blender.
  6.  Fry the nuts until crispy in a small frying pan.
  7.  Drain the raisins.
A smiling black woman dressed in a beautiful blue and white print with a matching headwrap with blue and white traditional baskets in the background.

Cultural Heritage Recipe Box – Kwanzaa

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Local caterer and food scholar Olafemi Mandley

By Brianna Horan, Manager of Tourism & Visitor Experience

Cultural Heritage Recipe Box: Celebrating Kwanzaa

The holiday of Kwanzaa, observed each year from December 26 through January 1, is an African American and pan-African holiday rooted in celebrations of family, community, culture, history, and values. A week of ceremonies, reflections, and festivities affirm seven core communitarian values that are rooted in both ancient tradition and modern experience.

Modeled after the first-fruits celebrations observed to give thanks at the start of the harvest season in cultures throughout the African continent, Kwanzaa was created in 1966 by Mualanga Karenga, an activist and leader in the Black Power Movement. The secular holiday was one of the ways that his newly formed Us Organization sought to rebuild and strengthen Black communities after the 1965 Watts Riots in Los Angeles. By centering Black and African culture and history rather than being affiliated with one single religion, Kwanzaa had the potential to foster unity between all African Americans regardless of their religious beliefs.

A Kinara on a table surround by food.

A Kinara—Photo by Askar Abayev from Pexels

During each night of the holiday, one of the Seven Principles of Kwanzaa, or Nguzo Saba, is the focus of meditation, reflection and celebration. The Seven Principles are Umoja (Unity), Kujichagulia (Self-Determination), Ujima (Collective Work and Responsibility), Ujamaa (Cooperative Economics), Nia (Purpose), Kuumba (Creativity), and Imani (Faith). Each principle is expressed in Swahili, one of the most widely spoken languages in Africa, and is drawn from a commonly-shared value found throughout the continent with the intention of building and maintaining unified, empowered communities. A candle is lit each night on the Kinara (candlestick holder) to correspond with each principle; the black candle in the center is lit first to represent all people of African descent, and then red candles on the left representing the blood of the celebrants’ ancestors are lit alternately with green candles on the right symbolizing earth, life, and the promise of the future. Each nightly ceremony begins with an elder filling a Kikombe cha Umoja (unity cup) with wine or juice, pouring some into the earth in remembrance of the family’s ancestors, and then drinking from it and passing it around to attendees. The principle is then discussed as it relates to personal and community growth. This year, the National Museum of African American History and Culture launched a Kwanzaa online resource guide that explores the holiday’s history, traditions and meaning, and features a collection of  songs, writing excerpts, recipes, and children’s activities that give meaning to each of the Seven Principles. For another digital option that lends itself nicely to virtual gatherings this year, Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company is offering free viewing of its 2014 production of Ubuntu Holiday by local playwright Kim El, available through January 3.

On the evening of December 31, family and loved ones typically gather for a feast called a karamu with music and dance. It’s a time to rejoice and renew commitments for personal growth as one year leads to the next. Children often receive handmade or meaningful gifts (Zawadi), intended to symbolize the labor and love of their parents, and the commitments made and kept by children. The table where families gather is decorated with the symbols of Kwanzaa, such as the Kinara (candle holder), Mkeka (a mat representing the foundation of traditions and history that all else is built upon), Muhindi (corn to represent children and the future they hold), Mazao (fruit representing the harvest), and Zawadi (gifts). As it so often does, food brings people, traditions, and cultures together around the table, with menus featuring African-American, Caribbean, South American, and African dishes that are representative of the African diaspora.

Ola Appetit Catering Company

Local caterer and food scholar Olafemi Mandley has been exploring and sharing the ways that these foodways have nourished the bodies, minds, and souls of generations of Black people for decades. She began catering in 1988 and opened her own business, Ola Appetit Catering Company, in Duquesne in 2010. The year before that, Olafemi had hosted her first dinner celebrating Black History Month, an annual event called The Taste of Africa dinner. Pittsburgh’s City Council even declared February 18, 2020, to be “The Taste of Africa Day,” honoring Olafemi’s talents as both a chef and a storyteller. Her dishes include ingredients that are cultural staples in pan-African and African American cuisine, and they are always garnished with the history of the foods’ origins and meanings to the people they feed. “We love telling food-centered stories that resonate with every ethnicity and people of all ages – stories like ‘How the Watermelon Got its Size,’ ‘Why the Cherry is the Harlot of Fruit,’ and other wonderful stories about food.” Olafemi has gathered numerous histories and legends about the nutritional, medical, cultural and spiritual influences of the food we eat for more than twenty-five years, and she hopes to partner with a writer to publish them with her recipes in a collection called The Soul of Food.

Books, Magazines & Photos displayed on kente cloth

Table Display from the Taste of Africa Event, photo courtesy of Olafemi Mandley.

At Ola Appetit, foods are sourced locally where available, and procured from fine-food purveyors for globally-rare ingredients. The company uses green practices, and grows all of its own herbs and many of its own vegetables. During the pandemic Olafemi is offering virtual food demonstrations, classes, and storytelling, and can cater dinner parties for 6 to 8 people. She’s planning a more intimate version of her annual Taste of Africa dinner by crafting a series of seven-course meals for dinner parties of up to eight people in February for Black History Month. The details are being finalized, but tickets and the menu will be available on Eventbrite.com. Olafemi is also a member of the Ujamaa Collective, a Hill District-based organization that shares the name and vision of the fourth principle of Kwanzaa, and is devoted to promoting the works of Africana women entrepreneurs and artists by providing a fair trade marketplace based in cooperative economics.

Learn more about Ola Appetit Catering Company by contacting Olafemi Mandley at OlafemiFoodCook@gmail.com, or call 412-901-0845. The company is located at 900 Kinsley Ave., Ste. 1, Duquesne, PA 15110. Follow Ola Appetit on Facebook.

A smiling black woman dressed in a beautiful blue and white print with a matching headwrap with blue and white traditional baskets in the background.

Olafemi Mandley

From the kitchen of Olafemi Mandley

The recipe Olafemi shares below is for her grandmother’s skillet cornbread, with memories of time spent preparing and enjoying food with the women in her family. She chose to share it here because of the unifying role of corn as a universal food staple across the globe, and because of the symbolism that it holds on the table during Kwanzaa, when each child in the family is represented by an ear of corn (Muhindi).

 

“From a very young age food took center stage in my life. I followed my grandmother, mother, and aunts in their relationship with food. My grandmother groomed me for market shopping and taught me which vendors to source products from and the best time to purchase them. My grandmother would make this amazing cast iron skillet cornbread that was golden brown with a buttery, crispy crust and a soft and fluffy interior. I was an adult before I realized that the cornbread was baked in the oven.

“Homemade cornbread always reminds me of family and home. It’s one of those quick breads prepared with easily accessible ingredients, and with little effort you have fresh bread as the cornerstone of every occasion. A couple of years ago, Ujamaa Collective hosted a group of students from Northern Ireland along with their adult chaperones. They had been in western Pennsylvania for two weeks, and this was their last dinner. This was the first time that they had ever been served cornbread, and they all agreed it was the best thing that they had eaten during their two-week visit. Food speaks every language and needs no interpretation!

“Corn is king, dancing around the globe masquerading as tasty, simple, and sometimes complex food dishes—everything from a corn tortillas and tacos, hoe cake, Johnny cake, hush puppies, corn dogs, cornbread, corn pudding, polenta oil, grits, cornmeal mush, succotash, coo coo, popcorn, cornflakes, and even whiskey! Corn is such a prevalent staple in the food supply that it makes up many, any and every meal of the day—from breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks to libations! Even the biblical Joseph of Egypt collected corn to prepare for a seven-year famine.” – Olafemi Mandley

Ava Ford’s Skillet Cornbread

Yields (1) 9-inch skillet, serves 8

First component: lots of love and best intentions. Music and wine help during cooking and clean-up.

Preheat oven to 425 degrees F, and place 9-inch cast-iron skillet in oven to get hot. It’s very important to have your skillet preheated.

Mix the following dry ingredients thoroughly in a separate bowl:

  • 1 cup yellow corn meal
  • 1 cup unbleached flour
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1 Tbsp. aluminum-free baking powder
  • 3/4 tsp. sea salt

Mix the following wet ingredients thoroughly in a separate bowl:

  • 1 1/3 cup whole organic milk
  • 2 large organic eggs
  • 1/2 cup canola oil

Pour the following dry ingredients into the bowl with the wet ingredients. Stir to combine but don’t over mix.

Remove skillet from the hot oven and add 2 Tbsp. unsalted butter, cubed, into skillet. Then pour batter into the hot skillet, place it on the top rack of the oven, and reduce oven temperature to 375 degrees F. Bake for 25 – 35 minutes until the top is golden brown. Rub 2 Tbsp. softened, unsalted butter on the top of the cornbread after you remove it from the oven.

Four women in a room decorated for Christmas, circa early 1990s.

Cultural Heritage Recipe Box – Family Memories

By Blog

Grandma Rocky’s house—Grandma (sitting), Aunt Nancy, Pam’s sister Kim and Pam

By Brianna Horan, Manager of Tourism & Visitor Experience

Cultural Heritage Recipe Box: Family Memories

Baking up a batch of cookies or twisting up cake and cream into a jelly roll has a powerful way of recapturing the magic of childhood holiday celebrations—even as the years go by and wisdom begins to outweigh wonderment. It’s often the only time of year that certain treasured recipes make an appearance, bringing with them memories of days gone by and the loved ones who made them for us. But not everyone is a baker, and—at a time of year that often brings as much chaos as it does cheer—not everyone has hours to spend in the kitchen.

That’s where professional and home bakers come in, delivering special recipes and the sweet sentiments that go along with them. Brookline resident Pam Howell is a talented home baker who has enjoyed making baked goods for her family and friends for years and for all occasions, using her trusted family recipes (like the Potato Chip Cookies recipe below) and her own twists on flavors (like her recent creation, goat cheese thumbprints with homemade apricot jam).

Pam’s hobby brings as much joy to her as to the people she shares it with. After she got married years ago, she affectionately started referring to the labors of her love as Cain’s Cookies and Treats to keep a connection with her maiden name. After being laid off from her (non-baking related) job this year due to the pandemic, Pam found herself in the kitchen even more often. As the fall and winter holidays approached, she started to take requests from friends to make cookie trays, pumpkin rolls, cocoa and cookie kits, and other seasonal specialties. “It has been a blessing to do something I hold so dear and be able to share it with others during this time,” Pam says.

With plenty of positive feedback from her family and friends, Pam has resolved to lay the groundwork in the new year to officially start a business. In the meantime, she always welcomes the opportunity to chat about baking and her cookies and treats, and invites you to email her at CainsCookiesandTreats@gmail.com. Along with her favorite cookie recipe, Pam has also shared the memories of Christmases spent with family that baking brings back for her. Pittsburghers will also appreciate her description of journeying “over two bridges and through a tunnel” to visit her Grandma Rocky in the North Side.

From the kitchen of Pam Howell—Cain’s Cookies and Treats

“My Grandma Rocky’s Potato Chip Cookies are a must have on our Christmas cookie trays. There are several staples and family favorites—Mom’s Cream Cheese Cookies, Buckeyes, Caramel Cups, and Grandma’s French Cream Cups—but nothing takes me back to childhood quite like the Potato Chip Cookies.

“Grandma Rocky is my maternal grandmother. Her name was Dorothy Hlovchiec, but we couldn’t say Grandma Hlovchiec when we were kids, and they had a big fluffy dog named Rocky. So she will forever be Grandma Rocky to me. Gram was Ukrainian. I know this is a Cultural recipe box but to be honest I never thought much about that, past the potato pancakes and Haluski. Grandma lived in the North Side and we lived in the South Hills so I suppose I think more about the culture of North Side when I think of Gram. It was a different world over therewe went through the tunnel and crossed two rivers to get there. It was always a thrill on the way home when the Bayer clock would be lit up on Mt. Washington, and if there was a concert at Three Rivers Stadium we could catch a listen to as we passed.

 “Grandma’s house was one of those big old houses with lots of scary corners when it was dark, but for the holidays it was always well lit. We would sit in the large dining room at their big wooden table and eat. To be perfectly honest I can’t tell you what we ever ate for dinner. But I can tell you everything on the table when it was time for snacks—which was really dessert. Grandma would bring out all the Crisco containers full of cookies. I’d take the plastic lid off, remove the foil, and get my first heavenly whiff of Grandma’s cookies. I had many favorites and I would often, if not always, leave with a tummy ache, but it was worth it. The Potato Chip Cookies are special because as I have gotten older, memories fade but biting into those cookies takes me back to Grandma’s house. Watching her cook in her carpeted kitchen as I would sit at the bench at the table. There was a TV and radio in the kitchen, and always a giant tub of lard on the stove. The cabinets were pink and from my seat at the table I could see out the back door. Past the yard was an alley, a magical place to a suburban kid. Sometimes we’d sit on the front porcha big stone porch overlooking Hodgekiss Street. From the corner of the porch I could see the street light. I would watch it change colors for extended periods of time while Grandma and Aunt Nancy would sit on their aluminum porch chairs. The cookies bring back all of those memories. I’m sure things weren’t perfect there, but from the eyes of a child it was a magical and unique place. Grandma’s Potato Chip Cookies are unique—I don’t believe I have ever seen them on a cookie table. Maybe that is why they seem so special. Something my family can pass on and keep family traditions alive. Enjoy and have a blessed Christmas.” – Pam Howell

Yellow cookies sprinkled with powered sugar.

A batch of Grandma Rocky’s Potato Chip Cookies freshly dusted with powdered sugar.

Grandma Rocky’s Potato Chip Cookies

Ingredients

  • 1 lb. softened butter
  • 1 1/2 cups sugar
  • 2 teaspoons vanilla
  • 3 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 2 cups salted ridged potato chips

Instructions

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.

Cream together butter, sugar and vanilla.

Blend the flour into the creamed mixture a little at a time.

Crush potato chips by hand (measure after crushing).

Add potato chips to the mixture.

Bake 10 –12 minutes on an ungreased cookie sheet.

Sprinkle with confectioners’ sugar when cool.

Makes about 5 dozen cookies.

Artist Profile: Douglas Lopretto

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Artist Doug Lopretto posing with a mural he helped create for the Homestead Streetside Gallery.

In 2020, Rivers of Steel Arts launched the Mon Valley Featured Artist Series. Showcasing some of the exciting creative professionals working across the Mon Valley Creative Corridor, this blog highlights an artist each month—from a variety of boroughs—to provide a snapshot of the region’s growing cultural vitality.

A smiling, 40ish, white man with visible tattoos wearing black rim glasses and a gray button down shirt,

Artist Doug Lopretto

About Douglas A. Lopretto Jr.

We are excited to close our 2020 artist features with the work of someone close to home, artist Doug Lopretto.  Recently relocated to Homestead Borough, Doug has committed himself to the local creative community through his work as a tattoo artist, musician, and through numerous volunteer endeavors.  During a challenging year when it would have been easy to take a seat on the sidelines, Lopretto has helped re-ignite a spark in the borough’s Steel Valley Arts Council while also investing himself and his business in downtown Homestead.  Rivers of Steel is grateful for his steadfast partnership locally on projects like the Homestead Streetside Gallery and First Fridays programming.  As we turn the page on 2020, all of us at Rivers of Steel look forward to working together with dedicated artists, like Doug Lopretto and so many others, to bring exciting creative experiences to the Mon Valley Creative Corridor.    

A Message from Doug

About My Work

My tattooing comes from an American Traditional and Neo Traditional background. I focus on clean lines and bold tattoos that last a lifetime. I started in Erie after receiving my bachelor’s degree in media arts from Edinboro University then found my home in the body modification industry and also as a musician. My music has been called folk punk, dirty blues, and the ever constant “you sound like Tom Waits.” I keep it simple—my guitar, snapping fingers, foot stomps, and an a cappella or two. With all my art though my main focus is and always be the art created through solidarity and the energy transferred in the process. I always say “art is the action of, versus the finished project.” Plus the two most driving forces are my friends and my love for the working class.

My Home & Shop

Originally from Perryopolis, I currently live in West Homestead and my business, Kindness Solidarity Design is in Homestead. KSD & the Radio Room are located next to the Homestead Gray’s Bridge in the same location that was once home to the radio station WHOD, later known as WAMO. While we are still in the process of opening up, it will soon be an art space consisting of private, appointment-only tattooing where we will focus on quality over quantity. We aim to make the experience a more personal one. Separate from the tattoo side is the Radio Room where we pay tribute to Porky Chedwick, Mary “Dee” Dudley, Bill Powell, Glorian Inez Briskey, the Battle of Homestead 1892, and the power of radio; a mural that sits at the back of our stage where we hope to host as many “live” local talents as possible. The location will also function as a local art gallery, learning space, and organizing venue for local charities and nonprofits. It’s a dream for sure, but it’s my representation of what it felt like moving to Homestead. Here, the people are friendly, the small businesses treat you like family, and together we rise. Kyle Rybak and I are running this space with a basic universal motto, “there is no succeeding in this unless we all do.” We aim to do the most good with the time and space we’ve been given. The Steel Valley has so much history, love , and enduring strength. It’s an honor to call this place home.

Find Me Online

Instagram: @Ironlung80 and @ksd.412

Facebook Profiles: Douglas Lopretto, Douglas & the Iron Lung, and KSD & the Radio Room

Cultural Heritage Recipe Box – The Tamburitzans

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Three young women dressed for the Serbian Pembe dance. Image courtesy of The Tamburitzans.

By Brianna Horan, Manager of Tourism & Visitor Experience

Cultural Heritage Recipe Box: Serbian (and Italian!)

Black and white photo of 10 dancers, men and women, in traditional Eastern European dress.

Tamburitzan Alumni

The Tamburitzans are a treasured folk ensemble that performs the live music and traditional dances of cultures from around the globe—all while calling Pittsburgh home. Founded in 1937 at Duquesne University, the ensemble takes its name from the tamburitza (or tamburica) family of stringed folk instruments that give traditional Eastern European music its distinctive sound. Today the Tamburitzans are an independent nonprofit organization open to Pittsburgh-based university students, and they are the longest-running multicultural song and dance company in the United States. They have traveled nationally and internationally to perform between 50 and 60 shows annually, showcasing an ever-expanding collection of ethnic songs and dance in authentic costumes. The Eastern European roots of the ensemble remain, and are complemented by Spanish, Bollywood, Middle Eastern, Irish, and a variety of other cultural traditions, which the Tamburitzans take care to represent respectfully.

The organization had been based in Uptown since the 1960s—the colorful, mosaic-like display of dancers and musicians on the rounded corner of their building is a recognizable landmark to those who travel on Boulevard of the Allies. While the COVID-19 pandemic has meant that the Tamburitzans’ 84th season has unfortunately had to be cancelled, the ensemble made a big move this year to a new headquarters in the former social hall of Holy Ghost Byzantine Catholic Church in the Northside. Their new building has the expanded space and facilities needed for rehearsals, social events, storage, technology and community events—and the façade is now emblazoned with a ring of dancers in colorful dresses.

The close-knit organization has grown in many ways over its long history, but celebrating and preserving ethnic traditions remains at its core. This mission and the experience of being a “Tammie,” as the Tamburitzans are affectionately known, has created close connections between current and former members of the ensemble. We’re glad to be able to share a collection of Christmas recipes and remembrances from active and alumni Tamburitzans which speak to their own personal heritage and traditions.

To learn more about the Tamburitzans, visit their website, call 412-224-2071, or email info@thetamburitzans.org. Follow them on social media: Facebook | Instagram | Twitter | YouTube. Find ways to support the organization by clicking here. And check out their Instagram teaser of the Tamburitzans dancing with the Carrie Blast Furnaces as a backdrop, which will be part of artist Andrea Stanislav’s upcoming installation and residency at the Mattress Factory museum.

From the kitchen of Millicent Novic

A middle aged white couple holding up wine glasses. He wears a blue polo shirt and she a pink flutter sleeve top.

Millicent and Brad Novic

Millicent Novic, née Manolovich, performed with the Tamburitzans from 1969 to 1973. She and her husband Brad Novic met during that time when they were both Tammies, and they continue to be actively involved with the organization. Millicent and Brad’s daughter, Abbi Novic, was also a Tamburitzan, continuing their legacy.

“When asked to provide a recipe that evoked a fond memory, I immediately thought of the Christmas Eves we spent at my uncle’s farm in Monaca, PA. Every year my uncle (Bryan Savich) would invite all of his family members and friends to his farm to roast their pigs for their Christmas dinners the next day. With Tamburitzan music playing in the background, the whole day was filled with people preparing the animals by rubbing them down with plenty of garlic and salt and securing them on the spit to be placed in a large oven he had built at the far end of the party room in his house. Because the Serbian Orthodox people maintain a strict fast throughout the advent season and especially on Christmas Eve, my mother would prepare a Lenten meal for everyone to eat as they worked throughout the day. There was always a big pot of Lima Bean Potato Soup, Baccala (salted cod fried with garlic), Serbian Potato Salad made simply with onions, vinegar and oil, and Pogacha (crusty flat bread.) It was fun to listen to all the stories everyone would share, especially remembering how they all loved to eat this ‘Depression Food.’ The next day the abstinence of the fast made the first taste of pork especially delicious as you bit in and heard the crack of the salty crispy skin!

 “Those were the days my friends, we thought they’d never end… Sadly, all of my older relatives have passed away, but not before they passed on their love for family, friends and heritage.

 “In the same way, the Tamburitzans have kept the folk music of world cultures alive for over 84 years. It is through the love of those traditions that they perpetuate the rich cultural heritages of the countries they represent as a living tribute to our immigrant ancestors who came to this great nation in search of a better life. These traditions have been passed onto the next generation by awarding scholarships to the talented student-performers who are a part of the ensemble as the Tamburitzans continue to be an integral part of the fabric of Pittsburgh’s Arts community.” – Millicent Novic

Baby Lima Bean Soup

Ingredients

  • 1 lb. baby lima beans, dried
  • 1 cup barley
  • 1 carrot
  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  •  1 stalk celery, chopped
  • 1 clove garlic, diced
  • 3 qts. water
  • 4 medium potatoes, diced
  • salt & pepper to taste
  • 1 tsp. paprika
  • 1/3 cup oil
  • 2 Tbsp. flour

Instructions

Soak beans and barley separately overnight. Rinse well.

Place beans, barley and vegetables in 3 quarts of water and cook for 1 hour.

Add potatoes and cook until tender.

To make the zafrik (roux), heat oil and add flour, stirring until lightly browned. Add to soup. Simmer about 15 minutes until soup thickens.

Check for seasonings. Serve hot w/ ½ t. of vinegar added to your bowl of soup, if you like.

From the kitchen of Elaine Vucelich

Tearing the bread, photo courtesy of the Vucelich family.

This recipe is from the kitchen of Elaine Vucelich, a former administrator and business manager for the Tamburitzans. Her son, daughter, and son-in-law are all Tamburitzan alumni.

“I remember my mother baking this Cesnica (pronounced “Chesnitza”) every Christmas Eve (January 6). It is customary to abstain from meat and dairy on this day. The smell of fresh Cesnica throughout the house was hard for us kids because we knew that we couldn’t have any and that we had to wait until Christmas Day.

Cesnica is never cut with a knife. It is customary that each member of the family breaks off a piece of the Cesnica, and the person who finds the coin in his portion will be the recipient of good fortune in the new year. I carry on this tradition still today with my children. Everyone gathers around and grabs a piece of the Cesnica with their right hand and we break it together – anxiously awaiting to see who will get the coin and good luck for the new year!” – Elaine Vucelich

Cesnica (Serbian Christmas Coin Bread)

A round loaf of bread with a braided top.

Cesnica

Ingredients

  • 1 pkg dry yeast
  • ½ cup warm water
  • 2 eggs beaten
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • 1 stick butter, softened
  • 1 ½ cups warm milk
  • 5 ½ cups flour
  • 1 clean silver coin

Instructions

Dissolve yeast in ½ cup of warm water in a large bowl. Let sit a few minutes to activate.

Add eggs, salt, butter and milk beating well until thoroughly blended. Gradually add flour.

Knead dough until elastic like and smooth (Approx. 15 minutes). Place dough in greased bowl and turn to grease the top and bottom sides of dough. Cover with a cloth and let rise until double in size.

Punch down and knead again a few minutes. Insert the coin into the dough, shape the dough into a ball and place it on a greased round pizza pan or cookie sheet – flatten the ball. Let rise 1 hour. Bake at 350 degrees for 45-60 minutes – until golden brown.

From the kitchen of Sam and Sofia Caloiero

A young woman and man, both in formal dress, pose with their dog.

Sofia and Sam Caloiero

Twins Sam and Sofia Caloiero are freshmen performers with the Tamburitzans. Sam attends the Community College of Allegheny County, and Sofia attends Chatham University. When the pandemic started, they were seniors at North Hills High School. They used the extra time at home to start an educational cooking show with their dad, a producer and cameraman for WQED Multimedia. Read a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article about that project, called “Family Style,” by clicking here, and watch their videos in WQED’s online education portal.

“For my sister and I to be Tamburitzans means embracing the culture of our family by performing traditional song and dance, and making our ancestors proud by introducing that culture to others.” – Sam Caloiero

 “This dish, ‘Arancini,’ is a common dish in Italy that our Nonna brought to America with her family, and that she now calls ‘Rice Meatballs.’ Any time that I think of Christmas at Nonna’s house I automatically think of Rice Meatballs. I am so excited to have them because we only have them on the holidays.” – Sofia Caloiero

Arancini di Riso (“Rice Meatballs”)

Nonna Caloiero, Christmas 2019

Ingredients

  • 2 cups rice – arborio or carnaroli
  • 4-6 cups water or unsalted chicken broth
  • Saffron for color, a few pinches (tomato puree can also be added for color if desired)
  • Salt and seasoning to taste
  • 2 cups flour – for dredging rice meatballs
  • 10 cups seasoned bread crumbs – ground very fine
  • 48 oz. (1 pint) vegetable oil for frying – corn oil or canola oil will also work
  • Approximately 1-2 hours for prep/cook/cleanup
  • Yields about 2 dozen rice meatballs

Instructions

Cook the rice in water or chicken stock, add the saffron or tomato puree for some color.

When rice is cooked, spread out on a cookie pan to cool.

Roll rice into balls to desired size, something a bit smaller than a tennis ball is good.

Roll the rice balls across some flour, covering the entire ball.  You can add some water to flour to make a thin wet paste.  Bread crumbs will stick to that better.

(Side note, you can add a small meatball, or cube of mozzarella in center of rice meatball for fun)

Roll the rice meatball through the bread crumbs getting even coverage, and shake off any extra bread crumbs.

Fry the rice meatballs in the oil.

Enjoy eating with family and friends. You can make a side red sauce for dipping!

The process of making rice meatballs. Photo courtesy of the Caloiero family.


Caloiero dinner table, Christmas 2019.