by Michael Garriga
Still Life #1: Pan filled with butter-fried Lekvar pierogies (and it’s not even a Lenten Friday), courtesy of Kristian Campana, editor of ohiofestivals.net
Last summer, I took a job at Baldwin-Wallace College, just outside Cleveland, Ohio. Having lived virtually all of my life south of I-10, that corridor that connects Jacksonville, FL, to Santa Monica, CA—we’re not talking the “Deep South” here, we’re talking the “Far South”—I braced myself for a certain culture shock. And I got it.
Understand, I grew up in Mississippi, four blocks from the Gulf of Mexico, and for me, the smell of salt water is home. The brine on my lips, the wind on my skin. All that heat, humidity, and sand: That’s home. And in Biloxi, we’re a shrimp-centric people. The great insult, state-wide, against us is the derogatory “shrimp picker!” but we embrace it. Once when I was a kid, my dad—who owned a title loan place—sold a car to some Vietnamese shrimpers, and they paid him in product. So much so, that he had to buy a second freezer to just to store the shrimp. Those men kept coming for months, hauling green, five-gallon pickle bucket after pickle bucket of true count shrimp. I need my shrimp.
And though I’ve moved from one large body of water to another, I had not even considered that Cleveland rests on a giant freshwater depository that is absolutely not crustacean friendly. Nor had I considered the psychological toll that it would take on me. Sure, I can go to The West Side Market and buy Gulf shrimp (hell, you can buy anything there!), but I can’t pay the prohibitive $16 a pound, knowing that back home I could get them off a dock for $4. I’m cheap that way.
I flew home five times during the course of my first year here. I was homesick, I’ll confess. I missed the air and the food, my family and my pals. A lot of people back home would make snide remarks about me being an ex-pat, being a traitor, saying, “Ah, they can’t play football for damn up there,” or “Their food tastes like their accent sounds.” I got defensive and became a kind of cultural ambassador for the Cleveland area, describing the wonderful things this place has to offer. If my Far South people had ever eaten even one pierogie, one helping of stuffed cabbage, or one paczki, they’d change their tune, I guarantee. One trip to the West Side Market, and the food there would reconcile all hostilities.
Because the Market is like some cultural museum to all things stuffed in Cleveland. That’s a big deal up here. Fifthy different kinds of stuffed peppers, stuffed sauerkraut balls, stuffed artichokes, and tomatoes. I recently pointed out this proclivity to a friend of mine, a local, and his response was, “Oh yeah. I guess we do like to stuff foods into other foods.” What lovely understatement!
Of course, in my home town we stuffed a few things: crawfish pie, stuffed flounder, deviled crabs, like that. We stuff turkeys with oyster dressing during thanksgiving, but that’s the high, holy feast day. And sure, now, on occasion someone will bring a turducken to a Christmas party, but that’s rare.
Here, home grill-masters, dive bar cooks, and haute cuisine chefs stuff daily. Everyone’s shoving some food inside some other food: porkchops, tenderloins, beef tongue; baby eggplants, zuccini flowers, peppadew; all manner of things are rolled in grape leaves; spicy sausage in Hungarian peppers, Italian sausage in mushrooms, mild sausage in bigger sausages. Pastillos, strombolis, kishka. I’ve heard entire arguments waged over whether or not you should add tomato sauce to stuffed cabbage. And pierogies, pierogies, pierogies!
I’m new to all of these foods, and I enjoy every last one. I mean, the only ravioli I had as a kid came in a Boyardee can, and now that I think of it, that chef was from Ohio too. I wonder if these foods were available in the Far South and I just somehow over-looked them, but no. I’ve asked my mom who still lives down there to scour the freezer section for Mrs. T’s pierogies and the to no avail. I guess it’s the immigration patterns that brought so many Italians, Jews, Greeks, and Eastern Europeans to Northeast Ohio. Stuffing must be an expression of this place’s broad ethnic diversity—and it’s a way to have one leg in the U.S. and one back home.
Of course, back in the late 50s and early 60s, a wave of Slovakians immigrated to Biloxi. Maybe they were fleeing a culture they wanted to abandon, or maybe the South’s hostility and resistance to outsiders forced their hand, but either way, they began to assimilate immediately. They bought fleets of shrimping boats and dovetailed right in to the existing Creole culture. I don’t recall ever going to a restaurant and ordering kielbasa, sauerkraut, or anything with beets. But I did eat at Milanovich’s Po Boys, and the crawfish etouffee at Gillich’s Diner is remarkable.
I’m a fan of the food here. It offers delicious, little insights into a foreign world. Still, there was a time during winter when the snow was on the ground and still falling (and though I’ve been told this was the warmest winter in fifty years, it’s still the first time I’ve ever seen snow stick) I didn’t know if I wanted to stay in Cleveland. It was too damn alien for me. And so last month, when the spring semester ended, I wanted to hop a plane to Biloxi and stay for the whole summer. I was that home-starved. Who knows, maybe I wouldn’t come back.
Still Life #2: Irish Egg Roll—corned beef, cabbage, potatoes, carrot, and onion (wrapped in a wonton and fried), courtesy of Kristian Campana, editor of ohiofestivals.net
Then my neighbors took me to Gibbs Butcher Block for the first time. It’s an old 1950 abattoir overlooking Rocky River, and they make their own sausages on-site. Sausages are part of Cleveland’s DNA. The last time I was at the West Side Market, I did an informal survey, and by my count, there were possibly 7, 387 different kinds of sausage. All we had growing up were dry little Jimmy Dean variety patties for breakfast and these little wadded knots of pink nitrate in some sort of vinyl casing that tasted only like the amount of Tobasco and mustard you could pour over it. Yeah, we did have a fifty-five quart pot to boil shrimp, crab, and crawfish in (along with potatoes and corn and mushrooms and artichokes and garlic bulbs). Obviously I’m exaggerating, because we do have two great sausages—andouille and boudin—but they don’t come in such plentiful varieties.
But Gibbs, even compared to the myriad sausage styles here, is the master. They make crazy gourmet offerings: lobster and champagne kielbasa; honey, almond, and raspberry sausage; cherry and habenero chorizo; caramelized onion & Guinness beer bratwurst; port wine & wild mushroom bison sausage. Every Saturday, they fire up the grill and cook and share them free with anyone who shows up. Now that’s hospitality the South could learn from. I was taken with these treats, the same as I’m pleased by all the ones mentioned above, in the same way I feel tickled when I’m visiting another country and sampling its indigenous cuisine.
But then, that day at Gibbs, a familiar smell shocked me still. I was a child again and there was sand in between my toes. It was a stuffed seafood sausage lovingly crammed with shrimp, crawfish, and crabmeat. I bought a dozen that day and ate them over the weekend with a remoulade sauce my mom taught me to make. I remembered bonfires on the beach and hauling in a net’s catch. And I keep buying them by the dozen, cooking one a day until my home becomes seasoned with those smells I miss and love. Once that odor takes hold, bringing my old home into my new one, I know I’ll be able to stay for good.
A Mississippi native, Michael Garriga earned a PhD in creative writing from Florida State University in 2009, and currently works as an assistant professor at Baldwin Wallace University. His first collection of short short stories, titled The Book of Duels, is forthcoming from Milkweed Editions (2013). His work has appeared in The Southern Review, New Letters, Oxford American, Black Warrior Review, Story South, and elsewhere. He is currently adjusting to his ex-pat life in Berea, Ohio, where he lives with his wife and son.