Josephine Gresko awoke early and prepared 150 cabbage rolls before I arrived at her house around noon. She lives behind the beauty salon that she's operated for many years. I peeked underneath the lids of two large electric roasters that were on the floor between the styling chairs. They were stacked with roll after steamy roll of stuffed cabbage that would be served that evening at a church supper for a friend's funeral.
Mrs. Gresko lives in the town of Carmichaels, Greene County. The 2000 census listed the population at 556.
Carmichaels gained folk status in 2005 when actress Patricia Heaton and her husband produced a movie, "The Bituminous Coal Queens of Southwestern Pennsylvania," documenting the 50th anniversary of the Coal Queen pageant. The Bituminous Coal Show has rides, exhibits and parades, plus a beauty-and-talent contest -- all saluting the area's major industry, coal mining -- and culminates in the annual crowning of the coal queen.
On the first Saturday in October after the coal festival, Carmichaels hosts a smaller event, the Pig Festival. It started nine years ago, when "a bunch of women got together to have a halupki festival," said organizer John Beabout. Halupkis are also called pigs in a blanket, hence the name Pig Festival. Mr. Beabout says his name is pronounced as in "be about time we had another Pig Fest."
Around the town square, you'll see women (mainly elderly) selling steaming-hot homemade pierogies and stuffed cabbage. If this festival chose a queen, I think the title would go to Mrs. Gresko. One of about eight vendors this year, she's hoping to make 1,200 cabbage rolls. She'll be selling them next to the Hartley Inn, under the awning.
Around here, the favored soul food is Eastern European ethnic. It might be Slovakian, Serbian, Ukrainian, Polish or Hungarian. The cabbage rolls might be called halupki, galumpki, golabki or sarme.
Other food traditions include pierogies, kielbasa, haluski (shredded cabbage and noodles) and nut rolls, also made with apricot or poppy seed fillings. These are traditions brought over by the families of men who left or were recruited from Eastern Europe in the early 1900s to work in the coal mines.
It's food made by your grandmother or bubbe. Food served in church basements to raise money for the community. Preparation is time-consuming and laborious, and these dishes are not often made by the younger generation.
Mrs. Gresko's kitchen is large and tidy, with packed counters. Central to the room is the oval kitchen table, where she does the prep work. She doesn't use cutting boards, preferring to cut the celery and onions in her hands, with a favorite paring knife.
Her daughter, Diane McCombs, and granddaughter Leslie were already in the kitchen when I arrived. Neither makes stuffed cabbage. Relatives George (Uncle Ducky) and Nancy McCombs arrived just after I did and sat across the table, watching and chatting as we made cabbage rolls.
Mrs. Gresko will turn 78 next May. Born in Carmichaels to Italian parents, she married a man whose parents emigrated from Budapest. Her husband died early, in 1956, when her four children were young.
At 16, Mrs. Gresko wanted to be a hairdresser. Because she was underage, her father slipped some money to the owner of a local beauty school. She received her beauty degree at 18. By then she was married, had one child and was living with her in-laws.
Her mother-in-law, Bertha Gresko, was the cook for a Jewish family in Brownsville. Bertha taught Josephine to prepare Hungarian specialties, including stuffed cabbage rolls.
"I've been making them since I was 16," she said. "Every Sunday at my mother-in-law's, we'd have cabbage rolls, chicken soup and her breaded chicken. If I didn't have to go the dentist today" -- something she fit in between the two roasters of cabbage rolls and my appearance -- "I would have made the soup."
Then she recited the recipes for the soup and the breaded chicken and for chicken paprikash with dumplings.
Mrs. Gresko has been a beautician since 1947. Her shop is full of photos and tchotchkes: family, religious and Elvis-oriented. She saw the last pope and met Miss America and has pictures to prove it. Along with daughter Diane, there are three sons, 14 grandchildren and two great-granddaughters. She loves doo-wop shows. Her nails were painted a deep maroon and decorated with swirls of silver. Her hands never stopped moving, cleaning, chopping, gesturing.
"I don't measure," she told me.
She's a small woman, 4 feet, 11 inches, she said, but she might be smaller. She moves faster and more often than anyone else in the room. Telling me recipes, answering an ever-ringing phone, greeting visitors, introducing a son, Joey, who stopped by.
They say she feeds the entire town.
"She wouldn't let anyone go hungry," says Mary Lewis, her friend of 36 years who is Carmichaels' borough administrator, police officer and deputy coroner. She, Josephine, John and Emily Hritz, Jo Ann Yurick and Joyce Peccon started the Pig Festival in 2000. "The first year Josephine made 2,400 stuffed cabbage rolls. We raised enough money to buy a little boy his first wheelchair."
Of Josephine, she says, "I think God blesses her."
Mrs. Gresko watched as I mixed ground beef in a tub with rice, onion, celery, eggs and seasonings. I used my hands, and she approved. After I was done, she neatened it, shaping the meat into a square loaf, incorporating stray bits of vegetables and egg.
We started to roll the cabbage, paring the thick parts from the leaves.
"Trim that cabbage and put the meat in it like a pocket," she instructed, shaping and squeezing the roll in her strong hands, lining the rolls in the pan. We sprinkled on sauerkraut, added the bits of cabbage, crushed tomatoes, tomato juice, salt and pepper. We seasoned each layer. We rinsed out the tomato can and poured the liquid over the cabbage rolls.
That day, Mrs. Gresko imparted her history through recipes, a method of communication I understand as a food writer. She told me few personal facts and stories, yet I understood that she never stops working, that she supports a network of family and friends with food and love. Everyone is welcome at her kitchen table.
When the customers whose hair she has styled for years die, she goes to the funeral home and styles their hair one last time. Cleans their nails if they need it. Makes the cabbage rolls for the meal following their funerals.
She covered the pan of cabbage rolls with a big piece of aluminum foil, getting them ready for the oven. "Putting them to bed," she said, making the sign of the cross over the pan.
Mrs. Gresko chooses what she calls the lighter "female" cabbages instead of the heavier "male" ones. The leaves come off more easily.
- 2 medium-size cabbages, cored
- 2 pounds ground round or chuck
- 1 large onion, coarsely chopped
- 2 stalks celery, coarsely chopped ( 1/2-inch pieces), about 1 cup
- 1 cup raw long-grain white rice (not converted rice)
- 2 large eggs
- 2 tablespoons dried parsley flakes
- 1/2 teaspoon garlic salt
- Salt and ground black pepper
- 1 pound sauerkraut, from a bag, drained and rinsed
- 28-ounce can crushed tomatoes
- 2 cups tomato juice
Bring a large pot of water to a boil over high heat and add a cabbage. Reduce heat slightly and blanch cabbage, turning a few times, about 5 minutes, until leaves begin loosening and look translucent. With cabbage in water, use long-handled fork or tongs to pull off leaves as they loosen. Remove what's left of cabbage and repeat with other cabbage. Don't discard inner leaves or broken leaves. Reserve water. Let cabbage cool.
In large bowl or tub, put ground beef, onion, celery, rice, eggs, parsley flakes, garlic salt, 1 teaspoon salt and 1/2 teaspoon pepper. Mix well with hands, adding 1/4 cup water if mixture feels "tight."
With paring knife, trim thick cores from outer sides of cabbage leaves. Coarsely chop smaller leaves and cabbage bits; strew half in bottom of an 18-by-10-by-3-inch heavy-duty foil roasting pan.
Pour reserved cabbage water over sauerkraut in a colander to rinse more, if you like. Drain well. Strew half the kraut over cabbage in pan. Pour in half the crushed tomatoes and 1 cup tomato juice. Season with salt and pepper; mix well.
For rolls, Mrs. Gresko shapes about 1/4 cup meat into a sausage (not too tight) for a large leaf, less for a smaller leaf. She uses her hand as a cup to shape rolls, with curved side of leaf facing her palm and core end toward her wrist. She puts filling on the bottom of the leaf, and folds the bottom over the filling, pressing in. Then she folds in the sides, pressing and rolling, but not too tight, not worrying if a leaf breaks. Filled leaves are placed seam-side down in pan, in even rows, 5 or 6 across, making 25 to 28 rolls.
Strew remaining chopped cabbage (chop any unused leaves) and sauerkraut over the rolls. Top with remaining crushed tomatoes and tomato juice. Salt and pepper generously. Rinse crushed tomato can with about 1/2 can water. Pour water over top; don't worry about mixing it.
Cover pan tightly with foil. Bake in 325-degree oven 1 hour. Check after 30 minutes to be sure it's bubbling. If not, turn oven to 350 degrees. After 1 hour, reduce temperature to 250 degrees. Bake 1 to 1 1/2 hours longer, until rolls are tender and meat and rice fully cooked (cut open a roll to check).
Serves 8 to 10.
-- Josephine Gresko
Miriam Rubin writes about food from Greene County. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org . A version of this story originally appeared in Now & Then, The Appalachian Magazine, published by the Center for Appalachian Studies and Services at East Tennessee State University, for the 25th anniversary foodways issue, Spring/Summer 2009.