Saturday, February 06, 2010

Rust Belt Chic: Soup Sega

To me, Pittsburgh cuisine is exotic. The first thing that comes to my mind is Eastern European food served up at a local church during a festival celebrating national heritage. In this Sunday's Washington Post, you can find some of that magic:

A recent 10-degree morning is "a good soup day!" says Pat Penka French, ushering a visitor into the humid, fragrant kitchen of the Bulgarian Macedonian National Educational & Cultural Center. The epic wedding scene from "The Deer Hunter" could as well have been filmed in the society's West Homestead brick headquarters, a throwback to the days when immigrant steelworkers founded ethnic social clubs.

The country's oldest Bulgarian organization, the center now sustains itself financially with soup. Its popular Soup Sega -- "soup now" -- is a weekly sale of such specialties as gyuvech (stew) and banitza (feta-filled strudel). The northern Bulgarian spicy tomato soup floats a raft of tiny dill dumplings, while the spinach-and-rice variety, finished with lemon and egg, is French's family recipe from central Bulgaria. "We've had visitors from 44 states and 25 countries," says the State Department interpreter and president of the center. "The soup has opened doors."

Directing the weekly volunteer cooking session is red-haired Angel Roy. Drawn to the center by childhood folk-dance lessons rather than Balkan heritage, she now directs the action while her 9-month-old son, Calder, is coddled by aproned admirers. "I love the camaraderie in the kitchen," she says, "and the motherly advice." Her ingredients stay true to Southeastern European tastes: She uses Bulgarian feta, less salty than that of its neighbors, with dashes of mint and paprika.

I think the described creature comforts would appeal to Gen Y cosmopolites. Rust Belt Chic is the never ending search for authenticity of place. In cities such as Buffalo, thy cup runneth over. It's not for everyone, but I sense a recycling of interest in blue collar culture.

The current globalization hangover might have something to do with the trend. The backlash against suburbia also helps. This is a nationally scaled gentrification project and I can imagine a day in the near future when people lament the increasing rarity of soup sega. The golden age is now.

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