Thursday, July 07, 2011

Rust Belt Chic Weirton

Below, Johnny Cash shows you the location of Weirton, West Virginia. (Please excuse the missing Eastern Panhandle)

Seeing Weirton captured in a film was unusual because West Virginia's rust belt is just not a place that is often visited by the arbiters of popular culture. It doesn't have a distinctive accent like South Boston. It can't claim a spot in food history, which even Buffalo can do. And it's not as bad off as Detroit, so living there can't be gritty and cool.

So it was doubly unusual that on the same weekend that I saw my hometown on film, I caught a singer-songwriter from West Virginia, Logan Venderlic, who performs with a Tom Petty-meets-Appalachia vibe. (He's also dating my cousin. Insert your joke here.)

Young Mr. Venderlic, a senior at West Virginia University, is one of the few musicians I've encountered who has written songs about the reality of the state. In one, he captures the experience of being from a "jerkwater" town: a village so small that steam-train crews had to "jerk" water up from streams or from people holding buckets along the tracks because there was no water tower from which to refill the engine.

While Weirton does have its aforementioned water tower, any visit there pierces you with the awareness of economic struggle and dwindling population: "Almost as many churches as people," as Mr. Venderlic sings it.

I mean to highlight the first paragraph, which gets at the variance within the Rust Belt. But the rest of the passage is too rich to omit. Born in Erie, PA, I consider myself to be from the Northern Appalachian Rust Belt. Weirton is part of a region that is, arguably, the most distinctive in the entire United States.

Lodge 183 holding Christmas party

WEIRTON - The Italian Sons and Daughters of America Lodge 183 will hold their annual Christmas party at 6 p.m. Nov. 30 at the Knights of Columbus Hall.

The event will include a holiday buffet, a special cookie table and music.

The cookie table, and Weirton, deserves a spot in food history along side of Buffalo. The city is at least as gritty and cool as Detroit. As for the accent, Southie doesn't have anything on full-blown Pittsburghese. In Weirton's case, culture is not elsewhere.

In the case of the WSJ journalist, derogatory remarks inform self-deprecation:

But living on the East Coast with the grime of a West Virginia steel mill in your lungs has a way of keeping you humble. I've had to smile and roll my eyes at more than enough jokes about cousins, moonshine and literacy. I suppose I could have become an unrepentant snob as a means of distancing myself from all that, but instead, those roots shaped my world view and made me (though some would argue otherwise) a rather open, normal person who also happens to like fancy performing arts—and one who wants to share their values with others.

Culture is elsewhere. There is nothing about your hometown worth celebrating. Get out now and move on up in the world.

Rust Wire: “What’s right and what’s wrong about Pittsburgh?”

Brian O’Neill: “I would say that’s what right about it is – as I say in the book – the legacy of all this incredible stuff that we’ve been left: the churches, the institutions, like the museums, the foundations, all this old money that’s still here, the architecture, the fact that we have three sports teams and probably wouldn’t if we were trying to get one now, the universities, all the stuff we’ve inherited, essentially.

And what’s wrong with it is, one- I don’t think we don’t place a high enough value on what we’ve inherited. And that’s recently been shown again by the idea of shutting down our branch libraries in this city. If we want these neighborhoods to come back, we can’t take out resources, we’ve got to figure out a way to keep them around.

And sometimes we don’t value the best things. I mean, everybody appreciates the Steelers, but you know we don’t so much appreciate the fact that we have this incredible architecture. I mean, in my neighborhood, in the book I mention this one bridge, this foot bridge that is incredible, but the city can’t even afford to knock it down…We don’t have the population to support all that’s worth keeping. And that’s a constant struggle.”

Emphasis added. Rust Belt Chic is a celebration of "the legacy of all this incredible stuff that we’ve been left". Like me, O’Neill is an outsider agog at the gobs of cultural treasure to behold. If you grew up with a cookie table, then you probably don't realize how special the tradition is. That worm is beginning to turn:

City Chicken is a dish that dates back at least to the Depression days of the 1930s. My experience goes back only to the late 1980s. I'd just moved here to work at The Pittsburgh Press, where, with many of my colleagues, I used to lunch at a tiny tavern tucked away on nearby Market Street called Zeuger's. There, working my way through the daily specials recommended by a waitress straight out of Pixsburgh Central Casting, I was referred to as "Hon" and first experienced local favorite dishes such as Virginia Spots, which turned out to be fish.

City Chicken turned out to be ... not chicken.

Rather, it was -- it is -- chunks of meat on a stick. I believe Zeuger's served the classic combination of pork and veal, but just pork and even beef can be City Chicken, too.

The idea and the name went back to a time when chicken was more expensive than other meats, especially in the city, and so these other meats were substituted. Sometimes the skewers were referred to as Mock Chicken Drumsticks. That chicken would be scarce and expensive is hard to imagine now, but plenty of people of a certain age remember when chicken was an only-on-Sunday special dinner.

City Chicken is known in other cities, including Detroit and Cleveland, but Pittsburgh passionately claims it (the recipe on is titled "Pittsburgh City Chicken"). Especially many of the many who've moved to other places (everything but their hearts) wax nostalgic over it in the same breath as they miss Chipped-Chopped Ham and Wedding Soup.

Click on the link to read the entire Post-Gazette article and get a few recipes for City Chicken to try. The Generation X game becomes finding where one to can still get authentic City Chicken. That means the entire Zeuger's experience, not just a faithful version of the dish.

I claim that the pursuit of the culturally anachronistic is the "in" thing to do and is driving migration to Rust Belt cities. Hipsters love cookie tables. Pittsburgh is cooler than Austin. Richard Florida is jumping on the Rust Belt Chic bandwagon.

That still leaves Weirton as an undiscovered gem. Urban pioneers take note. Freegans, Ho!

1 comment:

Pauly Allnuts said...

Great post, Jim. Culture, including food culture, isn't understood by popping into town and moving on, ala Tony Bourdain. It requires depth, time, and acute interest, demonstrated here by natives like Pia Catton and astute emigres like O'Neill, Batz, and yourself. Its similar to archaeology--the deeper we dig, the more culture we unearth. Then we can start playing around with chic intra-Belt fusions like Buffalo-style City Chicken. Get out the Frank's hot sauce; you know you want it.