Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Celebrating Cultural Diversity in Cleveland (Sort Of)

University Inn
1201 University Rd.
Cleveland, OH

The city I grew up in wasn’t exactly diverse.

I had to move away to college before I ever met a black person.

Hispanic? I had no idea what that even meant. Somebody from the island of Hispaniola?


Everyone I knew was either Catholic or just didn’t go to church.

But sometimes looks can be deceiving. There was more diversity than initially met the eye.

After all, we had all the flavors of Catholic.

Irish Catholic. French Catholic. Italian Catholic. Polish Catholic.

Yep. All four.

And most of us had at least something to brag about.

Being Irish Catholic was cool. We had our own holiday to celebrate in March.

Nobody of French decent ever has any self-esteem issues.

The Italians had cool sounding names, moms who knew how to cook well and their darker skin (relatively speaking) seemed to grant them magical athletic abilities on the basketball court (relatively speaking).

It was the Polish Catholic kids who seemed to bear the brunt of the nationalistic jokes.

To this day I’m not sure why. Does anyone really know how these things originate?

But after a recent trip to legendary Polish Restaurant Sokolowski’s in Cleveland, I think it’s past due that the Poles get some credit for their top notch cuisine.

I mean, don’t get me wrong. Polish food will never compete with the flavorful creativity that comes out of the kitchens of Southern Europe.

But pierogi and kielbasa beat the heck out of Irish mashed potatoes. That’s for sure.

Let’s just say Polish food is cultural diversity I’m happy to celebrate.

Pierogi have humble origins -- a staple of Polish peasant food -- simple dumplings stuffed with mashed potatoes.

But now pierogi have gone all Hollywood on us.

In Pittsburgh, also home to a large Polish community, the Pirates entertain their fans with “pierogi races” at PNC Park where costumed cheese, onion, sauerkraut and jalapeño pierogi race each other for doughy supremacy.

Thanks to Mrs. T’s, you can now buy frozen pierogi by the box in the freezer section of every grocery store in North America.

But it’s here in the Midwest where you have to go to get the real thing.

Once you’ve tried the real deal, you’ll never go back to the frozen microwaved imitation.

That’s because real pierogi are fried in butter with onions.

Oh yeah.

I’d eat my Johnston and Murphy’s if they were fried in butter with onions.

Here at Sokolowski’s, pierogi are served piping hot with a side of sour cream, their soft potatoey insides perfectly complemented by the sweet buttery onions.

On the side, I asked the cafeteria lady for the “noodles and cabbage”.

Unfortunately, the noodles and cabbage looked more intriguing than they tasted.

That’s the danger of cafeteria-style restaurants like Sokolowski’s. I end up tasting with my eyes instead of my mouth.

Buttery but devoid of any seasoning, I livened up my side of noodles and cabbage with some salt and pepper.

The kielbasa was a thick link of smoked meat, hearty but still tender.

Kielbasa, also known in the U.S. as “Polish Sausage” is like a snow flake. It seems that no two versions are exactly alike.

Sokolowski’s has nurtured a well-earned reputation over the past nine decades for its excellent kielbasa.

I certainly wasn’t disappointed.

To wash it all down?

While the selection of Polish beers was tempting, Suit757 was in the middle of his work day.

So I opted for the next best choice on draft -- Vernors Ginger Ale, a Midwestern tradition aged in oak barrels for three years.

Spicier, sweeter and gingerier than modern day ginger ales, Vernors is a poor substitute for a frosty Okocim but not a bad alternative to Cleveland municipal tap water.

But the best part of dining at Sokolowski’s might not even be the food or drink.
It’s the old world/old school ambiance.

A Cleveland landmark since 1923, Sokolowski’s has long been cut off from the mainland of the city by Interstate 90.

Sokolowski’s is now a virtual island perched high above the Cuyahoga River, overlooking the Cleveland skyline, smog-belching factories and riverfront gravel pits down below.

Winding your way through the middle class residential streets to Sokolowski’s is like an adventure back to a different time and place in America.

A time and place when folks of similar backgrounds would gather over hearty meals and cold beer to reminisce about their shared culture.

Reminders of that Polish culture surround you as you dine at Sokolowski’s.

Paintings and photographs of all the Polish heroes are prominently displayed -- everyone from Carl Yastrzemski to Pope John Paul II.

I enjoyed my meal under the watchful eyes of two of our last three popes, including an official “Apostolic Blessing” to the Sokolowski family from Pope Benedict.

And I guess that’s why even though I may not have a trace of Polish blood in my veins, dining at Sokolowski’s in this diversity-obsessed age still felt like home to me.

The kids I grew up with, regardless of our nationalities, were all white and attended the same church.

What’s wrong with that?

In a crazy world full of zealots who want to blow us all up in the name of Allah, history demonstrates that too much diversity often leads to hatred, death, destruction and genocide.

Maybe diversity isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

I mean, a little diversity is fine. It makes lunchtime in Cleveland interesting.

But I’m not exactly looking to become the next Salman Rushdie or Daniel Pearl.

Sokolowski’s pierogi and kielbasa were just the right amount of diversity for me today.

Rating: Seriously Thought About Buying Shirt.

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