I grew up in Perth Amboy, New Jersey – a city rich in Colonial and American history. Let me give a little background of my home town, the place of my birth. Perth Amboy’s long, rich history dates back to Dec. 8, 1651. Perth Amboy is the only city in the United States incorporated twice. It received its first charter in 1718, by which time it became known as Amboy. It was incorporated a second time in 1784 after the American Revolution at which time it was already being called Perth Amboy.
What it meant for me Growing up in a Mixed Slavic Family…
In Perth Amboy, NJ
During the early Colonial times, religious persecution was taking place in Scotland, wealthy Scots had acquired lands in East Jersey around the 1680’s that they wished to settle and develop. These land owners were called Proprietors. The future Perth Amboy was a place in East Jersey where Scots and the Dutch settled.
In 1684, the Earl of Perth became Lord High Chancellor under King James II, and when Gawen Lawrie arrived there as deputy governor he had instructions from the proprietors to refer to Amboy as the town of Perth. The Earl of Perth was also one of the members of the Board of Proprietors. Even though he was arrested upon the abdication of King James II in 1688, the town was still referred to as Perth Amboy even though the Earl was confined until 1693.
Perth Amboy is home to the only official Royal Governor’s Mansion still intact since Colonial days, known now as the Proprietary House. The Proprietors of East Jersey were responsible for its construction during 1762-1764 for the Royal Governor of New Jersey. In 1774, William Franklin, son of Benjamin Franklin, was the Royal Governor at which time he took up residence at the mansion with his wife. However, since he was arrested by the Continental Army in 1776, the house did not remain a Governor’s mansion for long.
Perth Amboy also has the oldest City Hall in continuous use as a City Hall in the United States. It was originally built during 1714-1717 or 1718, to serve as the County courthouse and jail. Even though the building had major fires much of the original structure, walls, moldings and artwork survived and are still part of the building today. It was in that same City Hall that the State of New Jersey became the first state to ratify the Bill of Rights.
The Slavic People Arrive To Re-settle
No different than the colonial times, later between WWI and WWII, many places in America had seen an influx of people emigrating from the Slavic Nations. Perth Amboy was a major settling spot for both Christians and Jews coming through Ellis Island from Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Ukraine, Russia, etc escaping devastation from the wars and persecution. They left so much behind to find a better life on the other side of the Atlantic. Most, only brought with them their children and maybe their parents on crowded ships and only carrying what was on their backs – but mostly they brought with them their language, traditions and customs.
This is what I feel this blog is about. The traditions and customs of a strong and proud people who came from a part of the world rich in history to a new world for them to enrich this land with their heritages. Many of the meat and crops from the home where they left they found in North America. Such necessities as beef, pork, fowl, vegetables especially potatoes, and fruits and grains for baking breads and desserts which they were accustomed to in their homeland.
When I look back to when I was a kid I see how good I had it being born of mixed Slavic parents. My mother is of Polish decent and a first generation born American. My father is first generation born American of Czechoslovakian parents. My mother is one of 8 siblings and my father was one of 3 siblings which survive beyond 1yr old.
The period of time which my parents grew up was during the depression and never really had much. But back then that didn’t matter. Family was the important ingredient to a good life. Housework, gardening, cooking and baking was one of the basic ways their mothers took care of the children in those days while husbands were out working where ever work could be found. Some mothers and their children helped tend small family farms. A roof over their heads, cloths on their backs and food on the table – all the ingredients to a good Slavic family life. Oh yeah, and everyone at the dinner table at the same time.
My mother wanted to be sure that her children appreciated both heritages. We belonged to a Slovak Catholic Parish because that was my dad’s church. My two brothers, sister and I went to a Slovak parochial school and taught by nuns. The thing I remember is that my father’s mother, my grandmom, appreciated that my mother learned and cooked Slovak foods – especially during the holidays.
We celebrated the feast days of saints from both the Czechoslovakian and Polish heritages. The Feast Day of St. Stephen, Sts Cyril and Methodius, St Anne, and of course, the feast of St. Nicholas on December 6th. This is when shoes are left outside the bedroom or front door, or in some homes, stockings are hung by the fire on December 5th evening. St. Nicholas, not Santa Claus, comes by to bring cookies or a small gift in the shoes or stockings to all the good kids. But to kids who were bad would find coal.
In both families, the Easter and Christmas holidays were the big cooking and baking seasons. Food is prepared days in advance to celebrate both of these holidays. But for the Slavic people, these holidays were not a one day event, Easter started on Palm Sunday and Christmas a few days before Christmas Eve. This was when moms would begin planning the grocery list and do the shopping for meals and desserts. Christmas Eve, not Christmas Day, was the big celebration day to prepare for the coming of the Baby Jesus.
Polish and Slovak foods are similar in taste as well as their names even though spelling and pronunciation can be quite different. Growing up in a mix Slavic family my mother blended the 2 cuisines and I didn’t understand which food was what until I was much older. The other thing our mother did was to include us when she was cooking and baking for the holidays. We learned by participating to make pagach, pierogi, paska and Easter Cheese (Cirák) not to forget so many of the pastries and cookies.
I was young when both my grandmothers passed away but I remember my dad’s mom baking and making chicken soup. I vividly remember my grandmom making her delicious apple and cherry pies from the fruit we would help pick from the trees in her yard.
My mom and her sisters cooked and baked so when visiting there would be so much of the Polish cuisine displayed which was made from scratch. Of course this would be combined with many of our American dishes with a Polish or Czech touch thrown in. We hear so much about going to an Italian home for a meal and barely able to walk out the door because you were so stuffed. Trust me, I remember so many times going to my grandmom’s, with her Slovak accent and broken English, telling me to “eat… eat”.