Restaurants & Bars

Norbert Blei's "Neighborhood" (Vesecky's, Bohemian Chicago, old school baking)

RST | Sep 3, 200307:47 PM    

The following excerpt is from the wonderful opening chapter of Norbert Blei's Neighborhood (Ellis Press, Peoria, IL 977.31 B646h, I think 1985?). It is a collection of articles that had previously been published in various Chicago newspapers and magazines (mostly the Tribune and the Tribune Magazine) during the early and mid-80s. Each article is a loving evocation of the Bohemian Chicago that still thrived and in fact prospered in the far-west side as late as this period. Apart from this opening chapter on Vesecky's, and baking, there are also stories on houby (mushroom) hunting, on sausage-making, on the Slovenian grape festival, on a Croatian lamb roast at a community picnic ground on 5540 S. Narragansett (it's the Yugoslav Hall Picnic Grove: does this still exist?) There are mentions of the Czech/Bohemian community at 27th and Lawndale (which used to be heavily "Czech"-and as we discussed on a previous thread, Troha's Fish Shack is the last remaining Bohemian/Czech business in what is now La Villita). There are mentions of Kalavoda's ice cream parlor and Freylich (sp?) strawberry ice cream and malted milks. Apparently during those days (not THAT long ago really), there were (Croatian) master lamb roasters for hire and one could enjoy Louie Vucinic's tamburitza orchestra during a lamb roast picnic...

I copied down the following months ago, intending to reply with it to Michael S. request for a list of historic eating places in Chicago. Unfortunately, a crushing work schedule prevented me from doing so. Vesecky's, which is still, today, a superb bakery, surely deserves to be considered one of our historic bakeries. As I reported on an earlier thread, old man Vesecky (62 years old at the time of this article, now in his 90s) supposedly still lives above the current bakery.

I am also posting this at this point bec of the raging arguments on the listserv over so-called old-school versus yuppie baking/breadmaking. We have been planning a big tasting of breads in Chicago and there has been quite a bit of debate on what exactly drives quality in the (baking) scene. We intend to bring the discussion out to the board again later on (more coherently the second time around) and so I am not going to discuss the ff text in detail. Those who have been following the bread discussion will probably understand the point and the polemic behind the excerpt. (For one thing, the careful distinction of different types of flours which was one of the artisanal skills crucial to the craft of baking has I think been lost in our homogenized one-flour-for-all-purposes world. Today, Mexicans, Poles, Vietnamese etc most likely all use the very same flour for everything: that's one of the problems.)

The piece was first published in the Chicago Tribune Sunday magazine, probably 1984.

"There are almost as many bakeries along Cermak Road in Cicero and Berwyn as Savings & Loans. And both get their fair share of Bohemian investors-the bakeries probably coming out a little ahead on Saturdays only because they are open longer, and the returns are sweeter.

Nobody knows what it is between Bohemians and their bakery. They just never seem to get enough of it. Take the average Bohemian family with a mother and a grandmother in it, and you have a small bakery in itself. Grandma conjuring up all the old recipes in her head, mother watching and following closely in her footsteps. "How much salt in the houska, Babi (Grandma)?" Silence. Grandma tastes a fingerful of batter and scatters a magic handful of salt.

Friday night is usually baking night in the neighborhood. And no matter how many housky, kolacky, or coffeecakes are on the table Saturday morning, someone in the family will usually be told, "Stop at Vesecky's (or Fingerhut's or Vales' or Stetina's or Minarik's) for some Bohemian rye...maybe a poppyseed babouka too."


At 8 o'clock on a Friday night, Jim Vesecky sr. gets the ovens going behind his bakery at 6634 Cermak. "I'm just starting on the rye now," he says...

Old man Vesecky is as happy as a baker as you could find anywhere. He is a heavy-set man, 62 years old, whose whole life is baking.

"I've been on the street 41 years. Started in 1929 during the Depression, at 6234. My father was a baker, too"...


When you deal with bakers, you deal with recipes so big they boggle the mind. Jim, I ask, what's the recipe for Bohemian rye? And Jim smiles and starts a soliloquy on rye that raises like the very dough itself:

"Well, there's the long rye and the square rye and the bucket rye; and then there's the round rye which we call Orbit rye. Orbit rye is a white rye. The medium rye is darker. The mix for rye bread is 3/4 rye mix plus Bohemian flour, a bleached white flour. You can't put all rye in there because then you'd have bread like a panny (?) cake. For the Orbit rye, you use 2 bags of medium rye (100lb to a bag) and 1 bag of spring flour and blend it together, 4 to 4 1/2 to a quart; 1/2 ounce of caraway to a quart, 1 1/4 oz of salt to a quart and 1/2 oz of yeast to a quart.

"First though, you gotta start with the sponge, what we call the sponge, for the real sour dough flavoring. It's made 3 or 4 hours before the dough is really mixed, a combination of yeast and rye dough to give a strong flavor. That's what gives rye the real sour taste. That's with all the ryes. Then the mixing...I do it mostly by touch, you just about know the feel of it. You let it raise then about an hour."


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