The Christmas season is such as special time of year for so many of us. I love to see people light up when they talk about their favorite holiday memories and the traditions that surround Christmas. Some traditions have modern variations on them while others carry the same Christmas traditions across generations. Almost always, the conversation centers around friends, family and food. The “pleasures of the table” are at the center of almost everyone’s heart.
I had the opportunity to sit down recently and talk with my friend chef Jake Hizny. Jake is the Executive Chef for Jay’s Famous Roast Pork and Beef in Dallas Township, PA at the corners of Route 415 and Route 118. Jake shares both Russian and Slovak Heritage. Our conversation centered around his Slovak heritage and his “Christmas Soup” that was on the menu the Friday before Christmas Eve. I stopped by to sample soup and get the story behind this soup and his family heritage. He also gave me a quart of his French “Petite Marmite” also known as “family soup” which I will share in another post.
We pulled up a seat in the middle of the Dunkin Donuts side of the building alongside his kitchen. Jake discussed his family’s Slovak Christmas traditions back to his childhood. One of his earliest memories is the tradition of his dad driving him to his relative’s houses knocking on the door to be the first male spreading Holiday cheer. It is Christmas tradition to pay the first male in the house who wishes them a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year. This male could be the milkman, a friend or family member. So Jake and his dad would head out early and stop by the relatives houses. Some of his family members were barely awake, but they would adhere to Slovak Christmas Tradition and pay a small amount usually up to a dollar. As Jake said, $10 back in 1962 was a fortune. He would be given $2-$3 for his efforts, while his Dad handled the rest for him until he needed it. I am sure a small percentage went to finance the operation (car and gas, lol).
He also talked about the tradition of serving non-blessed communion wafer called Oplatky in the Slovak tradition. Oplatky is an unleavened (no rising agents like yeast) wafer baked from pure wheat flour and water and usually formed in a round shape. The first member of the family would break a piece of the wafer off and pass it to the next person, with all them sharing in a piece of the wafer representing the Body of Christ. The wafers were served with honey and garlic at the beginning of Christmas Eve dinner. Jake explained to me these flavors represented the “bitter and sweets” of life.
He mentioned, Christmas Eve dinner with his family was one served with no meats similar to other Catholic and Christian days such as Good Friday where no meat is consumed. They served all types of seafood including smelts. He mentioned before the trout were stocked in nearby Harveys Lake, you could catch smelt at night. The smelt head would be removed and the guts removed. The remainder of the fish would be breaded and fried. He said you would eat it whole and the tiny bones would disintegrated in your mouth similar to anchovies.
Christmas Day was a different story regarding their menu. All types of meats dishes were served especially kielbasa, a popular dish served throughout northeastern Pennsylvania (NEPA).
Christmas Eve Soup
Just like any recipe, including a bowl of soup, it can be considered a metaphor for life. It is only as good as the ingredients you put into it. Jake’s Christmas Soup hit the mark. The deep earthy flavors from the mushroom and the unmistakable smell and taste of sauerkraut and sauerkraut juice. Jake’s soup included shitake mushrooms, celery, chopped parsley, the sauerkraut and broth. It was a gift to sample this soup, but more importantly to get the Slovak Christmas history behind the soup.
After our discussion, Jake took me into his kitchen to show me where he brings his creativity alive. He brines and roasts turkeys for Jay’s Famous Turkey sandwiches. After carving off the turkey, he shared how he uses the turkey carcasses and vegetable shavings to added to his broth pots. It is this attention to detail and use of everything that brings out the quality in his soups and sandwiches as well as the hot items at the counter they rotate through regularly during the week. If you have not yet stopped by Jay’s Famous Roast Pork and Beef, stop by and see chef Jake Hizny, the store manager Joe Patton or say hi to Eric May who I seem to bump into more often than not as he checks in on the operations. They are all working together to elevate the food and flavors which you may not be used to coming out of a “convenience store.” Never judge a book by it’s cover or you will miss out on the story. The story here is chef Jake takes heritage and tradition and weaves them into all his recipes, especially his soups. Whether you are French, Italian, Slovak, Russian, Polish or anywhere in between, great food is always coming out of his test kitchen.
Jay’s Famous Roast Pork and Beef
If it is difficult trying to find time to preparing lunch or dinner, do yourself a favor and stop by Jay’s Famous Roast Pork and Beef and bring home a well prepared lunch or dinner item for your friends or family. They use only the finest ingredients and cooking techniques to bring the flavors of the world to your taste buds. Jake rotates his soups daily and no two weeks have the same soups. They specialize in sandwiches using hand selected roast pork, beef and turkey. One of my favorite menu items are their house-made kettle cooked chips. Finally, they always have great daily specials served at their hot food counter.I speak from experience, their food is always well received and enjoyed.
Wishing you and your family a blessed Christmas and Holiday season, as Chef Jake taught me in Slovak, Veselé Vianoce (Merry Christmas). Also, want to wish everyone an unstoppable New Year ahead! The best is always ahead of us!