I’ve been in Arizona for nearly four decades, and I don’t get home as much as I would like. But when this homesick Ohio boy journeys home, all of those the memories of family, friends, hometown places and good times, come rushing back. And two words sum up the intense feelings and emotions that wash always over me:
If I want to think about happy memories, I need to only close my eyes. But it’s the food of my childhood – often tied to specific people, events and places – that put me in a time machine faster than Doc Brown’s DeLorean. That’s why certain specialty foods of the Akron-Cuyahoga Falls-Northampton-Peninsula areas, and of my youth, are so special to me.
Now, all you need to do is look at me over the years to know that this one fellow who enjoys a good meal, or two, which was easy to do in my family, with two great cooks: my mom, and my grandma, who lived with us from the day we moved from Akron into the old house in the Valley in 1957 until she died in 1980.
So, therefore, of course my happy food memories start at home, where Mom and Grandma cooked all my favorite grub: creamed chicken on waffles, beef tips and gravy, chicken and noodles, my favorite comfort food of Mom’s potato soup, and many, many more, all highlighted, with Dad’s bounty from the garden, either in season or from the pantry. But holidays, my friends, that’s where the Great Chefs of the Lauffer Haus made it happen. And that starts my journey along my life’s food court.
Let’s take Christmas. We always had turkey twice a year, on Thanksgiving and Christmas. But the extras around the house at Christmas were wonderful and included my first memories of family pilgrimages to bring home special treats for special times. Among a tree decked wiith tinsel and bubble lights and all the holiday trappings that Mom and Grandma (and us kids, too) laid out to make our home a virtual Christmas wonderland, there were always bowls of fruit, nuts and classic candies, like ribbon candy and the ones with jelly in them.
And the occasion brought with it a trip to a favorite place of my folks, DeViitis Italian Market on East Tallmadge Avenue.
I can’t say for sure that for every Christmas, those gorgeous bowls of fruit – the giant red apples and the big bright sunshiney oranges that looked like they just came off the Florida tree before the Big O truck arrived – and, a variety of nuts – walnuts for dad, Brazilians for Grandma (OK, that sounds funny …), and so on – came from DeVitis. But I know the famous olive salad that I love to this day always made an appearance around the holidays.
Even as a kid, I loved great food smells, especially the powerful ones. And the aroma of DeVitis hit me smack in the face the first time I walked in the place. All those wonderful things like garlic, and parmesan, oregano and sauces, fresh fruits and veggies, wafted to my nose like those genie-like beckoning cartoon fingers that enticed Bugs and friends. That walking-in-the-door experience hasn’t changed to this day.
(A story gem for my wife and me: Ruthie, my wife of nearly 34 years and a native Arizonan, is Opposite Mark – she hates strong food smells that I devour with great olifactory delight. She loves Amish country all right, and I took her to Holmes County many times over the years that included fabulous meals. But the first – and only – time I took her inside a pungent Millersburg cheese shop, which I had been in many times, that had a cheese factory behind glass, she ran out of the shop, fingers squeezing nostrils like she was going to jump into the deep end, and nearly lost her home-cooked lunch from Der Dutchman.)
I knew that my favorite food and drink would be a special part of coming home way back in the early 80s, after my move to Arizona in 1981. When I got to Mom’s house on that first trip, she had a couple of her little boy’s favorites waiting for me: chip-chop ham and a dozen Krispy Kreme maple cream sticks.
(This was before Krispy Kreme opened stores out West. When the first opened in Las Vegas, passengers on the 50-minute flight to Phoenix could be seen with boxes of Krispy Kreme doughnuts on their laps. Unfortunately, my favorite doughnut, the maple cream sticks, were no longer made, and aren’t to this day. I have voiced my displeasure about that in an email to corporate.)
And so, after that very first trip back to Ohio, began a ritual I celebrated every time I came home. In 2015, my brother, Kurt, went on the treasure hunt with me. I had olive salad and a hoagie from DiVitas; poppy seed salad dressing from Hartford Kitchens; Troyer’s trail baloney and Guggisberg baby Swiss cheese (which, incidentally, I occasionally have shipped from Shisler’s Cheese House in Copley to my house in the Phoenix suburbs, except in 110-degree summers); sauerkraut balls from Papa Joe’s in the Valley; sliders from Hamburger Station on State Road; among other things.
Of course, in season no homecoming is complete without a trip to Szalay’s in the Valley, especially for the fresh hot peppers I crave for my chip-chop sammies. The visit is always packed with memories; my family has been buying corn from the Szalay family since they sold it out of the barn at their old house near the covered bridge in Everett.
So, I think you can see where this is going. I’ve got all kinds of bringing-food-back-to-Arizona stories. Once, I was visiting my beloved Uncle Ray and Aunt Jo in the countryside of western Pennsylvania, and stopped by one of their neighbors' houses, one that had a cardboard hand-lettered sign: “FRESH HORSERADISH.” Yep, I brought a Mason jar of the stuff home with me in my carry-on. And, pre-9/11, I brought home a 12-pack of Barq’s Red Cream Soda – which my wife called “red pop” when she was a little girl, sipping sodas with her dad – that is generally unavailable west of the Mississippi (though I have found it on tap at a couple of restaurants, so Ruthie gets her red pop now and then). homecoming dress stores
When I have been able, I’ve been known to bring home poppy seed salad dressing from Hartville Kitchen, OK potato chips (which became potato crumbs by the time they got to Arizona), and even trail baloney and chip-chop ham (in plastic bags, with frozen blue things – again, pre-9/11), among other delicacies.
But, I'm sorry, my friends, I haven't figured how how to bring Stoddard's custard or Country Maid ice cream (ah, black walnut in a sugar cone on the way to Hinckley, always an Ohio treat!) back to Arizona.
Perhaps it’s true that the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach. If that road runs through Akron, then my heart – and stomach - belong to Ohio!