I think we can all agree that liver and onions is not a very popular dish in America. Otherwise, someone would have opened a fast food restaurant with a drive-thru specializing in liver and onions by now. This will never happen, but imagine the possibilities! For me, this would be great since liver and onions is one of my all-time favorite dishes. Luckily, it’s available at many restaurants. It’s easy to prepare and I’ve actually made it myself a few times.
Even when I was little, I loved liver and onions. My mother prepared it frequently because she loved liver and onions. I guess I inherited her love of liver and onions. Sometimes mother would make just for her and me. Beef liver was usually very cheap. I guess not many people liked eating liver back then, but no part of livestock was wasted. As The Jungle famously quoted one of the meatpacking plants, “We package everything except the squeal!”
Unfortunately, my younger brothers wouldn’t eat liver and onions if they knew exactly what they were about to eat. So, my mother would explain that were about to eat some exotic dish. As we sat down at the table, my mother would always say something like, “Hoy vamos a comer tigre.” “Today we are eating tiger.” “Hoy les preparé algo muy sabroso. ¡Tiburón!” “I made you something delicious today. Shark!” And my little brothers would eat up the liver and onions that they so detested.
Once, we all sat down for dinner and my mother announced, “Hoy vamos a comer ballena.” “Today we are eating whale.” And so we all started eating whale. On this day, I found the whale especially delicious. I was the only one who knew we were actually eating liver, sans onions to create the effect that we were actually eating whale. Have you ever eaten something that was especially delicious and it really hits the spot. Perhaps I was suffering from an iron deficiency that day. Well, on this occasion, the liver tasted especially good despite lacking onions. I asked for second and thirds. My brothers continued eating it. Until I blurted, “The liver came out really good today!” My mother gave me a pained stare. And my brothers yelled, “Yuck, I hate liver!’ And they all stopped eating. My mother yelled at me because my brothers would have kept eating if they still believed they were eating whale.
This reminds me of something that happened recently with my son Alex recently. We were at Old Country Buffet and he came back to the table with what he thought were chicken fries. He said they were really good. When I went for seconds, I saw where he got the chicken fries. He was actually eating calamari. I love calamari, so I got some for myself. Alex was surprised that I would eat chicken fries. I told him that he really ate calamari. He insisted on knowing what exactly calamari was. When I told him it was squid, he stopped eating his chicken fries!
I guess sometimes you’re better off not knowing what you’re eating.
So after I read The Jungle by Upton Sinclair, I read some of the ancillary material in the end of the Norton Critical Edition that added to my understanding of the novel. I read an interesting statement from Wages and Family Budgets in the Chicago Stockyards District: “The Lithuanians, Poles, and Slovaks will work for wages which would seem small to the average American workingman. The standards of living of these workers are comparatively low and over half of them are boarders without families to support, so they can easily underbid Americans Germans, and Bohemians.” In the novel, we see Jurgis and many other Lithuanians working for low wages that take away jobs from Americans. And they live under deplorable conditions. Well, this accurately describes today’s immigrants, regardless of their origin.
I also read a very interesting book that researched the places described in The Jungle: Upton Sinclair: The Lithuanian Jungle by Giedrius Subacius, whom I actually met since he is a professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago. This book simply enthralled me because I remembered the areas Subacius describes. When I met him, I had not yet read his book. He described how he went and spoke to people from Back of the Yards. The book has recent pictures of the neighborhood and some from the archives for places that no longer exist. After speaking to him, I tried checking out the book from the UIC Richard J. Daley Library, but it was constantly checked out. I finally checked it out over the summer when no one was using it for class. This book is a must-read for any Chicago history buff.
I just finished rereading The Jungle by Upton Sinclair. This is a book I knew about about since about the third grade because the Lithuanian nuns also mentioned it at Holy Cross School. The nuns always wanted to remind us that we didn’t always have life so easy. They would often describe the squalid living conditions of our neighborhood, The Back of the Yards, and the horrendous working conditions at the Union International Stock Yards. They stressed that education was the best way to improve our lives and that we should excel in grade school, in order to get into a good Catholic school, in order to prepare us for college. I always recall the incident about the boy who drowns in the street. Several nuns over the years described that scene. And we were so lucky to live in a neighborhood with concrete sidewalks, paved streets, and a sewage system. No one from our neighborhood ever drown in the street–that I know of.
When I worked at Derby Foods, we didn’t have a union even though Chicago has always been known as a union town. And I didn’t realize at the time, but we didn’t need a union because all the other factories around us were unionized. Our factory paid us above-average wages and we worked under better-than-normal working conditions. They followed bidding by seniority for different job openings in the factory.
Regardless, I hated working there because I was a lowly manual laborer. The money was good, but I was unhappy about not being able to go to college. I continued working there because … because–just because. When I started at Derby Foods, about three-hundred people worked there. But over the years, the company kept modernizing by buying machinery that would replace employees. By the time I had eight years on the job, I was still near the bottom of the seniority list of about 134 employees due to the lack of hiring because of the worker displacement caused by the new machinery. Since I was at the bottom of the list, I had to work an undesirable work schedule. In food production, the plant and machinery have to be cleaned and sanitized on a regular basis. Well, I had to work the midnight shift from 11:00 pm until 7:00 am the next morning. Regardless of what anyone says, the human body never fully adapts to a nocturnal life. The schedule was bearable until Saturday when I would get off at 7:00 am, but would have to return at noon to clean and sanitize the plant. Everyone else who worked the Saturday shift worked either days or afternoons, so they didn’t complain. Besides, they enjoyed working for time and a half because it was a Saturday.
I complained about my schedule to my foreman, the shift foreman, and the manager. No one thought it was a problem. I had no union with whom to file a grievance, so I called the federal labor law organization and they told me that my employer was not violating any federal laws by requiring me to return to work an eight-hour shift within four hours of working an eight-hour shift. Well, I was happy that I tried everything possible to improve my working conditions.
Then, it dawned on me! I’ll read The Jungle! I’ll find scenes in the novel that compare to my present working conditions! So, during my breaks and down time in factory, I read the paperback edition of The Jungle that I always carried in my back pocket. When I was done, I was so grateful to be working for Derby Foods! I never realized how good I had it compared to the Stockyard workers in the early 1900s. Because of that book, federal laws were enacted, the Pure Food and Drug act in 1906 for one, in order to improve the lives of millions worldwide. The unions in Chicago and nationally became stronger. I had forgotten the lessons of my dear Lithuanian Catholic nuns at Holy Cross School. But upon rereading The Jungle, I was grateful, nay, thankful, to be working for Derby Foods. I never complained about my employer ever again.
Labas. That’s right. Labas. To all my Lithuanian friends: Labas! In fact, I’d like greet everyone reading my blog: Labas! That’s hello in Lithuanian. My Lithuanian friend Vito taught me that word because he always insisted that we greet each other by saying Labas. Now, I always greet Lithuanians with Labas and they always smile. I especially love to greet them with Labas especially if they didn’t think I knew they were Lithuanians. I’m not sure why, but they’re always thrilled to hear me say Labas. So to all my Lithuanian readers: Labas! I guess sometimes I go on and on, don’t I? Well, my friend Vito taught me another Lithuanian word: tylėk. Sometimes we would go to the show, I would just keep on talking even after the movie started. He would keep telling me tylėk until I finally shut up. That’s right, tylėk means shut up in Lithuanian. But I never did. And I never will.
For as long as I can remember, I have always lived near Lithuanians in Chicago. In Back of the Yards, Holy Cross was the Lithuanian church I attended. At Holy Cross School, the nuns always praised The Jungle by Upton Sinclair because the protagonist was Lithuanian and the novel was set in Back of the Yards. When we moved to Marquette Park, 2509 W. Marquette Road, many Lithuanians lived there and they even had a street named Lithuanian Plaza Court. In fact, that neighborhood was the unofficial capital of Lithuania during the Soviet era. Maria High School, run by Lithuanian nuns, was at Marquette Road and California Avenue. Right on the same campus was the retirement convent for the Sisters of Saint Casimir at 2601 W. Marquette Road. The Lithuanians also had their own Holy Cross Hospital at California Avenue and Lithuanian Plaza Court. I met my friend Vito when I lived in Marquette Park. Vito and I used to eat at the Lithuanian McDonald’s at 68th and Pulaski. I don’t know if it was actually Lithuanian, but Vito told me that the tiles on the wall were typical Lithuanian colors, so it became a Lithuanian McDonald’s in my mind. When I moved to Bridgeport, there weren’t that many Lithuanians there anymore, but they did have a street named Lituanica Avenue. My favorite restaurant in Bridgeport was a Lithuanian restaurant named Healthy Foods at 3236 S. Halsted Street. When I saw the movie Chariots of Fire, I was thrilled to learn that the family of Harold Abrams were Lithuanian Jews.
When I was a student at Holy Cross, my best friend was Patrick McDonald, but when he moved away, I became friends with Adrian Stanislovaitis and Anthony Kivenas, both Lithuanians. Whenever I was with them, we spoke English, but when they were with their parents, they spoke Lithuanian. I never understood what they said and it didn’t bother me at all. However, I never even learned one Lithuanian word from them. And when they came to my house, I spoke Spanish with my parents and grandmother. I envied Adrian and Anthony because they got to go to Lithuanian classes on Saturday morning. I wanted to go with them. I wished Mexicans would have Spanish classes for Mexicans. Anyway, Adrian and I spent a lot of time together. For school holidays, we used to take the bus downtown and just wander around, but he showed me a few points of interest, such as the Prudential Building because it used to be Chicago’s tallest skyscraper.
When we moved to Marquette Park, we met more Lithuanians. Marquette Park has a monument for Lithuanian aviators Captain Steponas Darius and Lieutenant Stasys Girenas. This is where I met Vito and other Lithuanians. I went to Lithuanian restaurants and bars with Vito. At one bar on Lithuanian Plaza Court, it might have been Knight’s Inn, we met a Lithuanian improv group that was named Second Village, which is Antras Kaimas in Lithuanian. It was inspired by the name of Second City. We talked to them a while, and Jim, Vito, and I told them that we performed standup comedy. We ended up making a little skit/song/dance for them sung to the tune of “Skip to My Lou.” I still remember it, but don’t know how to spell it because it was in Lithuanian. Vito wrote most of the song. My contribution to the song? Labas and tylėk! No surprise there!
We once went to a Lithuanian festival on Western Boulevard near the Lithuanian V.F.W. Hall, which if I remember correctly was named after Darius and Girenas. Anyway, there were all kinds of Lithuanian food. One vender is selling empanadas, which really surprised me because as far as I knew, empanadas were Mexican food. The Lithuanian cook tells me that empanadas were invented by Lithuanians. He could tell that I didn’t believe him. He pressed on with his explanation and tried to convince me that I really didn’t know Mexican food. He was so convincing that I almost believed him. Almost, but not quite. Finally, he told me that he learned to make empanadas in Argentina. During WWII, his family went to Argentina before they came to America.
That’s how I think of Lithuanians. They’re always ready to play a friendly practical joke on you. Vito was always the joker and had a great sense of humor that not everybody got. I could tell he got it from his father. Once I went to Vito’s house so we could go to the show. His father answered the door and I asked for Vito. He knew very well that I was asking for his son, Vito, my friend, but he said, “You’re talking to him.” I said, “No, Vito Junior.” He said, “I am Vito Junior!” This went on much longer than was comfortable for me, but Vito’s father was really enjoying this. Finally, he said, “Vito’s not home.” Why didn’t he just tell me that in the first place? Well, he wanted to play a joke on me. I laugh now that I think of it. But that day I learned that both Vito’s father and grandfather were named Vito. What really made me uncomfortable about them was how they greeted each other and how they said good-bye. Vito would always kiss his father on the lips. Talk about culture shock! For a while, Vito lived with his grandfather Vito. Before we would go out, Vito would kiss his grandfather on the lips before he went out. It was as shocking since I had finally gotten used to him kissing his father. But one day we were talking and Vito told me that his father was adopted. Suddenly, it hit me. “Vito, you kiss your grandfather on the lips and he’s not even related to you!” He thought nothing of it. I still can’t get over it!
After we moved from Pilsen, our family moved to Back of the Yards where my tío Simón and tía Mari lived. They lived at 4546 S. Marshfield and we moved to 4545 S. Hermitage. Back of the Yards was named thus because it was literally located behind the International Union Stockyards if you headed southwest from downtown. They were made famous, or infamous depending on your point of view, in Upton Sinclair’s novel The Jungle. In grade school, the Lithuanian nuns always mentioned the novel proudly because the protagonist was Lithuanian. They always talked about the man who drowned in the unpaved street and when I finally read the novel I convinced myself that I had deduced exactly where he drowned. The Stockyards where ever-present in our consciousness because many of our parents worked there in one of the meat-packing plants, we had to drive past them to go downtown or to the lakefront, or mainly, because of the pungent odors produced by a fertilizer company ironically named Darling and Co. The stench produced in the fertilizer-making process was inevitable if the wind blew in the direction of our neighborhood–even if we were indoors. My friend Patrick McDonnell used to take me there to play because it was the ideal playground for boys with over-active imaginations. But we had to look out for security guards, Patrick told me, and run if we saw them in order to avoid getting shot by their pepper guns. Luckily, we never saw any. One day Patrick told where there was a swimming hole and we went swimming there. It was dirty, smelly water, but Patrick talked me into jumping in. The next day when I told one of our neighbors where I had gone swimming, he laughed uproariously. He finally told me we swam in the pool that they used to wash the pigs before they were slaughtered! Well, we never swam there again.
Our neighborhood was typical of any Chicago neighborhood in that there was a surplus of neighborhood bars. There was at least one bar on every corner. But there were some corners that actually had two or three bars. And usually there was at least one or two bars in the middle of the block. The whole theory behind having so many bars was that if the man of house went out to tipple a few beers, everyone would know where to find him. Every payday, I had to make the rounds of the bars within a two-block radius to find my father before he spent too much of his salary before he got home. Later, I got the brilliant idea of taking my shoeshine box with me when I looked for my father in the bars. I would first go to the bars where I absolutely knew my father would not be and ask for him. Some of bar patrons whom I thought were surely upright citizens would see my shoeshine box and then ask me for a shoeshine. I made some pretty good spending money this way. One day, my father didn’t recognize me because I didn’t get to him in time and he paid me for a shoeshine. And he gave me a generous tip, which I dutifully gave to my mother when we returned home.
The neighborhood served as a port of entry for many ethnic groups. When we moved there in the 1960s, the Mexicans were just starting to move in, but there were plenty of us to go around. I had friends who were Lithuanian, Polish, German, Irish, Italian, and of course, Mexican. I remember going to many a friend’s house and not hearing any of their parents speaking very much English. In my neighborhood, there were three parishes within four blocks of my house. I attended Holy Cross Church because they also had a grade school. There was also Sacred Heart of Joseph that was the Polish parish also with its own school. Immaculate Heart of Mary was the Mexican parish, but they didn’t have their own school, which is why we attended Holy Cross. The main reason I attended Holy Cross School was because it was the closest Catholic school in the neighborhood. In fact, we lived right across the street from the school.
I remember my first day at Kindergarten. My tía Mari and her daughters Lourdes and Jane came for my mother and me and we all walked to school together. After school, I went out to the schoolyard with my cousin Jane who was in my class. We saw her mother, but my mother wasn’t there for me and I started crying. How would I get home, I wondered, even though I only lived across the street. My tía Mari told me not to cry. My mother showed up a few minutes later. She said that she had forgotten all about picking me up and I started crying again. The next morning, my mother woke me up to go to school. I was surprised. I said, “I have to go again?” I didn’t realize that Kindergarten would get so involved. But I agreed to go only if my mother remembered to pick me up this time.
Back then, no one sent their children to a Chicago public school if they could afford to send them to a private school. Holy Cross had Lithuanian nuns and they were very strict, but it was an education that lasted me a lifetime. I remember we had to go to mass everyday before we went to school. Back then the masses were still in Latin, but I liked the old masses better. Of course, I rarely go to mass now, but I haven’t forgotten what it is to be Catholic. I still feel guilty if I even think of committing a sin. Anyway, some of the Holy Cross students, namely the Mexicans, began attending mass at Immaculate Heart of Mary because the priest said the mass in Spanish. Well, this didn’t go over well with our Lithuanian nuns. They insisted that we attend mass at Holy Cross and started taking attendance at mass by keeping track of the envelopes that we gave during the offering at mass. We had to sit with our class at the 9:00 a.m. mass. Attendance was mandatory! Unless we could bring documentation that we were hospitalized or that something more serious had occurred to us. Because of this new rule, I often went to mass twice on Sundays. My mother would send me off to mass at Holy Cross and when I returned home, we would all pile into the car, go to Immaculate Heart for the Spanish mass, and then do our Sunday visits.
Our neighborhood was very territorial. Everyone knew where everyone belonged. Territorial transgressions where sometimes retaliated with physical violence. I remember once during our school lunch, my brother and I went to the candy store that was more or less between Holy Cross School and Sacred Heart School. He left the store before me. When I went out, I noticed my brother was crying. It so happened that two students from Sacred Heart had beat him up. As the older brother it was my moral obligation to defend my little brother. So I chased the two kids and I started punching them and telling them never to hit my brother again. Just then, a nun from Sacred Heart grabs me by the collar because I’m a stranger in a strange land. They take my brother and I to their principal’s office. One phone call to my school and my brother and I are in really big trouble so I try to be polite to the nuns. Luckily, I didn’t accidentally punch the nun who grabbed me. All we got was a lecture! But not a very good one. The principal, also a nun, said my brother and I reminded her of Cain and Abel. I couldn’t help it, but I absolutely had to correct her. I told her, “Cain killed his brother. I was defending my brother!” They principal told me not to talk back and she released us.