Beyond the Byline: Sharing some Northeast Pennsylvania family traditions

Melanie Mizenko - Behind the Byline | April 13th, 2016 12:01 am - updated: 11:25 am.

Last week, a friend in the newsroom (looking at you, Bill O’Boyle) began a conversation about monkey meat. No monkeys are ever harmed in the making of this dish, nor are bananas involved.

Monkey meat is a family recipe so when I heard Bill asking about it, my ears perked — other people knew what this delicacy was? I was floored, so floored I offered to make it for the newsroom.

Monkey meat is a sandwich spread (which also makes a great dip for crackers) made from bologna, gherkins and a little bit of mayo. Basically, you take a grinder and grind the bologna and gherkins together and then add the mayo.

It’s good at room temperature or straight from the refrigerator but if you don’t like the smell of pickles, it’s probably not a good thing to keep it at room temperature. My mother, Susan, makes monkey meat once in a great while and it barely lasts a few hours in our fridge. If given the chance, my sister, Julie, and I would eat it by the gallon.

Some of my esteemed colleagues turned their noses up at it right out of the gate while others dabbled. The ones who knew what it was enjoyed it. Or so they say.

In my 24 — no, scratch that, today’smy birthday — 25 years of life, I’ve come to learn that Northeastern Pennsylvania is rich with family traditions.

Traditions in my family include monkey meat being made from an old hand grinder or pierogi. No one makes better pierogi than the church ladies who make them for Lent or the church bazaars — am I right?

I’m sure you’ve heard the old adage about NEPA: “There is a church, bar and funeral home on every corner.” Sadly, over the past few years, we’ve seen the churches fall due to a decline in parishioners. Local corner bars are the way to go — support family-owned businesses before they get swallowed up by chain restaurants.

Our traditions also include the money dance at weddings with the bride wearing a babushka — a scarf tied around the chin — while the Bridal Dance Polka (also aptly known as the Money Dance Polka) is played. The maid (or matron) of honor holds a sack for wedding guests to pay a dollar (or more) to have a few seconds on the dance floor with the bride. Guests then form a circle around the bride and the groom has to get to her. It’s typically the last song of the evening and the bride and groom leave together when he reaches the center of the human chain link fence.

My favorite family tradition, coming from a Polish background, is calling my grandmother Apolonia, Babci, and my aunt Roberta, Cioci — or Ciocia, Ciozzi. There’s just something about having a Babci teach you prayers in Polish during sleepover — I can still say the Sign of the Cross like it’s second nature. There’s something about having a Babci begin the passing of the oplatki wafers during Christmas Eve supper and there’s something about watching good ‘ole Pennsylvania Polka with Babci and her pointing out everyone she knows — and she knows everyone.

My sister became an “unofficial” Cioci last week to her friend’s baby girl and I became an “unofficial” Cioci last September with the birth of my goddaughter, Evelyn. I can’t wait to pass on traditions I’ve learned to her.

I conclude by saying, “Thanks for reading” in typical Polish birthday style: Na zdrowie which means “Cheers” and is pronounced “nas drove-ya.”


Melanie Mizenko

Behind the Byline

Reach Melanie Mizenko at 570-991-6116 or on Twitter @TL_MMizenko