All I have time for this morning, before the meetings begin, is to post photos, which itself is a time-consuming exercise. But read this all, as awesome noms are at the bottom.
I met my friend, the reader known as “Hempenstein,” who is a retired biochemist living in Pittsburgh. He just bought a large and historic house that I wanted to see, but first we made a stop at a new and local distillery, Stay Tuned Distillery, which makes, gin, rye whiskey, single-malt whisky, and aquavit, all from this very small ten-gallon still:
We sampled one of their not-yet released products, an aquavit that is infused with a secret botanical whose identity I cannot divulge lest the owners kill me. It was absolutely terrific, and ice cold:
Hempenstein, a college friend, is an unreconstructed hippie, but he still bought this mansion (it was relatively cheap as, while the previous owner partly restored it, he died in mid-work and much of the house is still seriously debilitated). But it can and will be brought back to its former glory.
This is the Schwab mansion, built in 1889 by Charles M. Schwab (not the financial guy, but a steel magnate: once the president, successively, of Carnegie Steel, U.S. Steel, and Bethlehem Steel). Schwab advanced rapidly because he realized the importance of chemistry in making good steel, and also recognized the importance of the I-beam, the basis of all modern skyscrapers. He tooled up Bethlehem Steel to make them, saying, “Well, if we go bust, we’ll go bust in a big way.”
Needless to say, he didn’t: I-beams were critical to modern architecture, and Schwab made a name, and a killing. This was his house (the first commission of architect Frederick R. Osterling), and now owned by my friend Hempenstein, who is posing with it at the bottom. The house is in Braddock, Pennsylvania, near the mills (nearly all defunct):
Part of the inside: Hempenstein by the fireplace. You can see the fancy staircase and stained-glass window. This part of the house has been restored, and old hippie Hempenstein looks a bit incongruous sitting in his mansion!
The stained-glass window. It’s not a Tiffany, but the maker hasn’t been identified yet. It will need some expensive restoration:
It was time for dinner, but on the way we stopped at Hempenstein’s house to pick up a growler of local microwbrew (the restaurant is BYOB). He showed me his collection of American chestnut seedlings, as one of his hobbies is restoration of this species, Castanea dentata, which was largely destroyed in the U.S. by chestnut blight, a fungal disease that began destroying the trees in the eastern U.S. around 1900. Few adult trees remain, although they keep sprouting from the base only for the sprouts be killed when the fungus finds them.
Hempenstein is participating in a restoration project whereby the U.S. strain is crossed to a fungus-resistant tree, like the Chinese chestnut, and then the hybrids repeatedly backcrossed to the American chestnut to regain its morphological character while retaining the Chinese genes for fungal resistance (naturally, the backcrosses have to be individually tested for resistance). It would be easier to identify the resistance genes and then DNA-test the seedlings, but they’re not there yet. Here is one healthy backcross sapling:
Time for my long-anticipated dinner at Jozsa’s Corner, an unprepossessing place located in Hazelwood, a run-down suburb of Pittsburgh. You have to call to see if the owner will be open, and he’ll open if he gets four guests on a weekday, and 6 on weekends. Within lies a paradise of home-cooking, Hungarian style.
Hempenstein enters with a growler of the local Green Giant ale (fantastic) from the East End Brewery.
It’s owned by Alex Jozsa Bodnar, who migrated to the U.S. with his parents in 1957, a year after the Hungarian Revolution. Because Alex’s father died young, his 19-year-old mother supported a family of four. Alex learned to cook, he told me, from his grandmother, as he was “tied to her apron strings.”
At the restaurant, for the measly sum of $20 (not including tax and gratuity), you get a delicious multicourse Hungarian meal, all cooked by Jozsa in the small kitchen. And if you want more of anything, you can get as much as you want. Do read the wonderful and laudatory review of the place in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
First course, langos, or Hungarian fire bread made with a potato dough. On top of it you ladle a homemade mushroom sauce. I had to resist eating several of these as I knew there was a lot more food to come.
Soup with chicken, noodles, and various other ingredients I can’t remember. Since this is a one-man operation, the plates are styrofoam and the utensils plastic. Everyone eats family-style from big bowls served at communal tables.
Then we had haluska, a simple dish of noodles and cabbage which the Post-Gazette describes this way:
. . haluska, a dish of cabbage and egg noodles, was perfect in its simplicity. The noodles were dense and chewy, more satisfying than this ephemeral starch usually proves to be, perhaps owing to the richness of browned butter. The cabbage had been cooked long enough to lose a touch of its bitterness, but not so long that it looses its pleasant crispness or flavor. This dish, so simple to describe, was immeasurably satisfying and memorable.
It was delicious and, as the British say, “moreish.” Again, I had to resist multiple helpings. It went perfectly with the beer.
Next course. I believe this was a pork gulyas (goulash), served with little fried breads, sour cream, and a big loaf of homemade braided sesame bread, which came on coming. It was terrific. You can imagine that by this point we were getting full!
The table: there were six of us: me, Hempenstein, a photographer (left), two bodybuilders (a couple) in town for a bodybuilding competition, who were chowing down after their posing, and a Famous Person at the head of the table.
The last main course, which I believe was chicken paprikas with noodles and a delicious cucumber-and-onion salad. Note the heavy lashings of sour cream. This was about all my stomach had room for, even though Alex offered us seconds of everything (and gave us the leftovers to take home):
Dessert: a melange of prune- and apricot-stuffed pastries, juicy grapes, and chocolate chips. This is Alex, and kind and genial fellow who joined us after dinner to tell us about his history and that of the restaurant, which has been opened for 25 years or so.
Now who was that Big Macher at the head of the table? None other than the Mayor of Pittsburgh, Bill Peduto, who dines here regularly! A Democrat, he was a friendly guy, and we learned a lot about what he’s doing for the city. Afterwards he posed with us all, even making a muscle pose with the two body builders:
I couldn’t resist having my picture taken with the Mayor, although for some reason I grimaced during the shot. I showed this picture during my talk yesterday, claiming (falsely) that the Mayor had wished all of us atheists well.
If you go to Pittsburgh, you simply must go to Jozsa’s Corner for its homey atmosphere, fantastic food, low prices, and Alex’s geniality. It gets Professor Ceiling Cat’s highest recommendation.