Anthracite Mining Heritage Sites as Sacred Places?

Recently, a film crew interviewed me for a documentary about the historic Huber Breaker in Ashley, PA.  While Ashley is in the Northern Coalfields of the Anthracite Mining Region, and I hail from the Southern Coalfields, the filmmaker, John Welsh, a friend of a friend, thought I might lend an interesting perspective.  Why?  Well, I grew up with an abandoned breaker a stone’s throw from my bedroom window.  Before my siblings and I were old enough to make the trek through the woods to the breaker, we looked out on it and imagined it to be where souls went when people died.  Even while we were then being inculcated with our Catholic Christian faith’s resplendent images of heaven, we viewed the Mary-D Colliery “abode of souls” rather like the Old Testament Sheol.  That is, it was a foreboding place where spirits existed as shadows flitting about in the dust and the dark.  And yet, there was also a Valhalla (“hall of slain heroes”) aspect to our fantasy of the breaker as a final resting place.

Flying-The-Breaker from John Welsh on Vimeo.

John asked me to tell this tale on camera because he encountered an unexpected twist in his telling of the Ashley Breaker story: some of his interviewees were describing the place as “sacred.”  During his first visit to the breaker, he himself felt as though he were “entering a cathedral.”  (Easier to imagine when you see the Ashley Breaker: it is eleven stories high, with walls composed of windows, many of which are now missing.  When you stand on the top floor, wind whipping past your body, you feel as though you are soaring over the surrounding hills.)  John thought my perspective as a native, combined with my background in religious studies, might help illuminate this part of the story.

And so it was that I met John, and his colleagues Alana Mauger and Alex Fox Rudinski, one recent Saturday for a trip to Ashley.

During my interview I was careful not to position myself as an expert on sacred spaces because I am not.  And while my Master’s thesis dealt somewhat with the “sacramental imagination”—that is, an optic on the world that sees the divine manifest in both natural and human creation, an optic I believe is most pronounced in Catholic and Orthodox Christianity, both prominent in the Coal Region—I didn’t want to put forth any half-baked hypotheses on camera.

But I realize I may have been too careful, and there is more I wish to say on this.  No answers emerge in what follows, just more questions.

When religion scholars speak of sacred v. profane space, they often do so with recourse to the thinking of the late religious historian, Mircea Eliade.  Eliade’s universalist theories of religious experience have come under postmodernist scrutiny, but they are useful for shedding light on why people might experience “secular” spaces as “sacred.”  Eliade believed that a sacred place can be anywhere a person has an encounter with the divine (such a manifestation of the sacred he called a “hierophany”).  Humans do not choose the place; it is chosen by the divine.  In theory, an abandoned colliery could qualify.  And if a space is regarded as sacred, shouldn’t that add another dimension to the debate over its preservation?

Interview in front of Huber Breaker, Ashley, Pennsylvania, Anthracite Mining Region

Photo taken by Alana Mauger.

At the end of our exploration of the crumbling Huber Breaker, the filmmakers asked me to reflect on its future.  I found myself saying that while I’m generally sentimental, my thinking about the preservation of these spaces is more pragmatic.  I said something about how I feel they are best preserved in art and historiography, rather than in actuality…that it would be too costly to restore…they are public safety hazards…yadda yadda yadda.

Thinking now upon my response, I realize it as a complete reversal of how I felt when I was younger.  Maybe I was not being pragmatic as much as slavishly fatalistic.  If so, I reason recent, significant events in my life brought me to this point of resignation.

In 2008, the Allentown Diocese, which oversees the Roman Catholic parishes of most of the Coal Region, shuttered 47 of its 151 churches.  Thirty-two were in my home county of Schuylkill; among these was my childhood parish of St. Bertha’s in Tuscarora.  St. Bertha’s was a beautiful, serene, holy place where I had many “hierophanies,” both as a child and as an adult.  In 2010, the building and grounds were sold for $30,000 and converted to a private residence.  When I drive past now, I weep to see vinyl windows in place of stained glass, and a Mercedes Benz parked in the driveway.

A fate more tragic than that of St. Bertha’s is St. George’s in Shenandoah, Schuylkill County.  Closed in 2006, St. George has particular historic significance as the first Lithuanian parish in the U.S.  Despite this fact, the Allentown Diocese deemed the building structurally unsound and opted for demolition rather than preservation in 2009.  After years of pleading with the diocese to spare the church from destruction, even offering to buy the building and subsequently suing the diocese in civil court, the parishioners of St. George saw their beloved church razed to the ground in February 2010.  Each year, at the annual Lithuania Days heritage festival in Schuylkill County, parishioners publicly mourn the loss of their church at a small shrine erected just for the event.  A former parishioner told me that since he no longer has a church, he no longer attends Mass.  At midnight on Christmas Eve, he can be found in front of the fenced, vacant lot where his church once stood holding a solitary candlelight vigil.

When I once asked my grandmother, a life-long, devout Catholic, how she felt about her own parish, St. Bartholemew’s in Brockton, being shuttered, she replied:  “I am bitter.”  I realize I am bitter too.  Maybe funds ought to be expended to preserve the material legacy of Anthracite Mining.  Maybe the Huber Breaker bears enough historical significance to justify the cost and effort.  It is a debate worth having.  (And it is already taking place in the Region, though often not charitably.  See comments here.)

But, I ask:  If a wrecking ball can smash through the face of Christ and his Blessed Mother as painted on a gorgeous ceiling fresco, why not through through the rusted sheet metal walls of a breaker?  If a colossal pipe organ can be smashed to splinters, if an angel can be hauled away in chains to an unknown destination, why cannot corroded pieces of metal be sorted and sold in the scrap markets of Philadelphia?

If our churches, why not our collieries?  And if our cultural heritage, why not our labor legacy?


Haluski (Noodles & Cabbage) the Healthy Way

Among the many notable contributions of immigrant communities is how often they preserve foods and food customs that have fallen out of fashion in the native country, including those that may have disappeared altogether from the homeland’s culinary landscape. I suspect that if a modern Pole, or Hungarian, or Lithuanian were to sample the ethnic dishes being served in the church basements, legion halls, and picnic groves of the Pennsylvania Anthracite Region, they might find the fare quaint, perhaps alien.

Certainly, the butter-rich, starch-heavy dishes my Polish-American grandparents cooked regularly are not something I would feel confident eating everyday. This is not to mention how much time it takes to prepare a great batch of homemade pierogi (filled dumplings), a pan of galumpki (stuffed cabbage), or a kolachi (Polish kołacz, a light, flaky pastry dough spread with fruit, nut, or poppy seed paste and rolled…yum!).Haluski Noodles and Cabbage

Haluski is one dish that can be cooked on a weeknight and made surprisingly healthy. In its traditional preparation, the dish gets most of its flavor and mouthfeel from ample amounts of butter. In my version, flavor and texture are achieved by carmelizing the cabbage and onions and deglazing the pan with stock toward the end of cooking.

(makes approximately 4 servings as main course)

1 small head of savoy cabbage, cored and sliced
1 small to medium onion, coarsely chopped
2 Tbsp unsalted butter (reserve 1 Tbsp)
2 Tbsp olive oil
1/3 cup of chicken stock (Vegetable stock works if you wish to make the dish vegetarian, though I find chicken stock gives a noticeably richer flavor.)
7-8 oz (approximately one half box) of dried bow tie pasta (I have used Barilla Plus with good results. For what it’s worth, this brand adds some protein to the dish.)
1/2 tsp of paprika
salt and pepper to taste

1. In a large cast iron skillet or frying pan over medium-high heat, melt 1 Tbsp of butter and 2 Tbsp of olive oil. (For best results, do not use a non-stick pan.)
2. Add cabbage and onions. Toss to coat.
3. When cabbage begins to soften and bottom layer begins to brown, add salt, pepper, and paprika. (I use approximately 1/2 tsp of each at this point.)
4. Continue tossing ingredients in pan, allowing time in between tossing for cabbage and onions on the bottom of the pan to brown.
5. Boil pasta according to package directions.
6. Add chicken stock to cabbage mixture and scrape the bottom of the pan to loosen any carmelized bits. (The mixture should not be soupy, so you may need to reduce the liquid somewhat.)
7. Using a slotted strainer or pasta ladle, scoop pasta from boiling water directly into frying pan. (Allowing a small amount of the pasta water to drip into the cabbage mixture is a good idea).
8. Toss to coat while adding reserved Tbsp of butter and more salt and pepper to taste. (Adding this last Tbsp of butter is optional. I sometimes find I’ve achieved enough flavor to forego it.)


Three stages of my cabbage: 1) on the cutting board, 2) as it began to soften and brown, and 3) right before I added my noodles.

Ghosts of Autumn: A Work in Progress

It’s been too long since I’ve posted something new here. Among a swirl of other tasks, I’ve been trying to finish up this large-scale decorative painting, Ghosts of Autumn, before another autumn is past. This is acrylic on plywood measuring about 4’x2′. I intend it for a large (currently) blank wall in our living room.

White birches are ubiquitous in the Anthracite Coal Regions, most especially on the huge culm banks (i.e., minor mountains of coal dust and slag left over from pit mining). There was a grove of white birches in the woods behind my childhood home that always felt hallowed, as if the trees were themselves ghosts of bygone generations. I went there on many gray fall evenings for comfort and connection.

I’m considering adding gold leaf to the background in the manner of Eastern Orthodox iconography. I will post the finished work, but my muse is presently so weak and frail from lack of nurturing, she stammers and falters.

Pan-Latino Perfection in Reading’s Historic District

Chef Hector Ruiz’s Sofrito Gastro Pub is an island breeze blowing fresh air into the Greater Reading restaurant scene.  While so many Berks County establishments are peddling mediocre fare at top dollar prices, Sofrito is serving up pan-Latino perfection for around $10-12 an entree.

Photo courtesy of Sofrito Gastro Pub

Photo courtesy of Sofrito Gastro Pub

My husband and I first visited last Friday night.  We paused to find the place empty inside, but that was only because everyone was out back at the cabana bar. We joined them and took a lime green formica two-top under a lamp.  The enclosed patio makes you forget you’re in a residential neighborhood of Reading and feel as though you’re on vacation in the tropics (the unseasonably warm weather helped).

Our server, Christina, was also the bartender.  Even while busy, she was pleasant, accommodating, and patiently able to answer all of our menu questions.  We started with the Aguacate Frito (a half avocado tempura-style).  This dish had my husband and I fork-fencing for the last bits of battered avocado, crabmeat, and pico de gallo on the plate.

We also tried a steaming bowl of the black bean soup. Rather than the insipid mud that passes for black bean soup elsewhere, this had whole beans and tender chunks of celery.  It was as if someone’s abuelita was in the back cooking it up.

Not only are the entrees at Sofrito astonishingly affordable, they include a salad.  My husband munched down the Urban Salad with its rosemary and brown sugar vinaigrette, while I went for the Chipotle Caesar.  We both felt our salads had a little too much of the spine of the Romaine lettuce, but the entree course more than compensated for any diminished expectations.

My husband’s crab cakes were all sweet meat with little trace of filler.  He wanted to try the muranos (sweetened plantains) for his side dish, but they were eighty-sixed, so he opted for the fluffy yellow rice.  I went for the mussels.  Completely fresh without a bad one in the batch, they were swimming in buttery, garlicky, green sofrito goodness.  I lapped this up with my coconut bread, which was the pièce de résistance of the entire meal.  Can I order this stuff by the pound, please?

Sadly, Christina told us they don’t have any desserts (not sure if only for that night or for all times).  She did mention that she takes the coconut bread home and eats it with vanilla bean ice cream.  Oh, sweet temptation!  Like a siren’s call, that coconut bread is beckoning us back!

Grüß Gott für Gutes Essen

According to my husband’s imprecise undergraduate German, the above means something like “Praise God for good eats!”

Alexander's German RestaurantGood, inexpensive eats are what we enjoyed a few nights ago at Alexander’s German Restaurant here in Berks County.

While Berks is a renowned hub of Pennsylvania Deitsch culture and cuisine, deitsch and deutsch are not the same thing.

You’ll have to look elsewhere than Alexander’s for the chicken & waffles, hot bacon dressing, and shoefly pie of the “Pennsylvania Dutch.” (I recommend the inimitable Deitsch Eck restaurant in Lenhartsville, PA.)

Alexander’s serves up authentic Bavarian fare (the chef, Hansel, is a native).  Instead of the smoked sausage favored by the region’s deitsch-speaking denizens, Alexander’s offers an array of wurst spread out on a bed of kraut made smooth by the addition of Riesling.  Instead of yeasty white dinner rolls, there’s crusty brown bread and warm bretzel served with sweet mustard and butter.  Instead of sarsaparilla and birch beer soda, Alexander’s features an unusually good selection of German, Czech, Danish and Belgian beers, with several on tap.

Bread, bretzel, and beer, oh my. That’s a Franziskaner Hefe-Weisse on left and a Warsteiner Dunkel on right.

At the suggestion of our dirndl-clad waitress, I went for a pint of the Warsteiner Dunkel.  This mellow brew was semisweet like an ale, malty like a porter, and light and crisp like a lager in spite of its dark amber color.  For all of $3, it had everything I crave in a beer and none of what I don’t (that is, it is not bitter).

After a few sips on an empty stomach, I could hardly control my Cheshire grin when the waitress announced the special for that evening: the wurst sampler.

wurst sampler at Alexander's

I am SO going to have the wurst meat-hangover after eating this. From front to back that is a German hot dog, a Hungarian smoked sausage, bratwurst, and weissewurst.

I once heard that it was Einstein’s love of wurst that kept him failing in his humanistic attempts to live as a vegetarian. I am also much too attached to the cuisine of my German-Slavic heritage to give up meat entirely.  I did feel ill, however, to learn the next day that the weissewurst I munched on was a veal sausage.  I don’t care how tender the meat, I draw the line at eating baby flesh.  These links were tender though—and oh so juicy.

Which brings me to my next observation:  there are no vegetarian selections on Alexander’s menu.  I always view this as a missed opportunity.  The husband’s not a meat lover, so he enjoyed an enormous, buttery stuffed flounder.  A true vegetarian, however, would be forced to piece together a meal of side dishes.

Alexander's Stuffed Flounder

Alexander’s flounder was delicately seasoned and stuffed with spinach, crab, and a mild cheese.

Alexander’s offers traditional German sides: rot kohl, spaetzle, sour cream dill cucumbers, potatoes dressed with white vinegar (the latter was served refrigerator cold, which made the vinegar too biting).  The creamy roasted dill dressing on top of my green salad (garden fresh and substantially-sized at $2.50) was homemade and craveworthy, as was my husband’s sweet poppy seed dressing.

Part of Alexander’s charm is getting to and from this old country hotel via a relaxing drive through rolling farmland.  Inside, the decor is an eclectic mash-up of restaurant surplus and flea market finds—of overstock and antique.  Depending on your expectations, this can make for comforting warmth or a feeling of decrepitude.  For me it is more of the former, though I’d love to dig in with my DIY decor tools and polish this diamond in the rough.

Alexander's lounge

Whether you live in Eastern Pennsylvania, or you’re just passing through, Alexander’s Old World fare, prices, and total experience make it a highly worthwhile destination.