thoughts on food, culture, and community

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Free Pancake Friday, Oakland Avenue, Pittsburgh

Fresh pancakes, Oakland Ave, November 2012

“Pancakes! Get your free pancakes!”

The voice is loud and authoritative, and it cuts through the crisp morning like a fishmonger’s. Danny Santoro, a junior computer engineering major at Carnegie Mellon University, bends over two hot griddles on his front lawn, pouring scoopfuls of batter from industrial-sized mixing bins and waiting until the pancakes bubble and sizzle. Roommates Chad Miller and Adam Britton along with a handful of neighbors gather around, exhaling steam into the morning air. It’s week 11 of Free Pancake Friday on Oakland Ave.

“They’re free, like, for real? I just can’t wrap my mind around it,” says a passerby, leaning over the griddle and accepting a hotcake and a cup of hot chocolate. “I figured you were a bunch of boys doing a science experiment. Thank you so much!”

“Yeah, they’re free,” says Santoro. “No ulterior motive. Well, we have a tip jar.” He flips a few pancakes and then adds, almost as an extra thought, “For charity.”

Hot chocolate and morning joy, Oakland Ave, November 2012

Past charities have included the Pittsburgh Food Bank, breast cancer research, and Hurricane Sandy relief, but raising money was not the original point. Free Pancake Friday began first as a mistake.

“The first week happened because we were trying to have a house breakfast, and Chad made way too many pancakes,” Santoro explains. “So we just kind of stood out on the street and gave them out, no plates or anything. Hot and free, like America in the summertime.”

Today, they not only have plates; they have syrup, hot chocolate, a lawn table to lounge at, and pancakes whose flavors vary per week, ranging from pumpkin to buckwheat to red velvet. The group plans to keep making pancakes through the winter and through the snow. “Who doesn’t like pancakes?” Santoro says.

Danny Santoro, a CMU junior, mans the griddle; November 2012

Friday Photo: A Plowman’s Perspective of Harrisburg Snow Removal

Third Street, Harrisburg, at 1:30 A.M.

This article first appeared in the January 2012 issue of TheBurg, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

It’s 11:35 PM on Wednesday, December 7, and I haven’t left home at this odd of a weekday hour since Black Friday. I bend over my steering wheel and crane my neck toward the sky: still no snow.  Front Street is as clear as a country road, a sleek damp ribbon studded with lampposts.  The black jogging path runs beside a silver Susquehanna.  It’s a picturesque scene, but the weather forecast has been clear: snow advisory for Central Pennsylvania from 7pm to 7am tomorrow.

When snow is on the forecast, most of us slide into a familiar routine: check the quantity of milk in the fridge, the level of gas in the tank. For most of us, the routine stops there, except for the occasional glance at the sky. This is not the case for Harrisburg’s Department of Public Works, for whom the words “snow day” have an entirely different meaning.

Tonight, four men—Dave Spiroff, Enola; Rodney Keller, Hummelstown; Randy Sauder, Harrisburg; and David Jordan, Susquehanna township—have just arrived for work.  I join them in a utility building on South 19th Street which is backlit by fog and orange light. Director Ernie Hoch sips coffee and shakes my hand, and the men greet me with a nod. “This is my A team,” says Hoch, by way of an introduction.  “These are the guys that I call first.”

During heavy blizzards, up to 45 men, CDL licensed or otherwise, can be called upon by the department to help clear the city of snow, rotating over 12 hour shifts.  Most snow removal strategies are systematic, including prioritizing primary and secondary streets, and mapping out the city into 8 sections to focus the work. However, trying to determine where to push the snow, or struggling to fit a snowplow down Penn Street, can make for white-knuckle work.

“There’s always that one street that you’re driving down with your heart pumping Kool-Aid,” says Spiroff, who has worked with the city for 16 years.

Tonight, expectations are minimal. The one- and five-ton salt trucks have already been loaded, the goal being to salt ramps and bridges and to keep a close eye on the roads near the river, where it’s colder. The crew scatters, taking their places among the city, and Hoch and I duck into a pick-up truck and drive up Cameron Street.  We’ve barely driven five minutes before Hoch checks the weather on his phone. “I actually think the snow’s passed over us,” he says suddenly. There is no regret in his voice. “I’m not disappointed.  It’s better to be proactive. The streets will be clear by rush hour.”

I will be awake again by 6:30 and part of that rush hour traffic that will move swiftly through a bitter cold sunrise.  The students that I teach will be disappointed to have not had a delay, and I will secretly regret that I can’t sleep in, either.  However, it’s clear that this privilege of safe driving has everything to do with the four trucks that are out on the streets right now, circulating like quiet watchmen, tracing the city silently beneath a snowless sky.

Dads and daughters enjoy Londonderry township’s dance

The following is taken from an interview of participants at Londonderry township’s Fifth Annual Daddy-Daughter dance.  An abridged version appeared in The Patriot-News on Friday, October 28, 2011.

Daddy-daughter dance, Sunset Golf Course Clubhouse, October 2011

WHITE TIGHTS, BLACK TIES: Londonderry townhip fathers and daughters celebrated one another at the fifth annual Daddy-Daughter dance, a heartwarming evening of games, prizes, and music at the Sunset Golf Course Clubhouse on Friday, October 14.  “It’s hard to tell who appreciates the dance more, the daughters or the daughters,” says coordinator Beth Graham. Thirty-seven couples were in attendance for professional photographs, a food buffet, and the crowning of a king and queen.

MILES OF SMILES (clockwise from top): Richard Silks with granddaughters, Kylie, Alex, and Cheyenne of Cedar Manor

WHO: Richard Silks, Cedar Manor
GRANDDAUGHTERS: Alex, 5; Kylie, 9; Cheyenne, 12

He says…
–       GRANDDAUGHTERS’ BEST QUALITIES: “Alex makes her own cheers that she always has to share.  Kylie does jigsaw puzzles with me. Cheyenne is great at spending quality time.”
–       BEST PART OF THE EVENING: “The whole night.  It puts memories into my granddaughters’ lives, the kind you can never replace.”

PERFECT PAIR: Kailynn White, 7, with father Steve White, Elizabethtown

WHO: Kailynn White, 7
FATHER: Steve White, Elizabethtown
PARTICIPATION: “We’ve been coming for three years.”

She says…
–       BEST PART OF EVENING: “I love dancing with my friends.”
–       FAVORITE DRESS-UP ACCESSORY: “My high heels.”
–       DAD’S BEST ASSET: “He’s great because he loves me.”

FIRST DANCE: Jeff Poor with Ellie, 5, of Elizabethtown

WHO: Jeff Poor, Elizabethtown
DAUGHTER: Ellie, 5
PARTICIPATION: “It’s our first year, but we were crowned dance King and Queen!”

He says…
–       OVERALL IMPRESSION: “The dance is a neat way to get dads and daughters out together before the girls get too old.”
–       ELLIE’S GREATEST ASSET: “Her energy, her fresh outlook, her innocence.”

She says…
–       FAVORITE DRESS-UP ACCESSORY: “This dress.”
–       DAD’S FAVORITE FOOD: “He makes good bacon.”
–       BEST PART OF THE EVENING: “I won the contest.”

DOUBLE DIP: (from left) Andy and Rylee Hartwick, 6, of Middletown with Aaron and Paige Adelman, 7, of Londonderry township

WHO: Andy Hartwick, Middletown
DAUGHTER: Rylee Hartwick, 6

He says…
–       FAVORITE SHARED ACTIVITY: “We go fishing together.  She’s my girl.”

DANCE LIKE THIS: Lucy Rodgers, 10, and her father Simon of Harrisburg

WHO: Lucy Rogers, 10
DAD: Simon Rogers, Harrisburg
PARTICIPATION: “This is our third year coming to the dance.”

She says…
–       BEST PART OF EVENING: “The limbo.  I won two years in a row!”

He says…
–       FAVORITE EVENING MEMORY: “Just seeing Lucy smile.  It melts my heart.”
–       LUCY’S GREATEST ASSET: “Her self-assuredness.”

Friday Photo: Political Climate

Political Climate: A record-breaking snowstorm hit the northeast on Saturday, October 29, 2011, 11 days before Election Day--a day which, in contrast, is predicted to enjoy sunny skies and a high of 64 degrees.



Friday Photo: Kill Your Television

Uptown, Harrisburg, October 2011

I found these words on a street on which I’ve never walked before.  I do not know the street name, but what I know for sure it was north of Maclay, the unofficial dividing line between Harrisburg’s Old Uptown and “real” Uptown, between poverty and prosperity, between black and white.  When living on the farm in Shippensburg, I never understood how it was be possible that the contrast between city neighborhoods could be so stark, but the answer as I see it now is both complex and simple: differences in money and thus schools, differences in traditions and thus legacy, differences in opportunity and thus the lack of it, which both enrobe and result in the mistrust of a stereotype.

But here’s a fact that brings us together: in 2010, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Americans over the age of 15 spent an average of 2 hours and 45 minutes watching television daily, making TV-watching the most third-most prominent activity in our lives.  (As the survey includes retirees and teenagers and charts daily activity, including weekends, sleeping tops the chart at 8 1/2 hours, and “work-related activities” only clocks in at 3 1/2 hours).  This means that watching television one of the most unifying activities across races, genders, and age.

There’s a problem in this equation–for all of us.  Norman Herr, Ph.D., author of the textbook The Sourcebook for Teaching Science publishes on his website that, by the time a child finishes elementary school, he has witnessed 8,000 murders via television, and will watch 400,000 violent acts by the time that he reaches 18.  He also writes that many of Americans are so “hooked” on watching television that the act, for some, fits the criteria for substance abuse (usually defined by answering “yes” to two or more of the following questions): 1) the substance is used as a sedative; 2) it is used indiscriminately; 3) the user feels a loss of control while partaking; (4) the user feels angry with himself for using too much; (5) he feels an inability to stop; and (6) he feels miserable when the substance is being withheld.

(Does “I accidentally stayed up until 2am watching Breaking Bad” sound familiar to anyone?)

It’s easy to laugh off these occurrences, but with these statistics in mind–along with well-popularized figures of increasing childhood obesity rates–it is no longer funny.  I originally read the message I found with the violent wording (“Kill,” not just “Turn off”) in a rough neighborhood as being fueled by one resident’s frustration about and awareness to the role that excessive television-watching plays in the cycle of poverty and abuse, but apparently, the message is for all of us–south of Maclay and otherwise.

Part 2, Local Literacy: Students meet reading project goal

Harrisburg, August 2011

Harrisburg, August 2011

In July, about 60 students at the Hansel and Gretel Early Development Center in Susquehanna Township were offered a challenge that sounded like a training schedule: read a collective 50,000 minutes in six weeks and win.

The students, ages 4-12, weren’t daunted. They faced the summer reading project head on and overwhelmed the goal, reading 56,169 minutes — in 900 collective hours, a total that was revealed the week of Aug. 19.

“There wasn’t a doubt in my mind that they could do it,” said Katie Weaver of West Hanover Twp., who helped organize the program with her mother, Cathy Hutchins, and her stepfather, Hutch.

The project was a joint effort among parents, teachers and students, designed to …

A version of this article first appeared in The Patriot-News on Friday, September 9.  Click here to read more.

The surprising statistics about reading

Over 30 million Americans have reading skills beneath basic literary level, according to an article regarding literacy.  Looking at the figures from the National Center for Educational Statistics, that included 13% of adults aged 16 and over in Dauphin County, Pennsylvania, in 2003.

The importance of reading may not surprise you, but, if you’re reading this post, it’s unlikely that you’re among the members of your neighborhood who would struggle to do so.  And trust me, they’re there.

Because September is National Literacy Month, this week’s blog posts will be dedicated to local organizations who have emphasized reading as more than just a key to creativity or curiosity–but as an essential component to gaining life skills, social mobility, and job security.

You know, the stuff much of us usually take for granted.

Harrisburg, August 2011

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