Remembering Basement Food
By Bob Gunovick
If you are old enough to remember the Second World War, and your parents were immigrants from Croatia, chances are the basement of your home played a very important part of your daily lives. Besides the obvious – wine making – the basement was a hub of many other cooking and eating activities for the family.
I grew up in a typical Croatian community in Ruston (Tacoma), close to the Asarco Smelter where my father and many other Croatian men worked. Within a square mile there were five Croatian “Ma & Pa” grocery stores where the families all lived in the same building as the store. In the 1920’s the immigrants of Ruston built a Croatian Hall called the Ruston Slavonian Hall, and for decades, all of the fun Croatian activities took place there, meetings, dinners, dances, etc.
To get back to basement food – to a Croatian immigrant, a basement was very important and if a house didn’t have one, quite often they dug one! That is exactly what my Father did and in 1945 he dug under our house until he found a rather big obstacle – a huge six-foot granite rock right in the middle of the basement. This then became not only my father’s problem, but a Croatian neighborhood problem with all of his Dalmatian buddies giving him advice on how to get rid of the rock. After three months they finally cracked it and carried the pieces into the garden which he used for decoration. He then made the basement complete with a cement floor, a stove, washing machine, tool bench, shower, shelves etc. Then the wine-making tools- the barrels, and the jugs were put into production and thus began a yearly event of buying the grapes, crushing them, fermenting and bottling, and then when the wine was ready, comparing his wine with his friends’ home-made wines!
Other “basement food” activities involved my Mother cooking many meals on that basement stove, which was an old wood stove that was moved down to the basement. It was originally in our kitchen but replaced with a new “electric” stove after the basement was built! She would cook strong smelling foods like bakalar, fish, kale, and cabbage down there. We had pancakes on Friday nights and the basement was a perfect place to pickle cabbage heads for sarma-making and a wonderful retreat to cool off during hot summer days. My Mother also canned fruit and vegetables in the summer and stored the completed jars on shelves. During the winter, this is where she hung up the washing to dry. No driers in those days! After my father dug the basement, it became a hub of activity for all of our family. I have great memories of the meals my Mother fixed in the basement. Somehow, the food just tasted better on that old wood stove! Digging that basement and the problems dealing with that monster rock, referred to in the neighborhood as “Matt’s Rock”, certainly was a very important event in our lives – people talked about it years later.
My Father, Matt Gunovick was president of the Croatian Fraternal Union (CFU) Lodge 246, for 17 years. When he passed away in 1987, he was a 72 year member.