Go Ahead, West Virginia, Steel My Heart

Dear Reader,

I have taken you with me for a Roman Thanksgiving. I have tucked into a bistro meal with you in the 20th Arrondissement.  Even just last week, I shared my adventures in Atlanta with you.  Now it’s time for us to have a real food adventure.  It’s time for West Virgina.

Picture this: two hundred of the best meatballs you’ll ever taste, amazingly crusty rolls, just-picked green beans tossed in olive oil and garlic, Greek-style farfalle pasta with feta, tomatoes and potatoes, jugs of homemade wine, and roasted “Put up” Peppers.  Our Memorial Day, 2011 was a community affair, plunk in the middle of Steel Country — Weirton, West Virginia, USA.

Before you go and think “this doesn’t feel like Wendy’s usual haunt,” I assure you, it is.  I have been visiting Weirton for nearly three decades now — since first meeting my husband.  And this small town is a culinary gem, set within an industrial landscape.  Full of home-spun values and small town relationships, Michael’s Italian parents, first-generation Americans, and their Greek and Italian neighbors, first settled in Weirton to work the coal mines in the middle of the last Century.  And, while so much has changed in Steel Country, these moments of community and celebrating around the table bolster our spirits. It’s the way it used to be, if only for a moment. I am charmed.


I am also worried.  When you take part in something this special – and break bread with people who you’ve known and loved for decades, and then read an article like what the New York Times just wrote about Weirton, it becomes clear that something really unique to our country is dying.  A phrase that is commonly repeated in the area is that Weirton and the surrounding county is “more coffins than cradles,” as the young people move away for more opportunity and young families are less common.  A snippet here:

Without immigrants or economic opportunities to keep its younger residents close to home, Brooke County and others like it are showing their age. At St. Paul Catholic Church in Weirton, the Rev. Larry Dorsch has buried 15 people this year and baptized one. The American Legion in Wellsburg has closed because of a lack of young supporters. Volunteer fire departments are so understaffed that people come from other towns to fight fires.

“You can declare a person dead, but you can’t declare a town dead,” said Daniel Guida, a lawyer in Weirton. “Some towns have energy, that spring in your collective step. We’re missing that. We need to get on with Act 2. But how?”

If Big Steel’s problems are home grown as the NY Times article declares, well, so are the peppers that were “put up” from last season and the tomatoes that still grow in home garden plots.

Being in this land of “can do”, I want to shout “WAKE UP”!

If celebrating like this can happen so easily and spontaneously – surrounded by so much love, then where is the “can do” energy to innovate and get the local economy moving?  These are people that can erect and move party tents themselves, cook for 150 with no “sous chefs”, haul-in portable burners and boil pasta on site at a moment’s notice, bake and frost cakes, pipe the caramel cone pizzelles, wash the fiestaware dishes, mop the floor and take out the garbage while I’m still looking for the match to light the candles. (“Why do we need candles?” someone asks.)

Masters in the art of celebration.  I am in awe.  The “Home Arts” that are such a trend in my urban world are a way of life in Weirton.   Gardening, cooking, canning, sewing…these aren’t hobbies, these are life-skills. As we board the plane for home, after a weekend of laughing and eating with loved ones, I can only hope that the most essential life-skill of all — a growing, bustling economy, industry and innovation will return to Weirton, because the spirit and the love of the people of that town just can’t dissolve away.