A Family Grocery in Polish Camden: Memories of Leona Burdalska

1545 Mt. Ephraim Avenue Camden NJ about 1950


Leona Burdalska Large, born 21 October 1931. Left us on 2 January 2023.

With daughter Deborah Large Fox

Audio File transcript

19 APRIL 2017

L: Leona

D: Deborah

Deborah: This is my interview with Leona Burdalski Large, my mom, and she is going to be talking about family dinners and the family kitchen while growing up in Camden, New Jersey. 

State your name?

Leona: Leona Large

Deborah: and where did you grow up?

L: Camden, New Jersey.

D: What part of Camden?

L: Mount Ephraim Avenue. Whitman Park section.

D: What was different about the Whitman Park section when you were growing up?

L: Mostly all Polish people lived there. The church was there, the school was there, the hospital, West Jersey Hospital was also there.

D: and was Polish spoken on the streets?

L: Mostly Polish, yes.

D: Polish was your first language?

L: Yes. Polish was my first language. I didn’t really speak English until I went to school.

D: Did you speak Polish at home, then? 

L: Yes.

D: So, when your parents spoke to you, they spoke in Polish?

L: Most of the time.

D: OK. And what kind of house did you have? 

L: We lived first on Everett Street and it was a semi-detached house. Three bedrooms. Closed in porch.

D: And when did you move? 

L: I don’t remember the date, but we moved to Mount Ephraim Avenue. We lived in the house, and my father rented a store, a fruit and produce store. And then he was able to buy a store and a home across the way from the store he had and that’s why we moved from Everett Street to Mount Ephraim Avenue. 

D: Did he open the store again? 

L: Yeah. He opened it and that’s where we lived forever [Laughter]. 

D: And what was the address there?

L: 1545 Mount Ephraim Avenue. 

D: And can you describe the store and the house? Like, how was it configured? Was a store in the front? 

L: The store was in the front and had a large alleyway with those black–what do you call those black iron gates—and had a side door that led into the living room. Also, a door from the store that led into the living room. And then, there was a dining room and the kitchen, fairly large rooms. Upstairs was a large front bedroom. For some reason or another, it had a door from the bedroom –front bedroom—into the middle bedroom. I don’t know why it was there because we never used it because we came into the middle room through the hallway. It was quite a large bathroom; very large it was. Aside from the bathroom there was this walk-in closet. It was big but not big enough to make a bedroom, but mom stored all her stuff there. Then, the rooms were all big, so it was a long house, yes, and then there was a big back bedroom.

The store was fairly large. It had a window up and down. You had to go like up on steps to go to the display of all the fruits and produce that were displayed in the window, then it had bins along the side.

 In the back of the store was a cut out in the floor to the basement, and that’s where, when you bought chickens, my father would weigh them and then he would put them through the hole in the floor and where there were boys that were getting paid for killing the chickens. And then when they were done, they would bring them out through the hole.

D: And where were the chickens kept, in coops? 

L: They kept them in coops outside, mostly around the curb or in front of the house. And then at night they would bring them around the side, you know, in the big alleyway.

D: Did he have refrigeration, or did he use ice?

L: Years later, he bought this huge refrigerator, walk-in refrigerator, that he had in the backyard. I don’t know where he got it from, but then he started making fish cakes and crabcakes, and you know different foods that he would keep in there. And all perishable fruits and vegetables on Saturday would all be carried into this walk-in refrigerator.  

D: Where did you get the fruits and vegetables? 

L: He would get it from farmers in Swedesboro and Dock Street in Philly and that’s…. I’m trying to think of where he got ducks. I think he got the chickens and ducks there too. 

Inside the store about 1940’s

D: When were you born? 

L: The year, 1931, October 21. 

D: So, in the 1940’s and into the 1950’s you grew up basically with the store? 

L: And from the time I was ten years old.

D: Did your mother work in the store? 

L: All the time. Mom and Dad always worked in the store that’s why we always had—they call them nannies now—then we just called them “somebody to come watch the kids and do housework.” My mother seldom did housework. She always had somebody come in. 

D: What were the hours they worked in the store?

L:  In the store, usually until 10 o’clock 

D: At night?

L: Yeah.

D: What time did they open in the morning?

L: Gee. This is just a guess. I don’t remember. I’d say 7 am and 8 am. 

D: And did Dzia Dzia have to get up earlier than that to set up the store? [“Dzia Dzia” is a diminutive of Dziadek (grandfather) used by the Burdalski grandchildren. We pronounced it with a rather hard “J,” “Ja-Ja.”]. 

L: Especially on Mondays because the other days during the week he didn’t disturb the fruit and produced much but Mondays because everything was in their walk-in refrigerator, he would have to come put his stuff out.

D: And he also cooked items for the store?

L: He, yeah.

D: What would he make?

L: Well, I told you the fish cakes, the crab cakes, and potato salad, coleslaw, all the stuff like that 

D: He would make that himself?

L: Pickled herring, should I say in Polish “śledzie. And he made a sauerkraut, his own sauerkraut. He ground his own horseradish.

D: And so, your father was the cook of the family?

L: All the time. Mom very seldom cooked. Dad was the cook, but he always had to have a helper.

D: Who was the helper?

L: Anybody that was available to help was the one who would help would hand him the utensils, wash the spoons, “hand me the cup,” “give me this.” It was usually one of the kids then, yes. He was a great cook. 

D: Did he cook dinner every day?

L: Every day.

D: Who would work in the store while he was cooking dinner?

L: Mom. Or we had a bell that when somebody came in, we would get up from the table. Was Mom, and then when I got older it was my turn to get up and wait on customers.

D: so, you still had family dinners?

L: Yes. We had the bell that would tell us someone had come in [the store]. So, we ate as a group.

D: Did you eat in the kitchen or in the dining room?

L: Dining room because the dining room is bigger. The kitchen had a small table. We had the bigger dining room table where everybody fit. 

The Burdalski siblings Elaine, Wally (Sonny), Arline, and Leona 1940’s

D: What did you usually eat for dinner, the Polish foods? 

L: I would say Polish foods, but…anything, everything. 

D: What was your favorite? 

L: Oh goodness, I don’t know. I really don’t know.

D: You remember what time dinner was when you were growing up?

L: Anytime he [Dad] felt like making it. It was no set time.

D: Did you also eat lunch at home?

L: No, we were at school, at school. No no no, that’s true, going back to that, we went to school, come home for lunch, and went back to school. Walked down to school because we were only blocks—eight or nine blocks.

D: And what did you usually have for lunch? 

L: Whatever Mom felt like giving us. Mom would give us lunch Dad would make the dinner… I can say anything I want?  At night, aside from food for the store, he would make sandwiches and maybe like kiełbasa and sauerkraut for the Polish American Citizen Club on Saturdays. And he would make the stuff, the food, and take it over there and they would sell it.

D: Would sell it or cater it?

L: It was catered, yes, it’s a better word for it. At the PCC. He did that for years. Made sandwiches, that we had to help him make sandwiches. He made sure the kids did everything, especially Sonny and myself. Elaine and Arline got away with a lot, the younger ones, yes yes. 

D: What do you think he most enjoyed making? 

L: Anything Polish. He liked making chicken soup.

D: And what’s the chicken soup called? 

L: Rosoł. That was rosoł. He liked making czarnina, which is duck blood soup.

D: Did he make that often? 

L: Whenever he felt like it. We had it quite often yes. 

D: Do you remember how he made that?

L: I just remember him cooking a duck and saving the blood. You had to mix the blood with vinegar so it wouldn’t get jelled. And he would put prunes and pears and carrots, bay leaf, and cook it but then he would mix it with sour cream towards the end to make it a little creamy.

D: How would you describe the taste?

L: Good. [Laughter] 

D: Fruity? Was it tart? 

L: No, it wasn’t tart, and sometimes he put prunes in it. It was just good, looked like brown. It was brown, wasn’t bloody or anything. 

*Note* At this point in the interview, my mother gave a graphic description of the process of killing and butchering of a pig. I am omitting the description in case the reader is sensitive. However, I will note that my mother describes that my dzia dzia believed in not wasting any edible part of an animal. 

L: I’ll tell you there is not a piece of a pig that he dd not use. Everything from the brains, the ears, the nose, the tail, the something—I don’t even know what it’s called… He didn’t do it all at one time because then he would put it in the freezer or refrigerator, and he sure did use everything. 

Watson Burdalski, my mom’s father/my Dzia Dzia, cooking

D: When you had company, or your parents had company what was the night usually like? Would people come over to visit? 

L: Well, they would talk. My father was great for playing cards, and he would have his cronies come in and play cards. He always smoked a cigar. The place used to be smokey because between the cigars and the people that smoked cigarettes. And he would always serve sandwiches. He’d get a lot of sandwiches from a Jewish deli on Kaighns Avenue called Famous Deli, and he would treat them all to sandwiches. But he liked to play cards, and they would play for money.

D: Where would they play, the dining room?

L: Living room. He had a card table. They liked their shots, you know, the whiskey, and I don’t remember them drinking beer too much for some reason or another. I just remember the shots. 

D: Did the family used to gather around in the evenings? So, what were your evenings like? Homework? 

L: We Just did our own thing because the store was still open, then either Mom or Dad would be in the store.

D: I remember when I was little, and we would visit them, I think it was Saturday nights, and we would watch, it would be a routine, we would watch Lawrence Welk.

L: Yeah, his favorite.

D: Then we would move into the kitchen and Babcia [when I was young, we grandchildren often pronounced the Polish word for grandmother, Babcia, as “Ba-chi” or sometimes, “Bop-chi.”] would put out all sorts of assorted lunchmeats and rye bread. Do you remember them? Can you describe what we would eat? 

L: You already got the lunch meat and the ham, bologna, and krakowska the Polish lunchmeat. And then, because the grocery store of his friend Stanley Jaskowski was on the corner, he [the friend Stanley] had a smoker in the basement that Dad smoked his kiełbasa so we would have kiełbasa.  We would have lunchmeat; he would make some of his own lunchmeat. 

That was Saturday, always a Saturday until the day I got married, he always had something on Saturday night. 

Now Sunday, we only had one meal. He would make a big pot of chicken soup, and that was it. You would know if you wanted more you got it later on if you were hungry. And one thing I remember is he would make meatloaf which to this day I don’t like. He’d make meatloaf and put eggs in it and then when you slice it you see the eggs. 

D: A hard-boiled egg?

L:         He would boil–a hard-boiled—egg and put it in there and then, when it was cold, to slice it and then you made it for sandwiches. Things I didn’t like? Was pumpkin soup. He’d make pumpkin soup. I hated pumpkin soup and pea soup—green pea soup—I don’t like peas to this day. Now, he was a good cook. Mom was a good cook.

D: What did she make?

L: She made everything and anything. 

D: Oh, I thought maybe she just filled in with a few dishes.

L: No, no, no. She just made everything and anything. But to us, it was almost like a treat because she had a different way of cooking.

D: How was that different?

L: That was different, I don’t know, is different because it was Mom.

D: Was there something that she regarded as her special dish?

L: Know what? She would do some baking. Like, yes, it is poundcake. She never made a babka but would do a pound cake.

D: I remember her chicken and onions. 

L: Chicken with onions and pork chops with onions and gravy. To this day, yeah, I don’t know why but I love the pork chops with gravy with onions in it just water. You know, that when I was –I’m trying to think how old I was, I might have been ten when I had diphtheria and they wanted to put me in the hospital because that was very contagious or else, they would have had to close the store. So, ah, my grandmother [Katarzyna Tołpa Jakubowska, mother of Sophie Jakubowska Burdalska] offered to take me, so I went to my grandmother’s until I got well.  And I—for three days because it was my favorite—she made me pork chops with onions and gravy. 

My great grandmother/Leona’s Babcia, Katarzyna Tołpa Jakubowski about 1945

D: What kind of gravy was it? Was it just onion water? 

L: Yeah, not even thickened. She would just brown the porkchops, do the onions, and it just tasted so good. It is making my mouth water! [Laughs]. 

D: What did she brown them in? Chicken fat? 

L: I don’t know what. Could be. Talking about chicken fat, when we had colds, my mother would give us warm milk with chicken fat to drink. Now, that was supposed to help us. I hated it and cod liver oil, every morning.

D: Whether you were sick or not? 

L: Yes, cod liver oil all winter, but the butter, the butter in the warm milk when we had a cold. 

D: Is there anything else you remember about food or cooking or the kitchen that you would like to share? 

L: I’m thinking. I don’t wanna waste your time, no.

D: It’s not a waste. Anything you can remember is good.

L: I can’t think of anything…. I think what fascinated me the most was the pig because it was so much of it and it was good. And now that I think of it, he also had barrels down the basement. The basement was cut off. One part of where they killed the chickens and the ducks, and it was sealed. Not sealed off—because it had a door. And he made there he made his own wine. 

D: what did he make the wine from?

L: I don’t know. I guess grapes, yeah yeah, no no, it was grapes. I remember him testing the barrels that were under the steps. I don’t know was that legal. He never made whiskey, but he made wine, and yet he was a whiskey drinker. 

D: Any other foods that you wish that you had today? Besides pork chops?

L: [laughs] 

D: What about gołabki? Did they make gołabki? 

L: Oh yeah. And she made pierogi. And at Easter time she made these different cookies. I forget the name of them now. 

D: Chruściki

L: Yeah, she made chruściki. Kiffles. Kiffles are a cookie, they are not chruściki. She stuffed them with like prunes or something. Or cherry. In fact, I used to help her made the kiffles. She used to roll the dough out—Mom would, Dad would never do the baking. He would cook but he wouldn’t bake. Mom would have to do that. 

D: What did you usually have for Easter dinner? 

L: Kiełbasa. We took the basket to church, and there is rye bread, kiełbasa and sauerkraut and ham like we still have it, do the same thing now. 

D: How about Christmas Eve? What was the Vigilia, what the Christmas Eve meal was called? Did you do the fish? The vegetarian meal? 

L: Oh yeah. All the fish. We never ate meat on Friday. He [Father] used to love to fry smelts (makes my mouth water), and he had all different kinds of fish. 

D: How did he fry the smelts? 

L: He breaded them. 

D: Heads on?

L: No, he took the heads off, but they had the bone. And he said we could eat the bone but some of the bones were pretty big. If they were big, then we didn’t chew the bones, but he said the bones were good for you.

D: Did he make other kinds of fish also?

L: Well, he made the crabcakes. And fry the fish called whitings, which some reason or another, he liked them because they weren’t boney. They have like a three-prong soft bone2. Whitings were bigger than the smelts. And flounder. You know he had the seven fishes…. Then which day, when do we go visit churches inside? That was for Easter. Holy Thursday. We went to seven churches. Nine. Seven or nine? Then Saturday, we would take the basket [to church to be blessed]. Which was kiełbasa, and a butter lamb [baranek]. Add horseradish and a piece of ham, and eggs, some eggs, a couple eggs, and that would be our breakfast. That’s what we would eat Easter morning. Yes, but we wouldn’t eat it until Easter. 

D: Okay. Well, thank you!

L: [Laughs]       

My Babcia/my mother Leona’s mother, Sophie Jakubowska Burdalska 1940’s

And that’s what Deb Said.

One thought on “A Family Grocery in Polish Camden: Memories of Leona Burdalska

  1. Enjoyed that very much Debbie. Hi Mrs. Dave, I can remember back when I was like a year old hanging out on Mountie from Avenue and watching the Plansky parade brings back. Great memories.

    Liked by 1 person

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