A winter holiday tradition that is fairly ubiqitous in Northeastern Pennsylvania but lesser so outside that region is securing a coil of locally made kielbasa. Several shops are famous year-round for their cured cylindrically-cased and sometimes smoked meat rings, but never more than in December. Neglectful devotees are often left bereft of the finest options and condemned to stressfully scouring the valley at the final hour for whatever scraps remain.
A native NEPAian shared with me today that his family is already stocked up on Schiff's (http://www.myschiffs.com/) for the season, and it reminded me of the first (EVER) article I wrote as part of the interview process for my first (EVER) full-time newspaper job.
Had to dig to find it anywhere because sadly the paper's online archives have largely been lost to antiquity, but the Internet always provides. Enjoy...
RING IN THE SEASON/ HOMEMADE KIELBASA: ACCEPTING NO SUBSTITUTE
By RORY SWEENEY Special to the Times Leader
Friday, December 23, 2005 Page: 1A
For harried holiday cooks rushing to secure a last-minute Christmas kielbasa, the answering machine conveyed the bad news: "Swantko's is closed. Thank you for your patronage."
And not just closed for the day.
The popular Nanticoke pork purveyor is closed forever.
The loss last month of Swantko's probably won't register 10 miles away in Wilkes-Barre's Parsons section, where kielbasa lovers have Leonard's Kielbasi Market.
Crowds flock to the modest, garlic-scented shop which opened in 1923. The original white tinwork still graces the ceiling, and the hand-cranked cash register remains. Leonard's at 64 Kado St. hasn't changed much, just aged - like its patrons.
For many local residents of Polish descent, kielbasa is a must-have Christmas and Easter tradition. Often, holiday lines spill out the door and down the street, especially at opening time, when the daily allotment of smoked kielbasa is up for grabs.
Only eight customers waited in line early Wednesday afternoon, most long-time devotees who've stood in line at Leonard's since childhood. They said the short line was an aberration.
The day's supply of the coveted smoked meat rings had run out, and customers without confirmed orders were promptly rejected.
People in the growing line muttered something about similarities to the Soup Nazi character from the TV comedy "Seinfeld."
"No kielbasa for you," they laughed.
"I have waited for hours there," said Joan Sott of Forty Fort in a phone interview, adding that Leonard's workers are often brusque.
"You can't even ask them a question."
She complained that counterworkers refuse to speculate how much unspoken-for-kielbasa might be available for people in line without orders.
"Last year we forgot to order," said Sott, who picks up the sausage for her family. "I was back and forth to that store six times, only to be told they were out of kielbasa."
As workers disappeared for lunch breaks, the already unbearable wait for what remained - fresh, uncooked kielbasa and white or red horseradish sauce - became downright painful.
Dorothy Dysleski, granddaughter of the store's founder, worked methodically, checking orders in a large logbook, slowly collecting the products and carefully calculating the price.
The folks at Leonard's are sticklers about their logbook, Sott warned.
She recounted the ordeal of one man who waited a long line, only to be told that someone had already picked up his order. He insisted no one else had, and questioned whether a worker had perhaps handed his kielbasa over to the wrong patron. The workers intimated that he had sent in a proxy for the first order, and was trying to score some extra sausage by coming in for a second.
In the end, the man left with sausage after a second look at the log revealed someone with a similar last name had picked up an order.
Why tolerate the long waits, sluggish service and spotty product availability?
"I don't even like kielbasa," Sott confessed.
But her 90-year-old mother does. So could mom be fooled by grocery store kielbasa, ending Sott's waits in line once and for all?
"Oh God no," Sott said. "Hillshire wouldn't be equal to it."
Customers said they like Leonard's kielbasa because it is coarse-ground rather than fine-ground, and they favored its cherry wood-smoked flavor.
Others enjoyed the moderately snappy casing and a lower fat content.
In the end, it was all about flavor and texture.
"That's all there is," said Tom Wilcox, a self-described "dedicated Plains Meat Market guy" who was on his maiden visit to Leonard's. "They go hand in hand."
When Wilcox's friend, Mykee Cerase, reached the counter, she was disappointed to hear the smoked rings were still sold out.
In an act of Christmas generosity, the customer ahead of her offered one, which Cerase gratefully accepted.
But even after a 20-minute wait in line, Cerase wasn't done kielbasa shopping. Her granddaughter is a fanatic of the meat, she said, so she and Wilcox were off to another market.
"One ring's not going to do it," she said.
At Fetch's Food Store in Plymouth, the smoker is running around the clock to keep up with demand, said third-generation store owner David Fetch.
"We'll be making kielbasa on the 23rd and probably selling it into the wee hours of the 24th," said Fetch, winner of the inaugural Plymouth Kielbasa Festival competition in 2004.
He added that the store will close at 6 p.m. on Christmas Eve, but that store workers are scheduled until 7 p.m., just in case.
Tell us where you like to get your Christmas kielbasa at www.timesleader.com .