Monday, January 26, 2009


For some time I have wanted to write a post about my family and some of the things that I have learned about it. As I get older more of our family history comes to light and the picture gets a little more complete. I began this post a while ago and have steadily accumulated things to add to it.

Often, when people here my last name pronounced they guess that it is Arminian (even though I have blue eyes and light brown hair). I tell them that they are close but that it is actually Romanian. Moreover, I go on to tell them it is a pretty rare name and most everyone who bears it can be traced back to Minnesota.

Here is a picture of a church that I've never visited but nevertheless was important to our family:

St. Stephen Romanian Orthodox Church, South St. Paul, Minnesota

Over the summer an email was forwarded to me about this church and our family ties to it. The parish was founded in 1923 and the building was completed in 1924. This was my grandfather's church up to his marriage to my grandmother when he became Roman Catholic (though he still visited the Orthodox church from time to time). Click here to visit the church's website. As ethnic works often go this church is struggling to stay alive.

For those aware of South St. Paul's history they will know that it was not a glamorous place to live. The two major employers were the meat-packing houses belonging to Swift and Armour. They sat side by side on the banks of the Mississippi River. Immediately to the south was the South St. Paul Stockyards -- one of the largest and busiest in the country. Like most of the people in town my grandparents worked there: my grandmother boned hams for most of her adult life and my grandfather began his career slaughtering animals (literally slitting their throats) eventually working up to be a federal meat inspector. They were the children of immigrants -- the first generation born in this country.

My great-grandfather, John Sarafolean, came to this country in 1907. He stayed a year then went back to Romania. He returned in 1909 and married my grandmother, Sophie, in 1912. Their first child, John, was born in 1914 and my grandfather, Peter was born in 1915. They eventually had four other children.

When I think back to those days and what it must've been like for an immigrant family that didn't speak English, I am reminded of Upton Sinclair's book, The Jungle. While many have rightly criticized Sinclair for exaggerating the facts about the meat-packing industry I don't know that the entire book ought to cast aside. There must be some truth to the story and the challenges that faced immigrants who sought the good life in this country. Towards the end of the story, the hero, Jurgis Rudkus, tries to hired again in the meat packing-plants only to find that the companies are trying to break the unions by hiring non-union workers. There's a memorable line that summarizes what it must've been like to be an immigrant in 1909 -- "As very few of the better class of workingmen could be got for such work, these specimens of the new American hero contained an assortment of the criminals and thugs of the city, besides Negroes and the lowest foreigners -- Greeks, Romanians, Sicilians and Slovaks." If accurate, my great-grandfather arrived in this country and was immediately on the bottom rung of society.

A few years ago I contacted a great uncle who helped me understand some of our family history. One tidbit of information that came to light was the town where our family originated, Sannicolau Mare (The Big St. Nicholas). Click here to learn more about this small town. It is in the very western part of Romania, almost to the Hungarian border. My understanding is this region was once part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire but after WWI it was given to Romania. The well-known composer, Bela Bartok, was born in this city in 1881. And it is believed that Atila the Hun, died and was buried in or around Sannicolau Mare.

My grandmother was a fantastic cook and some of our most favorite memories were going to their home and being overwhelmed by wonderful smells. The foods she cooked were based on recipes she learned from her family -- recipes that drew on both Romanian and Hungarian traditions. All of this came back to me last September when our presbytery held its fall meeting at The American Hungarian Reformed Church of Allen Park, Michigan. This is the home church of our stated clerk's wife and it is the place where they were married. The congregation was gracious enough to cook an authentic Hungarian meal for us and it was as close to my grandmother's cooking as is imaginable. The meal wasn't glamorous by gourmet standards but it made my day. The meal consisted of cabbage rolls (stuffed with spiced meat), saurkraut, rye bread with butter, and palacsintas (pronounced 'pah-lah-chin-ta') stuffed with apricot preserves and sprinkled with powdered sugar. Some of our other favorite foods that we make for our children include Chicken Paprikash, Romanian Sausage, Chicken Noodle Soup, and Walnut Crescents (cookies). Now if I could only learn how to make strudel like my grandmother did. There was no phyllo dough with her strudel -- she made the paper thin dough by hand. Below are a couple of photos of food that we have cooked at our home:

Cabbage Rolls with Sauerkraut

Palacsintas filled with strawberry preserves and sprinkled with powdered sugar.

To my knowledge Romania is not on anyone's list of hot places to visit. When chef Anthony Bourdain visited Romania last year for his cooking show, No Reservations (here) I had high hopes of seeing the country portrayed as out-growing its dismal Communist past and entering the 21st century. Actually the show was a disappointment dominated by caricatures and stereotypical comments about Dracula, Communism, and the nation's slow change towards democracy. My grandparents visited the country in the 1970s and connected with long-lost relatives that they only knew through letters. I remember looking at their photos and seeing our kin living well below our middle class standards -- dirt roads, chicken wandering about, out of fashion clothes, and people who looked 10-20 years older than they actually were. Apparently not much has changed.
When I think of my Romanian roots and where I am today I cannot help but think of the Apostle Paul's words to the Corinthians,

"For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in this world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God....Therefore, as it is written, 'Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord'" (I Corinthians 1:26-31).

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