Back when Crabtown was a city of ethnic villages, “Meely” came from the sauerkraut section of East Baltimore, not far from Holy Rosary church. “Juidy” was raised along an alley near Our Lady of Pompeii where a pot of tomato sauce with fresh basil was always simmering in a basement kitchen.
Though neither was Irish, they were married in 1955 at St. Patrick’s Church on Broadway, not far from Meely’s childhood home at 205 South Chapel Street. It was what was considered a “mixed-marriage” of Baltimore Catholics, one with roots in Lithuania the other a paisan known to eat hot peppers off the vine.
The marriage of the former Amelia Kouneski and Ernest Adornato, Jr. (his immigrant mother’s twist on “junior” sounding like ‘juh-dee’) lasted more than 60 years until Meely’s death in 2017.
A retired National Brewery worker (he became friendly with Brooks and Boog when the Hoffberger family owned the beer factory and the Orioles), Juidy celebrated his last Thanksgiving a year ago at his son Steven’s house in Forest Hill. His appetite did not fail him. He died this past August 9th at the age of 90. Quiet, mischievous in a gentle way and competitive in sports, Juidy played senior softball into his 70s and was hitting golf balls up to the end.
“My parents lived with my grandparents on Newkirk Street when they first got married,” said Gary, a Maryland sportswriter. “My Mom was a very good cook, especially Polish and German food. When they lived [at 638 South] Newkirk my grandmother taught her to cook Italian. She became great at that too.”
Gary’s Italian grandmother, Mary Reda Adornato (1896-1964), and my grandmother, Frances Prato Alvarez (1906-1976), were half-sisters who came to Baltimore from the coal town of Aliquippa, Pa., in the 1920s. Their immigrant husbands – Ernest Adornato, Sr., and Rafael Alvarez – became good friends.
Uncle Ernest and Grandpop made wine together, went squirrel hunting in the wilds of Harford County (where half of old Highlandtown now lives), repaired things instead of throwing them away and lived across from each other along the alley separating the 600 block of South Macon Street from the 600 block of South Newkirk.
Like Uncle Ernest, my grandfather was a somewhat stern and dour old-timer. Now and then they smiled. Unlike Uncle Ernest, my namesake never chased his son-in-law out of the house with a hatchet – this after, to laughter that really burned him up – falling into a barrel of mashed grapes.
Once a part of Highlandtown called “the Hill,” the neighborhood is now Greektown, a gentrified part of town where no one makes hundreds of gallons of wine when the leaves begin to change. Throughout the Great Depression and World War II – right on through JFK’s “New Frontier” – a dozen of my father’s first cousins lived within two blocks of Samos restaurant, once Nardone’s Grocery.
Like virtually all Americans (estimates say that nearly 90 percent of the population will eat turkey on the holiday), the Adornatos celebrated the fourth Thursday in November around the table. And every year, Meely and Juidy and their children (Karen and Steve in addition to Gary) counted their blessings over a feast that included a bowl of sauerkraut and kielbasa and one of pasta, often ravioli, Juidy’s favorite.
My father said that one Easter he watched Juidy (a United States Marine from 1950-1952) demolish eleven ravioli and more than a few meatballs. That might not seem like much today when ravioli from the store (vergogna!) are barely the size of a half-dollar.
“These weren’t just homemade, they were done by hand – no machine,” remembered my father many times before his death in 2021. “Each one was as big as the palm of your hand.”
Also by hand, a long, rectangular sheet of wood that Uncle Ernest trimmed to extend pushed-together tables – just like the early Thanksgiving meals of the Krichinsky family in Barry Levinson’s 1990 film “Avalon.” Always room for one more.
“I don’t remember any of us being anywhere on a holiday but around that table,” said Diane Parzynski Wit, daughter of Juidy’s sister Lucy Adornato Parzynski (1927-2021). “There were so many of us that my mother had to bring over dishes from our house.”
When I was a kid and Uncle Juidy lived two doors down from my grandparents on Macon Street before his family moved to Gardenville, I marveled the way he chomped into a lemon the way someone else might bite an orange. It’s Gary who remembers his Pop and his grandfather eating hot peppers in the same narrow backyard where they were grown. Juidy’s palate was tart but his soul was sweet.
One Thanksgiving, when the Adornato kids were young adults, fire, smoke and ash were also on the table. “Mom was cooking in the kitchen and I was helping,” she said. “Dad and my brother Steven were in the dining room reading the newspaper, the table was all set and the candles were lit.
“Steven caught his paper on fire but my father was reading so intently he didn’t notice. Mom and I ran in with tea towels to put it out, swatting at the paper. There was smoke and ashes everywhere.”
Once the fire was out: Mangia!
Meely’s Thanksgiving side dishes included corn casserole, a simple homemade stuffing with celery and onions, deviled eggs, mashed potatoes, Athenian string beans (in tomato sauce, made famous in Baltimore at Ikaros Restaurant in the old neighborhood), and a green vegetable, usually broccoli.
Every seven years, Karen’s birthday – November 23 – falls on Thanksgiving. “Mom always had a cake for me with the pumpkin pie,” she said.
Cindi Hemelt Gallagher, daughter of Juidy’s sister Theresa Adornato Hemelt (1932-2016), thinks she can top that one. It features a live turkey and the same hatchet Uncle Ernest found so handy. (It was Cindy’s father George whom the hard-headed Italian chased at wine-making time.)
“We were still living in Logan Village, I was maybe 5 or 6 years old,” said Cindi of Severna Park, a keeper of family traditions, including canning fresh tomatoes each summer. “My grandfather brought a live turkey for dinner. We chased it around the yard on Dunran Road until…”
Talk about farm to table! Cindi isn’t sure how long it took for her to figure out that the bird in the yard was now the one on her plate but she’s a clever girl and probably put two-and-two together before the pies came out.
As our parents grow old – not long before they are only present during a prayer before the meal – the gravy ladle is passed to the next generation. One Thanksgiving, Cindi tried something her mother “Treesey” often said in jest: “When are we going to stuff the turkey with spaghetti?”
While Italians are known to cook everything from pig feet to pigeon in tomato sauce, how could a pasta stuffed turkey be anything but a joke? “I boiled some pasta, seasoned it with butter and some spices and put it where the stuffing goes before taking it out and putting it in a dish,” said Cindi. “Mom loved it.”
This essay began as a remembrance of my Uncle Juidy, for whom I am most thankful. Not only was he my father’s first cousin (I believe only two are left) but one of Pop’s very best, lifelong friends and fishing buddies. For many years, he and Aunt Meely were at my parents’ house every New Year’s Day for a traditional Spanish stew of cocido.
But then the story took over, a reminder that you can’t write about someone like Ernest Adornato, Jr. without talking about the people and times and places that made him who he was.
“One thing my Dad said before he died was to ask that me and Gary and Stevie stayed family,” remembered Karen. “I told him that we’d always be together.” Even so, observed Gary, “It’s never going to be the same.”
Rafael Alvarez is the author of “Don’t Count Me Out: A Baltimore Dope Fiend’s Miraculous Recovery,” published last month by Cornell University Press. He will be reading at a holiday literary event at 2 p.m. on Saturday, December 17th at the Highlandtown branch of the Pratt Library, Eastern Avenue and Conkling Street. Alvarez can be reached via firstname.lastname@example.org