Every autumn my brother Danny grinds about 40 pounds of pork butts, spicing it with paprika, garlic, kosher salt, cracked black pepper, crushed red pepper, coriander and cumin. The flavors seep in for a few days in the fridge before he stuffs dozens of links, tying them off with twine.
Voilà – chorizo!
An everyday, no big deal thing in Spain, chorizo has been an especially desired plum in our family since my grandfather landed in Highlandtown from Galicia in 1925. Danny’s product is a far cry better than the imported, matador-red grenades packed in lard the old man used to get in tins from New York.
Back then, we only got a taste – two slices floating in a shimmering broth of cocido – each New Year’s Day. In 1986, I wrote a story for The Sun about Charlie Vega, a classical guitarist who made chorizo the way his Seville-born grandmother did. Danny tweaked Vega’s recipe to near-perfection and now we enjoy it all year long.
Come late October, it takes a star turn. A week or two before Halloween, we throw a party – Fiesta de Chorizo – in the backyard of my East Baltimore rowhouse, built in 1920 and purchased by our grandparents in 1935.
In the October of the 1950s, wooden barrels held fast with metal staves crowded the narrow yard, filled with water to “swell” as my grandfather prepared to make wine. I have one of them in the corner of the basement.
Now, the scent of grilled “sah-seege” on Macon Street mixes with the sounds of the Mississippi Delta. The ever-changing Chorizo Blues Band is anchored by Jimmy Orr on piano and guitarist Pete Kanaras, the latter having toured Spain this summer with the Chris O’Leary Band. In Chicago this year, he backed-up Buddy Guy.
About sharing a stage with the 87-year-old, Louisiana-born Guy, Kanaras confessed to nerves until Buddy “called a slow blues in C, his usual” and the groove rolled from there. A regular at Cat’s Eye Pub blues jams, he surely wasn’t nervous playing a backyard barbecue near the ruins of the Crown, Cork and Seal bottle cap factory.
Also around the upright this year: Veteran blues journeyman Robert Ross, a guitarist whom I met at No Fish Today in 1982 when he was on the road with J.B. Hutto. And harmonica-man “Mister Larry” Hambrecht, a card-carrying Communist from Philadelphia by way of Cincinnati who assaulted a KKK wizard in 1982 on live television in Boston.
Special guest: Heonjin Ha, a brilliant bluesman from Seoul, South Korea. He stayed with us for a week – from Baltimore to New York City to Mississippi and back to Baltimore before flying home – playing traditional slide guitar there and back. His 20,000 mile adventure included a passionate cover of “Long Distance Call” at the unveiling of a new Muddy Waters historical marker in Rolling Fork, Mississippi.
Of the fiesta, Heonjin said, “It was a two-hour non-stop jam like a freight train. A magical moment turned a Greektown [rowhouse] into a Mississippi juke joint.”
The guests are lifelong friends, folks I meet along the way and, especially, family. It includes cousins who trace their Italian and Polish roots to the alley separating Macon Street from Newkirk Street when our grandmothers all lived within two blocks of one another.
Diane Parzynski Wit is the daughter of Lucy Adornato Parzynski, my father’s first cousin who passed away a few months before him in 2021. Diane’s father, Adam Parzynski, owned Adam’s Cafe, a crab house at the corner of Foster Avenue and Newkirk Street. Uncle Adam used to walk a case of National Bohemian longnecks down the alley to my grandfather’s kitchen door every other week, taking away the empties.
A long-ago Baltimore Colts cheerleader, Diane came with her husband Jerry and Jerry brought a big pot of homemade string bean soup, an East Baltimore delicacy going back to summers when immigrant Poles lived in tents in then rural Anne Arundel County to pick beans and strawberries.
Other side dishes from guests: homemade apple pie, arroz con pollo, pork and beans, garlic bread, cucumber salad and a full table of desserts. Of course there were deviled eggs. An old clawfoot iron tub separating rose bushes and chestnut trees held ice and drinks.
My youngest brother, Victor Paul Alvarez of Bristol, Rhode Island, joined us for the first time. A world class chef who pushes words around a computer screen for a living, Vic took over the grill to turn out chicken wings and thighs while Danny mingled.
In going through stuff in my parents’ Linthicum basement since Dad died, I found a hand-cranked meat grinder my folks used to make Italian sausage and kielbasa. Somehow no one thought to make chorizo until I met Senor Vega. My Polish grandmother, Anna Potter Jones from Dillon Street in old Canton, used a hollow steer’s horn.
I fastened the metal grinder to the end of the picnic table as a prop and it soon became the only thing my five-year-old grandson Gus was interested in. He and his buddy Jack Glazer took ice from the tub, put it in the top of the grinder and cranked away.
Future snowball stand entrepreneurs!
Last year we made Oriole orange t-shirts in memory of my father – Manuel on the back with the outline of a tugboat – and this year I surprised Danny with his name above the Lost in Space robot, a childhood favorite.
My journals, a 50-year jumble in my grandmother’s china closet, suggest that we first had the party in 2012. The next year I had my friend Mark “Petey” Pietrowski, an old hippie from Patterson High School, paint FIESTA DE CHORIZO 2013 on the wall of my kitchen in red and yellow, the colors of Spain. Each year, he comes by to bump the number up and enjoy a sausage.
There have been a handful of years when the shindig wasn’t held; once when the backyard sewer line had to be replaced, again during Covid and the year of my father’s death.
Pop loved the fiesta, though Mom wasn’t always thrilled with how much he enjoyed it. Once folks had eaten a sausage or two and the band was digging deep in the bucket, Dad would walk from guest to guest with a bottle of Anis del Mono anisette, pouring a few drops with all who cared to sip with him. Some sipped more than others.
Here’s the funny thing about being an aficionado of all things Iberian, from the great Cervantes to sardines grilled over an open flame. My brothers and I are one-quarter Spanish, another quarter Italian and, on our mother’s side, nearly 100 percent Polish-American.
Yet the culture of España, particularly through food, has suffused the family since Mom and Dad married 70 years ago this November. Though my father learned Spanish in high school and practiced it with his father and waterfront friends at the foot of Broadway, no one in the family really speaks the language or has more than a cursory knowledge of the country’s history.
I guess this is an American tale.
Rafael Alvarez grew up being called “Ralph,” the name his grandfather adopted at the Bethlehem Steel shipyard in Sparrows Point where he worked as an outside machinist for several decades. Ralphie can be reached via firstname.lastname@example.org.