Of Taylor ham, veal cutlets, skorpers and Ashtabula

By Anthony Buccino

Ashtabula in those days was a lot like Mayberry on the TV show, good, hard-working people, but with a different accent. They said I “tocked” funny. I said they “tawked” funny. We were people divided by a common language.

My daughter returned from a visit that included a stop in Ashtabula, Ohio, to visit relatives. She brought me two souvenirs – a book and some food – from the town where I spent many a mellow, well-behaved teenage summer.

Greetings from Ashtabula Ohio - enhanced post card

The book was from the national series Images of America, Ashtabula, people and places which much like Nicole Canfora’s Images of America - Belleville recaps the town’s history through photos and narrative.

My daughter brought back two bags of my favorite bakery treat from my long ago summers, brittle bread slices covered with sugar, cinnamon or whatever. They go great with coffee but sometimes you have to try to break them into long strips so they’ll fit in the cup.

As near as I can tell, the only place to get Finnish skorpers is at the Squire Shoppe Bakery in Ashtabula. The store is on Lake Avenue – many streets are named for nearby waters – but I remember the small shop they had on West 3rd Street back in the day. 

Thinking my description of skorpers as a kind of sugared toast or hard bread is a tad lacking, I checked it out online where it says it’s sort of a cake, at least that’s what I think it says.

Here, read it for yourself. Wikipedia: Gibbery is a skorper or cake wi a ginge gust.As a skorper, gibbery can be made intil a scleff, crisp ceukie (aft cried a ginger snap ) or a safter skorper seemilar tae the German Lebkuchen. Gibbery skorpers is aft cut intil shapes, parteecular Gibbery men. No tae be confuised wi the Gibbery-men or Gibbery-Wummen that selt it.

To the Jersey ear, Ashtabula might sound downright funny. According to my gift book, it translates to “river of many fishes” and the town today is divided by a river running through it. Basically it was Ashtabula on one side and Harbor on the other. They merged about 75 years after the first settlers settled in about 1802.

In the 1930s or so, a distant relative followed the train jobs and settled in Ashtabula, in northeast Ohio. In the mid-1960s, my sister, Lucille, who had never spent the whole night sleeping over next door on Gless Avenue in Belleville, and cousin took a train meet our relatives out west.

The short version is that she left our happy home on Carpenter Street in Belleville and married the Harbor High quarterback. She traded her keypunch operator job at Mutual Benefit in Newark, N.J., for a keypunch operator job at Bula’s uptown Carlisle’s department store.

Taylor Pork roll - aka Taylor Ham - courtesy Jersey Pork RollIn the late 1960s, I got to spend weeks on end at their house on West 13th Street, in Harbor, Ashtabula. One of the first things she noticed when they’d settled in their house was that she couldn’t find Taylor ham in the stores, and a good Jersey veal cutlet was a dream.

So, when any of the family or friends headed out, there was a long-distance phone call to see what would fill the cooler during the car ride.

I spent most of my summers on a borrowed bike wandering the numbered streets of Harbor, mostly the west-numbered streets that counted down to the road along the lake. Heading north, after W. 3rd Street comes Walnut Boulevard and Harbor High School, then down the hill to Walnut Beach. Lake Avenue leads to Lake Erie, but doesn’t parallel the shoreline at this part of Harbor.

Most of the time I’d spend riding around tLake Erie, Ashtabula, Ohio, by Anthony Buccinoown on the city streets through the working-class neighborhoods of well-kept homes where the curtains were almost always open. Once in a while I’d head out of town, west on Carpenter Road or cut over on W. 9th Street to pick up Lake Road West where it becomes 531 and head past the Kent State campus towards what used to pass for sin-city or Geneva-on-the-Lake.

Ashtabula in those days was a lot like Mayberry on the TV show, good, hard-working people, but with a different accent. They said I “tocked” funny. I said they “tawked” funny. We were people divided by a common language.

The first time I asked for soda, expecting them to break out the Brookdale, I got a glass of club soda. That’s when I learned they call “soda” by “pop”. And what made this Jersey boy jealous was that they got their driver’s licenses at 15 years old.

Those were summers where nothing happened and it was just fine with everyone.

It never occurred to my teenage brain that my sister and her husband, though still practically newlyweds, now had another mouth to feed, and that was my bottomless pubescent belly.

And, so it went that I’d leave the expensive Coke and Pepsi for the old married people and I’d drink the Kool-Aid or whatever generic mix we had in the house. Part of my job was to empty the pitcher by drinking it, and the other part was to refill it with the mix, tap water (from Lake Erie) and ice cubes when I’d finished the first part of my job.

Those were the days of rotating TV antennas to pull in stations from Cleveland or Erie, Pa. The staple of my mornings was a local treat called skorper. When they were in the kitchen on West 13th, they never lasted long enough to get stale. It was at that kitchen table where I learned the fine art of breaking skorpers on the horizontal so they would easily dunk in a coffee cup.

And now that my daughter brought back a bag of sugar skorpers and a bag of cinnamon skorpers, it’s time to pass along the family tradition. That might go great with some Taylor ham


 © 2011 by Anthony Buccino; First published on Belleville Patch on August 17, 2011.

Adapted from Greetings From Belleville, New Jersey

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