Steve Cichon writes about Buffalo’s pop culture history. His stories of Buffalo's past have appeared more than 1600 times in The Buffalo News.
He's a proud Buffalonian helping the world experience the city he loves. Since the earliest days of the internet, Cichon's been creating content celebrating the people, places, and ideas that make Buffalo unique and special. The 25-year veteran of Buffalo radio and television has written five books and curates The Buffalo Stories Archives-- hundreds of thousands of books, images, and audio/visual media which tell the stories of who we are in Western New York.
My German ancestors arrived in Buffalo in 1827, and probably brought some version of this potato pancake recipe with them.
I know the recipe I use goes back at least to my German great-grandmother, Jeannette Greiner-Wargo.
Potato pancakes are a messy pain to make, but well worth it, especially when none of the local restaurants that make them don;t taste anything close to this.
GREAT GRANDMA WARGO’S POTATO PANCAKES
5 or 6 medium potatoes one medium onion one egg flour salt and pepper vegetable oil for cooking
Peel 5 or 6 medium potatoes, and peel and trim onion.
Using the larger of the two shred sizes of a hand grater, shred the potatoes and the onion in a big bowl.
Add the egg and salt & pepper and mix.
Add enough flour to soak up any liquid in the bowl, stir well. (You will likely have to do this again as more liquid shows up in the bowl while you’re frying.)
Heat a heavy frying pan (I use cast iron) to medium-high, and coat the bottom of the pan with oil.
When the oil is hot, make 3-4 inch pancakes. Let the edges brown, flip once.
Put pancakes on paper towel covered plate to allow grease to drain.
Coat bottom of pan with oil again, repeat. Add flour and mix well if there is liquid in the bowl.
Grandma Coyle always served them with homemade applesauce… which was deliciously easy— apples cut into inch cubes into a sauce pan, covered with sugar, and then covered with water, turned on low and let it simmer.
Other kids wanted the coolest toys, the latest sneakers, and
the newest video game consoles.
There was only one thing I wanted as a kid. And that was to
be an adult.
I wanted it so bad I could taste it, and within my little-kid
view of what it meant to be a grown-up, I was ready to do whatever it took to
I insisted on wearing a suit to my first day of Kindergarten.
My only request for my 9th birthday was a brief case. It was about
that time I got by first job in a used book store.
But man, the two trappings of adulthood that were just out of my reach left me twitchy with anxious anticipation.
As far as I could tell, the final and temporarily unattainable
steps to full maturity were growing a mustache and smoking cigarettes. That
didn’t mean I wasn’t going to try.
From 1978-1989, I singlehandedly kept the stick-on mustache
industry in operation.
I probably wore hundreds of costume mustaches through the
years. One time, Grandma took us on the bus to George & Company on Main Street
next to Shea’s. There was a real Hollywood fake mustache in the plexiglass case
behind the counter, $29. It became a minor obsession.
On TV, Mr. Dressup was always making and then wearing fake
mustaches. As soon as the show was over, I would be running around the house
looking for black pipe cleaners or black yarn or for a big black marker that
would make the same kind of squeaking sounds that Mr. Dressup’s made on
tagboard as it squeaked out the outline of a “big moos-taache,” as he’d say
Once in passing my dad suggested that burnt cork was good
for drawing on beards and mustaches. From that point forward, when I wasn’t
thinking about the Cadillac of mustaches from George & Co., I was looking everywhere
for a cork to set on fire and smear on my face.
Speaking of fire, the only way to make a mustache even more
amazing, I thought, is to put some kind of lit tobacco product underneath it. I
learned my colors studying the different logos and packages of cigarettes in
the vending machine at my ol’man’s bar.
It wasn’t just colors. There was a lot about smoking I
studied. The ways different people held their smokes. The different brands people
smoked. The different ways they carried around packs. Aunt Peggy had what
looked like a coin purse, but it was just the right size for a pack of smokes
and a lighter. I was always excited when she’d ask me to go get her cigarettes.
Just like with the mustaches– bubble gum cigars, bubble
pipes, and candy cigarettes were all favorites. Candy cigarettes were a
frequent treat—they were really cheap, and lasted quite a while. I was always excited
to see mom unpack the groceries and to see her draw a “carton” of candy
cigarettes out of the brown paper bag.
Back then, the candy cigarette packs were exact replicas of
real cigarette brands, except the boxes were cardboard instead of the soft
packs that most people I knew smoked.
There were fights about choosing who got which packs. Marlboro
was always the first pack gone. Everyone loved Lucky Strikes. We all liked Pall
Mall, because it looked like a trick when Uncle Mike “Hooker” Doyle would open
his Pall Malls using the only hand he had on the end of his only arm.
I liked Chesterfield, because my dad said his grandpa used
to smoke them, so they must have been OK. No one really wanted Lark, but Lark
was still better than Viceroy.
There was always hope that I’d come across a pack of
Parliament candy cigarettes—that was Dad’s brand. Never did, though.
So not only did candy cigarettes teach us how to smoke, they
built multigenerational brand loyalty.
Some kids would suck the little white sticks into a point,
just like a candy cane. I’d suck on it a little while, hold in in my fingers,
flicking imaginary ash with my thumb. Then I’d loudly crunch down the whole
thing with the same satisfaction as mashing a butt into an ashtray. Then I’d
grab another one right away. When I had a pack, you know I “chain-smoked” those
sons of bitches, just like a real nicotine fiend.
Smoking was so wholly ingrained as some inevitable and
desirable part of adulthood, my yearning to pick up the habit hasn’t completely
In fact, if tomorrow, the Surgeon General said Just
kidding about those cigarettes! Smoke ‘em if you’ve got ‘em!, I’d probably
start a two-pack-a-day habit.
Doing ’80s research is dangerous for me. Any time frame earlier is “history,” and I love it… but it’s hard to be clinical when every turned page of a 70s or 80s Courier-Express or Buffalo Evening News is dripping with images and ideas that leave me drowning in nostalgia.
I could write a short book about when the bottom shelf of the pop aisle at every Buffalo grocery store was filled with Coke, Pepsi, and RC Cola in tall, thin glass bottles.
Pop tasted so much better in those 16oz glass bottles. Those eight packs were always on sale, and even when they weren’t, it was the cheapest way to buy the name brand.
That’s why Gramps loved ’em.
Grandma Cichon lived a few doors from Seneca Street in a worn out, but grand old house. When you walked in the front door and looked straight ahead, you looked through the front hall, then a more narrow hallway, and then right into the kitchen.
If Grandma wasn’t at the stove cooking, she was the first thing you’d see when that door swung open, sitting at the head of the table, with a cup of coffee in a gold butterfly mug and Kool 100 burning in the over-full ashtray.
When you creaked open that big door and looked slightly to the right, if Gramps wasn’t working (which was a lot– he still had three jobs when I was little), he was sitting in that comfy chair right just on the other side of the beautiful leaded glass doors which lead into the parlor.
Grandma generally would see us first, and start to say hello, before Gramps– who was much closer– would take his eyes off of Lawrence Welk or Bugs Bunny to intercept us for a minute.
“Ha’oh dere, son,” Gramps would say in a pretty thick standard Buffalo Polish accent. I had no idea there was anything to notice about that. Isn’t that how everyone’s Grandpa talked?
“Can I get you a glass of pop or a sandwich?” Gramps would ask, and immediately piss off my ol’man.
“Jesus Christ, Dad, it’s ten o’clock in the mornin’,” Dad would say, walking toward Grandma in the kitchen.
Ignoring my ol’man completely, Gramps would give an inventory.
“Well help yourself. In the ice box we got two kinds of baloney… Polish loaf… olive loaf… pimento loaf… ham…”
The sound of his voice would trail off as we walked through the narrow hallway on the way to the kitchen.
Now I wouldn’t think anything of this hallway until twenty years later, when the girlfriend-who-became-my-wife asked me about it after visiting Gramps.
In the same way I never thought anything about my grandpa’s Polish accent, I never thought anything about his hallway filled with pop.
When I say filled, I mean the entire length of the ten-foot long walkway had pop pushed up against the wall, stacked two or three deep and two, three, or four high in some places.
It was mystical and mystifying. Gramps’ pop display was far more impressive than what you’d have seen at Quality Food Mart, half a block away at Seneca and Duerstein.
There were 2-liter and 3-liter bottles; flat, mixed-flavored cases of grocery-store brand cans; some times a wooden case or two from Visniak, but more than anything else, 8-pack after 8-pack of glass bottles.
Now Gramps had ten kids, but there weren’t ten kids living there at the time. And even for ten kids– hundreds of servings of soda pop lined up waist high, the first thing you see when you walk into the house… well, it was one of many things that made Gramps a true Buffalo original.
I’m sure there was something about taking advantage of a good sale… or getting one over on a cashier with an expired coupon… or (put a star next to this one) getting under my grandmother’s skin by buying things she’d say they didn’t need…
But Gramps really didn’t drink. He wouldn’t want a beer, but would relax with a coffee or a pop.
He also really wanted to share his pop, and make sure you knew it was OK to take it. He wasn’t just being polite in offering it. That wall was there to prove, “I got plenty! Go ahead and take one!”
You could expect to refuse a pop at least three or four times while visiting with Gramps, and then one more on the way out.
“Sure you don’t want a pop, son? Why don’t you take some home? I’ll get you a bag.”
Among the 5 or 6 big
projects I’m working on to keep myself from going (any more) crazy during this
lockdown, is organizing and straightening up the Cichon Archives, which fills
the third floor of the Cichon Estate.
I’ll share some of the interesting things I find as I find them.
The Iconic Memorex Cassette
Though I have far fewer now, through the years, I’ve had hundreds of these 90-minute Memorex cassette tapes.
For much of the early
90s, a ten-pack was $9.99 at Media Play, and I invested most of those Media
Play Gift Certificates I’d get for birthdays and Christmas into these tapes.
Many of those cassettes
I bought went right back out the door– creating mix tapes and recording
“radio shows” for my friends in my bedroom radio station.
Hundreds of others went
to recording the actual radio shows, hundreds of hours of which I’ve digitized
through the years, first to CD and then to mp3.
The digitized wing of
the Cichon Audio Archive is more than 600GB with more than 120,000 audio files.
There are still hundreds of hours of cassettes, reels, transcription discs,
DATs, and mini discs left to be digitized– it always comes in spurts.
Sorting through a pile
of these cassettes today, it was like I saw them for the first time– even
though thousands of them have slipped through my hands since this design was
introduced in 1987.
As a child of the 80s, I
love 80s design—but mostly the retro-look meant to inspire the 50s or 60s.
This design, however, is
purely pop 80s.
If Max Headroom or that
MTV astronaut was going to use a cassette tape, it would be the 90-minute
Memorex cassette, with angular shapes in bright blues, pinks, and yellows.
Since finding a pair of suspenders in the attic the other day, I’ve been walking around singing the parts of a song that Grandpa Coyle used to sing all the time– only I couldn’t remember all the words.
la la la la la la suspenders… la la la la la la la dance… .la la la la la la la la la….. Hey Mister, you’re losing your pants!
After spending an hour or so with Google and a couple of online archive sites, I finally came up with the song.
Here are the lyrics from as printed as “an oldie” in a 1940 newspaper.
"One night I forgot my suspenders, and took my girl out to a dance. While dancing I heard someone holler, Hey Mister! you're losing your pants!"
On that day I wrote… “You might remember the gruff exterior, but no one had a bigger, more pure heart than this guy.”
He always lead with the heart, and as the sadness of life wears down my edges and the joys of life open my eyes to new light, I better understand and feel a brotherhood and bond with my ol’man that I wish I could share with him as we share a coffee (even though his response would probably be something like, “Ok, enough bullshit. You didn’t bring me a donut?”)
As we all sit stir crazy and an inch from losing our minds during this pandemic lockdown, that’s pretty much how Dad lived the last decade of his life.
Diabetes, heart disease, lost leg, lost mobility, unable to live with basic human freedom, stuck inside a failing body.
Even as he could barely get down the hall some days, my ol’man would needle my mother, telling her that he was going to buy a big convertible, run off with a pretty honey, and not tell anyone his new address.
I think he’d like that’s how I think of him dying. In fact, I know he’d love it. There were white leather seats and a big steering wheel on a steamy summer night.
He peeled off in a big custom Cadillac convertible with the top down, driving toward the low-slung orangey sun, glowing in the orangey-pink sky, with the heat pouring off the blacktop, making the last view of the giant boat of a car all wavy as it heads for the horizon, with a blinker on to head into the donut shop and then off into forever.
I felt a great weight in telling my dad’s story at his funeral. The notes I took in preparing that eulogy became the groundwork for a memoir, which I’ve posted here.