Saturday, October 3, 2009

An Epicurian Delight

Over my shoulder a backward glance…
Pictured above left: Isaly’s storefront circa 1950s; right; The Clairton location today.

Clairton past and present: We did our weekly blog last week on the Clairton City School District and the plans it the administrators and school board have put in place to upgrade the system and continue to meet No Child Left Behind required annual standards. The week prior we talked about the Clairton Bears, past and present. Those two posts resulted in more feedback than we’ve gotten in the past three years of writing this blog so we decided to do another Clairton post. This time we will start by discussing an icon of the Pittsburgh area that was also an icon of Clairton. These days nearly every chain grocery store carries Klondike® ice cream bars, but back in the day when men were men and women were glad of it, they were available only at Isaly’s. The Clairton store at 564 Miller Avenue (photo above right) was centrally located in what used to be called the “Clairton Business District.” Across the street stood G.C. Murphy 5 and 10 cent store, the bank, and other thriving businesses. Up the block was Livingston’s Drug Store, Clairton Hardware and Skapik’s Department store, all still serving the residents of Clairton. Caddy Corner to Skapik’s was Goldsthrom’s Market and a large clock in front that graced the corner of Waddell and Miller. At the corner of St. Clair Ave. was a market that housed the Clairton City Jail in its basement. But Isaly’s was in the center of the surrounding commerce.

Cheesemaker and dairyman Christian Isaly left his home in Switzerland (yes, I guess that means he made Swiss cheese) in 1833 to join his family in Monroe County, Ohio. The family built a reputation as purveyors of the finest dairy products and meats to the better markets in the Ohio and Western Pennsylvania area. They eventually opened their own chain of stores. For the next hundred years or so the family-owned Isaly’s stores served the area. In the 1980s they were sold to their longtime friends and provisioners, the Deily family who have carried on the Isaly brand name to this day.

Skyscrapers, Klondikes, and Chipped chopped ham: Let’s first talk about the skyscraper ice cream cones. Isaly’s used a unique scoop called a “rainbow scoop.” It was patented in 1929 and sold to Isaly’s. It wrapped ice cream in an inverted cone shape and placed it on top of the cone, giving it the illusion of being huge. No doubt the skyscraper cone was larger than the traditional scoop but perception is everything. The ice cream actually appeared to be larger than it was. Why? Traditional ice cream scoops require ice cream to be dragged out of the tub, thereby crushing some of the air out of the ice cream. Further, traditional round scoops of ice cream are forced down into the cone which places some of the product into the cone. The Isaly’s “Rainbow Scoop” did not crush the ice cream like the round scoop and more air remained in the product giving it a fluffier preferred taste. Also, the skyscraper was placed on top of the cone, not down inside it, so it appeared that customers got more ice cream when in fact they were getting more air. The process allowed more cones per tub creating tastier ice cream for less money – a win-win. Another dairy product was Isaly’s buttermilk, but it was of such high quality that it undid itself. Isaly’s buttermilk was unusually rich and thick and flecks of butter were visible in the buttermilk. Although purists appreciated the rich buttermilk most people did not and it was not a big seller.

Oh, those Klondike bars: Silver polar bears lived in Clairton. In typical trend-setting fashion Clairton residents and those in surrounding communities with Isaly’s stores enjoyed the local favorite of Klondike® bars. As stated above, their origins can also be traced to Switzerland and the Isaly Family, known for fine dairy products. William Isaly and family members founded the Isaly Dairy Company in the early 20th century. The original Klondike® bar was handmade by dipping square slices of ice cream in pans of rich, Swiss milk chocolate. Some say the bars were discovered when some ice cream accidently fell into a vat of chocolate. The family realized they had hit the Mother Lode with their Klondike® bars and produced them in Youngstown and in Pittsburgh. By the 1940s, the Isaly family had several dairy plants that supplied more than 300 Isaly Dairy stores. Klondike® bars were sold in all the stores.

Tourists and locals who moved from Western PA to New York, Florida and beyond would often stock up on the bars and smuggle them to their home states packed with dry ice in coolers. But in 1978, Klondike® distribution finally officially expanded into Florida, then New York and New England. In 1982, a nationwide advertising and publicity campaign was launched with the tag, "What would you do for a Klondike bar?" Soon Klondike® bars were available in most U.S. supermarkets.

In 1993, Unilever acquired the Isaly Klondike Company and the Klondike® brand became part of Good Humor-Breyers™. What was once the secret of the Three River area is now a well-known treat. The product, once made exclusively with vanilla ice cream has expanded to include flavors such as Heath, Reeses, Crunch, Oreo, Dark, Double, and Triple Chocolate, Neapolitan, Whitehouse Cherry, and Carmel Pretzel.

Chipped chopped ham: It has been a half century or more since many Clairtonians were served by Mr. Grocott and his employees. The Isaly’s store in Clairton was long and narrow and had typical 1950s style tables and chairs. Teens of all ages would sit and enjoy a skyscraper cone or a Klondike® or other fountain treat decades before It was a place for teens to meet, flirt, and enjoy treats. Many marriages started over a single straw in a chocolate shake. But many is the parent who stopped on his way home from work to pick up some Isaly’s chipped chopped ham. It was a staple for every dinner table. (note to non-Clairtonians reading this; the three meals to a Clairton resident were breakfast, dinner, and supper, not breakfast, lunch and dinner). When people moved away they were able to get fountain treats and sliced meats anywhere, but nobody was able to replicate Isaly’s chipped chopped ham. Steeler’s Nation ex-patriots living away from the ‘Burg were not too proud to have a glob of the stuff shipped out to them. Trying to get the local butcher to do it right was nigh impossible unless you happened to be fortunate to live in a community that had an ex-homie working as a butcher in your town. The closest we have been able to come to replicate the feel, but not the taste, is to go to our butcher, select our favorite ham, and have the butcher set the slicer to the narrowest possible setting. The result is something that looks like chipped chopped ham, but it just isn’t the original.

A little blogging music Maestro... “Nights I Can’t Remember, Friends I’ll Never Forget,” by Toby Keith.

Dr. Forgot

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