Pittsburgh: #3

August 31, 2014 • 7:25 am

All I have time for this morning, before the meetings begin, is to post photos, which itself is a time-consuming exercise. But read this all, as awesome noms are at the bottom.

I met my friend, the reader known as “Hempenstein,” who is a retired biochemist living in Pittsburgh. He just bought a large and historic house that I wanted to see, but first we made a stop at a new and local distillery, Stay Tuned Distillery, which makes, gin, rye whiskey, single-malt whisky, and aquavit, all from this very small ten-gallon still:


We sampled one of their not-yet released products, an aquavit that is infused with a secret botanical whose identity I cannot divulge lest the owners kill me. It was absolutely terrific, and ice cold:


Hempenstein, a college friend, is an unreconstructed hippie, but he still bought this mansion (it was relatively cheap as, while the previous owner partly restored it, he died in mid-work and much of the house is still seriously debilitated). But it can and will be brought back to its former glory.

This is the Schwab mansion, built in 1889 by Charles M. Schwab (not the financial guy, but a steel magnate: once the president, successively, of Carnegie Steel, U.S. Steel, and Bethlehem Steel). Schwab advanced rapidly because he realized the importance of chemistry in making good steel, and also recognized the importance of the I-beam, the basis of all modern skyscrapers.  He tooled up Bethlehem Steel to make them, saying, “Well, if we go bust, we’ll go bust in a big way.”

Needless to say, he didn’t: I-beams were critical to modern architecture, and Schwab made a name, and a killing. This was his house (the first commission of architect Frederick R. Osterling), and now owned by my friend Hempenstein, who is posing with it at the bottom. The house is in Braddock, Pennsylvania, near the mills (nearly all defunct):


Part of the inside: Hempenstein by the fireplace. You can see the fancy staircase and stained-glass window. This part of the house has been restored, and old hippie Hempenstein looks a bit incongruous sitting in his mansion!


The stained-glass window. It’s not a Tiffany, but the maker hasn’t been identified yet. It will need some expensive restoration:


It was time for dinner, but on the way we stopped at Hempenstein’s house to pick up a growler of local microwbrew (the restaurant is BYOB). He showed me his collection of American chestnut seedlings, as one of his hobbies is restoration of this species, Castanea dentata, which was largely destroyed in the U.S. by chestnut blight, a fungal disease that began destroying the trees in the eastern U.S. around 1900. Few adult trees remain, although they keep sprouting from the base only for the sprouts be killed when the fungus finds them.

Hempenstein is participating in a restoration project whereby the U.S. strain is crossed to a fungus-resistant tree, like the Chinese chestnut, and then the hybrids repeatedly backcrossed to the American chestnut to regain its morphological character while retaining the Chinese genes for fungal resistance (naturally, the backcrosses have to be individually tested for resistance). It would be easier to identify the resistance genes and then DNA-test the seedlings, but they’re not there yet. Here is one healthy backcross sapling:


Time for my long-anticipated dinner at Jozsa’s  Corner, an unprepossessing place located in Hazelwood, a run-down suburb of Pittsburgh. You have to call to see if the owner will be open, and he’ll open if he gets four guests on a weekday, and 6 on weekends. Within lies a paradise of home-cooking, Hungarian style.

Hempenstein enters with a growler of the local Green Giant ale (fantastic) from the East End Brewery.


It’s owned by Alex Jozsa Bodnar, who migrated to the U.S. with his parents in 1957, a year after the Hungarian Revolution. Because Alex’s father died young, his 19-year-old mother supported a family of four. Alex learned to cook, he told me, from his grandmother, as he was “tied to her apron strings.”

At the restaurant, for the measly sum of $20 (not including tax and gratuity), you get a delicious multicourse Hungarian meal, all cooked by Jozsa in the small kitchen. And if you want more of anything, you can get as much as you want. Do read the wonderful and laudatory review of the place in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

First course, langos, or Hungarian fire bread made with a potato dough. On top of it you ladle a homemade mushroom sauce. I had to resist eating several of these as I knew there was a lot more food to come.


Soup with chicken, noodles, and various other ingredients I can’t remember. Since this is a one-man operation, the plates are styrofoam and the utensils plastic. Everyone eats family-style from big bowls served at communal tables.


Then we had haluska, a simple dish of noodles and cabbage which the Post-Gazette describes this way:

. . haluska, a dish of cabbage and egg noodles, was perfect in its simplicity. The noodles were dense and chewy, more satisfying than this ephemeral starch usually proves to be, perhaps owing to the richness of browned butter. The cabbage had been cooked long enough to lose a touch of its bitterness, but not so long that it looses its pleasant crispness or flavor. This dish, so simple to describe, was immeasurably satisfying and memorable.

It was delicious and, as the British say, “moreish.” Again, I had to resist multiple helpings. It went perfectly with the beer.


Next course. I believe this was a pork gulyas (goulash), served with little fried breads, sour cream, and a big loaf of homemade braided sesame bread, which came on coming. It was terrific. You can imagine that by this point we were getting full!


The table: there were six of us: me, Hempenstein, a photographer (left), two bodybuilders (a couple) in town for a bodybuilding competition, who were chowing down after their posing, and a Famous Person at the head of the table.


The last main course, which I believe was chicken paprikas with noodles and a delicious cucumber-and-onion salad. Note the heavy lashings of sour cream.  This was about all my stomach had room for, even though Alex offered us seconds of everything (and gave us the leftovers to take home):


Dessert: a melange of prune- and apricot-stuffed pastries, juicy grapes, and chocolate chips. This is Alex, and kind and genial fellow who joined us after dinner to tell us about his history and that of the restaurant, which has been opened for 25 years or so.


Now who was that Big Macher at the head of the table? None other than the Mayor of Pittsburgh, Bill Peduto, who dines here regularly! A Democrat, he was a friendly guy, and we learned a lot about what he’s doing for the city. Afterwards he posed with us all, even making a muscle pose with the two body builders:


I couldn’t resist having my picture taken with the Mayor, although for some reason I grimaced during the shot. I showed this picture during my talk yesterday, claiming (falsely) that the Mayor had wished all of us atheists well.


If you go to Pittsburgh, you simply must go to Jozsa’s Corner for its homey atmosphere, fantastic food, low prices, and Alex’s geniality. It gets Professor Ceiling Cat’s highest recommendation.


53 thoughts on “Pittsburgh: #3

  1. Wonderful to hear there are still people doing business this way. Very much like the “ventas” we used to have in Andalusia. Now they’re mostly highly decorated and expensive tourist traps. You have to drive far into the countryside to get anything resembling this sort of thing.

    1. I liked her arms. If I wasn’t so lazy I’d love to be strong like that just to pick up heavy stuff and have people go – whoa, that short girl picked up that heavy stuff! 😀 I put on muscle easy and end up looking really stocky – at least I used to before I got older and lazier and tireder.

        1. It’s almost impossible for men or women to get that kind of physique without steroid injections or other sorts of biochemical hanky-panky. Here’s an example of what very, very strong women will look like when they exercise but don’t use performance enhancers:


          Damned few people have the strength to do a full pistol squat as she’s doing, and fewer still to hold one with perfect form long enough for a photographer to get a good shot.


          1. That’s what they look like if they are most likely ectomorphs. Mesomorphs will look bulky. It’s a total hassle and you just get sad when you try to look that way.

            1. +1
              Mesomorph here. Worked out with weights in college just to keep in shape for hiking, gained a lot of upper body strength/size in my 30s from blacksmithing, was asked several times if I was a bodybuilder..and still looked like a fat teenage boy. Hence my preference for long calico dresses.
              It’s great to be strong, but I think the emphasis should be more on health and productive work, rather than on appearance and competition fitness.

              1. Yeah I did ballet throughout childhood and into early teens. That is the kind of excerise that is supposed to make you long and lean but I had large legs, at least to my mind and compared to all the other girls.

              2. I suspect that a great deal of your negative perception comes not from objective observation but from culture. Consider Flo-Jo, or Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Jennings. They’re hardly fragile butterflies, but, take it from a male, they’ve got “it.”


              3. The dancing gave me strong obliques too and I hated them because long and lean was what was pretty. No matter how much I starved myself, I couldn’t get rid of the muscle – I actually wanted less muscle!!

              4. Yes and I’m finally starting to exercise again after almost a year without. I think what pushed me is I downloaded a program to track my migraines and it asked questions about how much time you allot to breakfast (none), if you take an hour for lunch (nope) and if you exercise (no). I have a complete fear of getting migraines every day again so I am trying to get back into the swing of things with free weights and my treadmill and yoga.

              5. Wonderful!

                To hell with how well you resemble Barbie. Everybody looks better with exercise than without, and being healthy and strong is much more fun than being sick and weak. For both you and those around you!


            1. I think about half wouldn’t mind looking like her, and the rest wouldn’t mind looking at her.

              Of course, those figures flip for the guy whose Web site that is, Mark Lauren:


              While I’ve got a looooong ways to go, I certainly look much more like him today than I did a year ago….


              1. I saw this book in my local bookstore and for LOLz I considered putting a fake review that complained that the author knows nothing about evolution.

              2. Ngahk! That is not a natural nor healthy human physique! Definitely lots of steroid injections. Not enough body fat for optimum health — and he’s quite possibly dehydrated from diuretics for the photo shoot. Great for comic books, not for actually being healthy and fit.

                You want an ideal physique to model, pick one of the Classical Era statues of a god.


  2. Hungarian food is good. I am ashamed at how many of us eat in Canada & the US, but it seems to be part of the culture – like we are always in a rush and taking time to eat good food is seen almost as a sin because we aren’t rushing to work on something.

  3. What a grand mansion. The stained glass is gorgeous.
    There are mansions like that in the Kenwood neighborhood adjacent to Hyde Park(where U of C is). They could be had cheaply during the Energy Crisis, when few could afford to heat them and crime was on an upswing.

  4. Yes, that is one beautiful mansion, and the food was awesome. And the effort to bring back the American chestnut is truly laudable. Hooray for science!

    1. I agree. I had no idea of the history of the American chestnut blight until I read Bill Bryson’s “A Walk in the Woods”. Apparently Robert Redford really liked that book, as their movie is now in post-production (out in Belgium/Netherlands by Nov-Dec 2015).

      Absolutely amazing what we lost, and in the span of half a lifetime. Our forests are pale ghosts of what they once were. A Sci Am article on the history and SUNY’s efforts. The American Chestnut Foundation also has an informative site.

      1. There are two blight-resistant chestnut projects. One is the crossing with Chinese chestnut mentioned by JC, the other project introduces a gene for oxalate oxidase, which breaks down the toxin produced by the fungus. Because the gene for OO is taken from wheat, this qualifies as a GMO project. My hope is that a worthy cause like this would be accepted by Americans, and perhaps improve their view of GMO as a whole.

        1. Yes, thanks for that. So few people understand the long history us humans have had with modifying organisms, whether it be in the lab or in the wild. It’s time we choose the prefrontal over the adrenal cortex in such matters.

    1. my family’s recipe (my mom’s side of the family Hungarian surnames is Dudash (Dudas in the old country) and Misak) :

      cut cabbage in to very thin strips or grate on coarse side of grater. Fry in butter until browned. Boil noodles (I just use regular wide egg noodles) as package directs. Mix both when done. Eat copious amounts. It does need salt.

  5. The stained-glass window is a beauty. The lady looks more medieval than biblical. No way to guess who she is.

    The woodwork in the house looks also magnificent.

    It must take at least a full-time live-in couple to take care of it, or at least the livable portion, without mentioning the immensity, not only of the repair work, but simple working maintenance — what with water pipes, toilet and bathtub function, electrical wiring, etc. and what happens in freezing winters?
    Owners of such old mansions tend to live in a couple of rooms, and close off the rest of the building.
    I remember visiting one of the Morgan mansions in N.J. where the owner, an architect, had rebuilt the squash court into a little town house, and shut off the rest of the house.

      1. I agree, it’s a good guess.
        Perhaps after an English painting of the 19th c., when the pre-Raphaelites loved medieval subjects, garments, atmosphere, and aethereal ladies.

  6. I see it’s not so much that the meek will inherit the Earth, but that us hippies will fix up all the cool stuff. Hempenstein, that is one awesome project you’ve taken upon yourself!


  7. The house is amazing. Great that it’s being restored – a huge project!

    I participated in a West Virginia State Forestry project in NE West Virginia in 1979-81, locating chestnut stump sprouts and even a few saplings, and painting the emerging blight cracks with tar as they appeared at the base of the trunk. The plan was to try to slow the progress of the fungus enough to allow the tree to bear chestnuts that could be used to grow trees for restoration experiments. I haven’t been back to that place since 1988 so I don’t know how the project turned out.

    1. Tarring blight-induced cracks has disappeared without a trace. It is possible to stop the blight on a single canker by “mud-packing”, where you apply mud to the wound and then wrap it with plastic, but the trouble with that is that you can only go so high with that labor-intensive approach.

      But since you were in WV, search William MacDonald chestnut. Bill MacDonald at WVU has long worked with “hypovirulent” strains of the blight, which actually is the blight fungus infected with a virus. Actually, a double-stranded RNA hypovirus (I think what constitutes a hypovirus is lack of a capsid shell, but I’m not sure), which also seems to be the representative example of such an entity. There are strains of the fungus and strains of the hypovirus, and the hypovirus genome seems to only encode a/some thiol protease(s) – it all gets very confusing – but there is some evidence that the hypovirus has enabled a stand in Western Michigan to survive. In the end, success in restoring Castanea dentata to the forest may well depend on a combination of backcross, recombinant (currently, the introduction of wheat oxalate oxidase into the C dentata genome) and introduction of hypoviruses.

  8. Thanks for the many positive comments on the mansion! A few comments and answers.

    As to cats, there will be one, anyway. My daughter and her husband will be living there once the caretaker moves out later in Sept, and they have one, along with a dog. We expect to have a new furnace in place before heating season, which is expected to cut the heating bills about in half. Braddock, and the adjacent North Braddock, where the house is actually located, are struggling rustbelt towns and thus fragile ecosystems. That enabled me to get the place quite reasonably. But Braddock is turning around as is North Braddock so this may wind up being less crazy than conventional wisdom might think.

    Also, there’s a scientific angle to the ownership of the place that I like. I figure that I’m just the third private owner. After Schwab, it passed to Carnegie Illinois Steel, and superintendents (like Schwab was, at first) of the Edgar Thomson Works, Andrew Carnegie’s first steel mill, lived there until ca. 1940. Then it passed to the local school board, which used it as their headquarters and taught art in the basement (vestiges of which remain) and home economics in the kitchen. Then in 1984, Bruce Dixon, MD, who was director of the county health dept, bought it to rescue it. Schwab’s ascent at Carnegie Steel, starting from a clerk in a store in Braddock, was largely tied to his embracement of chemistry as a means of improving the quality of steel. He was self-taught, but a quick study. One of Carnegie’s partners, Henry Phipps, on learning of his expertise in chemistry gave him $1000 to set up a lab. That should surely qualify him as a scientist, especially for the 1880’s. Dixon (who took a keen interest in the AIDS population when few others did) of course also falls in the scientific realm* and now me, a retired biochemist. So all three private owners have been scientists of one or another sort. (*Dixon was also a humanist, butterfly collector, organist, and had a world-class collection of doo-wop/R&B. Pittsburgh lost a great man when he died.)

    The hybrid chestnut work is being done by the American Chestnut Foundation, whose website is easily located. If interested, the seedlings in the pic were nuts in March, and as a hint, the number of nuts, available to members only, is increasing yearly.

      1. For now, till we get some security equipment installed, we’re only letting out shots of that front room, that can anyway be seen from the front porch. But once that and a few other things are checked off, I’ll see if I can’t find a way to show something like what you’re interested in. Basically, as you go from lower front to upper rear, it gets more and more like a place that nobody has lived in for years.

        But I can point to one thing in the facade shot – notice that the keystone in that oval window on the side gable looks like it’s missing. It is. Two wks after Dixon died, it fell out. (How in hell does a keystone FALL OUT??) It hit the narrow roof twice, busting some slate, and then spun wide, missing the porch roof entirely, and landed about 4ft behind where I’m standing in that pic. It’s going to take something like a 60ft boom to re-set. I don’t have the estimate yet, but it surely won’t be cheap. That window opens into a completely unfinished attic, but one that we’d like to flush out a bit at some point. Or at least we have visions of it, with access by a compact spiral staircase. (We, meaning my son, daughter and son-in-law, the latter two who will be living there.)

        And there’s a lot of missing stained glass in the window that isn’t apparent from the pic. Putting a plain window over it from the outside will probably be the immediate solution for that.

      2. And another thing. That scaffolding at the right of that shot has been in place for something approaching 20yrs. It went up to fix that window, but then the guy Dixon had working on things died, and that so took the wind out of his sails that the upper part of that window has been out all this time. It opens into an unfinished closet in the third floor room, essentially, and for some completely unknown reason, there has been zero pigeon incursion there in all that time.

        OTOH, a small unfinished bathroom behind the LH turret has a missing piece of flashing at the roof, and there’s ample evidence of pigeons. And also, somehow, raccoons at some time in the past.

  9. let me guess, the special thing in the aquavit is rhubarb? 🙂

    and your friend bought *that* house. I am sooooooo jealous.

    I could live on haluska and chicken paprikas. I serve mine with rice.

  10. When my family lived in Linthicum, MD, we were told that the chestnut tree in our back yard was a cross. County Extension came out once to see it. Sometimes, my father would take nuts and plant them in parks and fields.

    The original tree is gone now. Probably because it wsa too close to the house. The one Dad planted in another part of the yard is still there.

    Cleaning up the hard, prickly hulls in the fall is a pain, literally. But, it’s a great shade tree.

    My father liked the nuts; not me, my brother or Mom. The squirrels and the chipmunks liked them, too. So did the owners of a local gas station who would trade gas for chestnuts.

    1. I really like the last part. Before the blight hit, bartering chestnuts was an important part of the Appalachian economy. Mountain folk – especially the kids – would gather them in the woods and take them to the local store in exchange for goods. The stores in turn would send them on to rail heads, from which they were shipped to the northeast where they wound up being roasted by street vendors. The magnitude of all this (which took place long before sociologists blanketed the country) wasn’t really appreciated until Ralph Lutts managed to put some numbers on the trade, based on mouse-eaten records in the attic of a general store in SW Virginia.

      1. It started accidentally. Mr. Kim spotted a bag of chestnuts in the car and asked Dad where he bought them. When my parents retired, before they moved to Florida, Dad gave him a seedling.
        I hope Mr. Kim’s tree is keeping him full.

  11. Some people still think that “unreconstructed hippie” is an insult.
    They’re probably not unreconstructed hippies. Poor things. Does anyone have a humane killer, or a better solution? Cyanide?

  12. I have no idea how I would have imagined Hempenstein would look, but that it would be like a longer-haired version of Dan Dennett I would not have guessed!

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