In the early 1920s, when Winooski's textile industry was thriving and providing jobs, immigrant workers were hungry for foods from home. Satisfying their ethnic appetites became a niche business. Peary Cohen, a Burlington resident who died in his nineties last year, remembered delivering different kinds of bread to the mills. "We had one kind for the Russians, one kind for the Poles, one kind for the French-Canadians," he recalled.
Today, Vermont's most built-out burg is once again also its most internationally diverse. Catering to the town's Southeast-Asian and Eastern-European communities are two specialized mom-and-pop food stores, where you can get a taste of Winooski's cosmopolitan culture, even if you don't come from Saigon or St. Petersburg.
Winooski's Tra Vinh Market is easy to miss -- even if you're looking for it.The first time I tried to find the Southeast-Asian specialty food store, on a Wednesday morning, I drove past twice before finally spotting the little building on LeClaire Street, a block east of Main. Although the hours posted in the window indicated that I'd come during business hours, the store was closed. When I returned the next day I found out why: Owners Toan Truong and Loan Phuong had to take their seven-year-old son to the doctor.
Truong, 29, came to Winooski from Vietnam 12 years ago. The son of an American father in California and a mother who still lives south of Saigon, Truong wears a white baseball cap emblazoned with an eagle and an American flag and speaks with a nearly impenetrable accent. Before he opened Tra Vinh, he held down three jobs, including baking bread for Lilydale Bakery. Now he works for himself, but that still means long hours and seven-day weeks.
Once a week he drives to New York City to pick up provisions. "Come back Friday," he told me. His shelves would be stocked with fresh produce, meat and seafood then, he promised. There would be ready-to-eat roast pork and duck, and Vietnamese sandwiches prepared by Phuong with cucumbers, cilantro and fish sauce-flavored pork sausage. Weekends are the store's busiest time, he said. Thursday morning, I was his only customer.
I browsed among shelves piled with bags and bags of noodles: twisted nests of bean-thread noodles, egg noodles, oil noodles, tapioca sticks. Below them are black mushrooms and dried fish maws -- brittle white air sacs fish use to raise and lower themselves in the water, and Southeast Asians add to soups or deep-fry and enjoy like airy dumplings.
Golden disks of palm sugar sit beside crystal rock sugar labeled "lucky candy." There are dark brown bricks of fresh tamarind and little white cans of Longevity Brand condensed milk. Also baggies full of roasted rice powder, canned rambutans, bottled sesame oil, dried fried garlic, pickled banana blossoms and bags of tapioca stick that look like colorful confetti.
When I return on Friday, two young Vietnamese women are just leaving with their purchases. Inside, a bounty of fresh fruits and vegetables is stacked around the counter: long squash, leafy Chinese broccoli, bitter melon, fuzzy melon and pale green radishes the size of small coconuts. Crabs with blue-black shells fill a barrel. Along the counter are heaps of silvery mackerel, bass, tilapia and white fish and piles of pig parts you're not likely to find at your local Price Chopper: ears, kidneys, tripe, intestines and tongues, and a bowl of pork liver cut into big, brick-red blocks.
I had planned to pick up a duck for dinner and a sandwich for my lunch. But the ducks didn't make it -- Truong put in his order too late. And I've come too early for a sandwich. Dozens of French rolls sit waiting for Phuong to work her magic. Next time, I'll call ahead.
On Main Street, a couple blocks from the Vietnamese market, an "open" flag hangs outside European Food. Signs in the windows invite passersby to "Taste the foods of Russia, Poland, the Ukraine and more" and promise "Russian turnovers Friday only $1." The business has also recently begun to advertise and has a presence on the Web.
This marketing effort is the work of Masha and Marty Power. They bought the business in May from Tatiyana and Valery Perebeynos, Ukranian refugees who left Chernobyl in 1991 and opened the market two years ago. When the Perebeynos relocated to Arizona, they sold to the Powers -- recent arrivals from Virginia, where they'd worked for Verizon as software engineers.
When Masha, who is now 35, came to the States from St. Petersburg in 1997, she expected her future to lie in computer work. But with her charm and her quick tongue, she seems a natural salesperson. When her predecessor ran the store, she says, it was "mainly as a social club for Russian immigrants."
Power has not only raised the profile of the place, but also expanded its inventory. She now offers comestibles from outside the Eastern Bloc, as well as such non-comestibles as Russian CDs, china and phone cards. "No one wants international [calling] plans anymore," Power asserts. "I worked for Verizon, so I know."
The heart of European Food, though, is still clearly the food. The deli case is filled with looping sausages, including smoky red kabonosy, Polish country kielbasy and kiska made with blood and buckwheat. There are eight varieties of salami -- or "salamy," as Power spells it. She points out mild "bear salamy," hazapetovskaya from Brooklyn and plockwurst, or "forest pork."
In a mini-fridge in the back room, whole herrings swim in pickling brine. Red and black pearl caviar, smoked mackerel and pickled cabbage with cranberries are all delivered from Brooklyn every Tuesday. She opens the freezer and shows me blintzes, Siberian-style ravioli and European-style cakes with names like "l'amour," "drunken cherry" and "Versace," which is vanilla and chocolate sponge with marshmallow layers and raspberry jam.
Power stocks sodas such as the non-alcoholic Russian malt-based kvoss and a variety of juices, including birch, from Belarus. "We used to make it ourselves at our summer house in the suburbs of St. Peters-burg," she recalls. "My father and I would put out the bucket and get the sap."
The market recently added wine and beer. Marty, a certified brewer, is responsible for the selection and the display: "The nose is of yeast and plums, with a subtle raisin flavor on the palate," one label reveals. Masha picks up a bottle of wine she says was "Joseph Stalin's favorite." When I look skeptical, she adds, "He was born in Georgia, he knew the taste of good wine. Whatever his problems were, that's a different conversation."
People ask specifically for Georgian wine, Power tells me, noting that about half her customers are foreign-born, the other half Americans. The immigrants she serves include lots of Armenians from Azerbaijan who came to the area through Refugee Resettle-ment, and Romanians who for some reason live in Winooski and come to buy her feta cheese -- "a big ingredient in their cuisine," Power says. The Americans who have roots in Poland and other Eastern-European countries are "looking for the foods they ate in their mothers' kitchens," she notes. Hence the store's motto: "Forgotten tastes of the old world."
While we're talking, a customer comes in looking for the Georgian sausages she says Tatiyana used to carry. Hip in black-framed glasses, with stubby pig tails and a loud flowered purse, Jolene Garanzha is neither an immigrant nor ethnically Eastern European. She's an art teacher whose husband is Ukrainian. She buys pickled tomatoes, which she says she mashes with Russian mustard and the hot pepper preserves called ajika to make a dipping sauce with sausages.
At Power's urging, she throws in a $9.95 bottle of Russian sparkling wine. "You will find no better wine for the price," Power reassures her. "That's not just my opinion."
Tra Vinh Oriental Food Market, 11 LeClaire Street, Winooski. 654-8556. 9-5 M-Th, 8-9 F-Sat, 8-8 Sun.
European Food, 212 Main Street, Winooski. 654-6877 or www.eurofoodvt.com. 11-7 M-F, 10-6 Sat.