Keepers of the fire — Opa’s Deli7/2/2014
Civilization happened when societies determined to keep a public fire burning, so that each home fire could be started without rubbing sticks together. The Hestian devotees of ancient Greece and the vestal virgins of Rome were keepers of such fires, which developed into temples, churches and restaurants. Even before the invention of the microwave oven, Simone de Beauvoir noted, “Gas and electricity have killed the magic of fire, the kindling of live flame from inert wood.” Flavor was also killed. The 600 flavor compounds that chemists can identify in a single fire-roasted food cannot be duplicated by boiling, steaming or microwaving. Scientist Harold McGee put it this way: “In the sip of roast coffee, or the taste of crackling, there are echoes of flowers and leaves, fruit and earth, recapitulation of moments from the long dialogue between animals and plants.”
Ironically, as barbecues multiplied in Iowa the last 20 years, they mostly stopped being keepers of wood fires, and practitioners of magic, that they had been since colonial times. Today’s state-of-the-art barbecues are mostly gas-operated ovens that burn wood chips for “flavor.” They don’t even smell much like smoke. The true keepers of this most American of culinary arts are immigrants. Africans, Latin Americans and Asians don’t worry about the cost of wood when they roast goats or birds at special events. Polehna’s Meat Market in Cedar Rapids’ Czech Village kept a constant wood fire burning in its smokehouse for some 70 years before they were wiped away by floodwaters.
Wood-fired cooking has been making a comeback this decade particularly in pizzerias. The longest continuously operating wood fire café though is Opa’s Deli in In’t Veld’s Market in Pella — a 103-year-old building that became a meat market in a grocery store in 1941. That deli is a two-story, self-serve combination of small-town friendliness and solid wooden furniture. A smokehouse is attached to the back of the place and aromas of yesteryear waft through the restaurant and onto the street.
Pit hams, turkey breasts, bacon, pork shoulders and beef briskets are smoked with 100 percent hickory. They are not the reason this smokehouse and deli are famous with culinary tourists from all over the world, though. Their Pella bologna is. In’t Veld’s is one of just two places left (along with Ulrich’s) that still makes Iowa’s unique charcuterie. Fifty years ago there were half a dozen. Smoking the well-seasoned ring bologna helps to distinguish the product from other bolognas, but the prominence of hearts and cheeks probably has more to do with it.
Pella bologna is eaten several different ways at Opa’s. One can even buy bologna steaks the size of giant burger patties. Mostly though, it’s consumed simply sliced on fresh bakery rolls — hot or cold — or as a bologna reuben with In’t Veld’s sauerkraut, Swiss cheese and sandwich spread on rye bread. Three made-from-scratch soups are offered daily; their ham and pea and their brisket and potato varieties are treats when offered. Freshly made bratwurst lacked the graininess of most brats. Dried beef, Dutch-spiced beef and beef sticks are popular deli offerings. Potato salad had good contrasting textures, from yellow bell peppers and celery. Ham salad delivered a surprising sweetness. In a concession to the new millennium, wraps are now offered, as are cheese and jalapeno versions of Pella bologna.
Bottom line — Opa’s and In’t Veld’s are living Iowa food treasures.
Side Dishes: The former Sbrocco will reopen as RoCA, specializing in shared plates and craft cocktails. Jason Kapela (Louie’s Wine Dive) is a co-owner and Sbrocco Aaron Holt will be chef. CV
Jim Duncan is a freelance writer who has penned nine different columns for Cityview and its sister publications beginning in 1987.Opa’s Deli 820 Main St., Pella, 641-628-3440 Mon. – Sat. 11 a.m. – 2 p.m.