A fishy St. Louis family tradition
How a Croatian family ended up with an Italian dish as a favorite holiday snack
In Story Cauldron this week, I explore a holiday tradition and once again fall down a rabbit hole I didn’t see coming!
Have you heard of bagna cauda? Chances are, unless you’re Italian or a major foodie, you have no idea what it is.
Apparently it’s not very common in the US, but it’s an important dish for holidays and other special occasions among the Bellovich clan (my father’s mother’s family). This Christmas I had to ask,
Why are a bunch of descendants of Croatian immigrants all making this odd—but delicious—Italian dip?
As usual, my random curiosity led me down an interesting path.
What is bagna cauda?
The name is Italian for ‘hot bath’ or ‘hot dip,’ and it’s essentially a fondue made up of butter, garlic, cream, and anchovies. (It’s pronounced bon-ya caw-da.)
And it’s absolutely delicious.
I vaguely remember my grandmother and other members of her family serving it at family gatherings when I was a kid, but it wouldn’t have been something that 10-year-old Jackie would have enjoyed. But adult Jackie loves it.
Just so I’m not accused of burying it below a bunch of mumbo-jumbo, here’s our family recipe, as documented by my cousin CarolAnn Reader Cole. (Charlie, as in Uncle Charlie, was my grandmother Katherine Bellovich Dana’s brother.)
Uncle Charlie’s Bagna Cauda
Use electric skillet to cook
1 stick unsalted butter
1 head fresh garlic
1 2oz can anchovies—do not drain
1/2 pint whipping cream
Simmer garlic and butter on low; add anchovies and stir until they disappear. Mix in cream and blend. Do not cook long as separation will occur. If it does, add a few spoons of milk and stir again.
Dippers: bok choi, lettuce, celery, cabbage, green onion, green pepper, French/Italian bread.
When my dad (Charles Dana) makes it, he doubles the cream and anchovies. Good for him!
A little family history as background
Since moving back to St. Louis almost three years ago, I noticed how bagna cauda appeared at holidays and other family gatherings.
A quick family history lesson: my maternal grandmother’s family were Croatian immigrants. My dad’s grandfather, John Yanko Belavic (the surname would later be Anglicized to Bellovich by some of his children), immigrated to the US from the small village of Brig, Istria, in what is now Croatia but was at the time part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire (listed as “Hungary” on his immigration records). He arrived in the US in 1912.
Fun fact because I like digging—Brig appears to be agricultural with a bit of tourism (Google street view showed me a vineyard) but given its location, I imagine the surrounding countryside is gorgeous. It’s about two miles to the Adriatic Sea. And note how close it is to Venice!
Not feeling it yet? Here’s a photo from an area just to the southeast, the Mreznica river and Belavici village (and I have to wonder if the Belavici village has anything to do with the Belavic family.)
After arriving in the US, Yanko and his wife Anna Rose lived for a short time in Michigan before moving to Benld, IL, where he became a coal miner and raised a family of nine children. And that’s where bagna cauda enters the story.
What’s the story with Benld?
Benld is a small town (currently around 1500 people) in Illinois, about 49 miles from St. Louis and considered part of the metro area.
The odd name Benld derives from founder Benjamin L. Dorsey, who built the town and acquired coal mining rights in 1904. He named the town after himself, using his first name and his middle and last initial. According to Wikipedia, “Benld was declared the "most difficult to pronounce" place name in the state of Illinois by Reader's Digest.” Here’s a tip: it’s pronounced Ben-eld.
Benld was first and foremost a coal mining town, and most of its early residents were recent immigrants drawn to the job opportunities in the first half of the 20th century.
The Belavic/Bellovich clan settled there in 1918 or 1919, and many of the children lived there until they married and moved, often to St. Louis proper. That eventually included my grandmother Kay, her sister Rose (CarolAnn’s mom), and several others. My dad lived in Benld as a kid but his parents ultimately relocated to Thayer, MO, and then to St. Louis.
Yes, I’m getting to the bagna cauda connection
Have you ever heard the song Alice’s Restaurant, where after several verses, Arlo Guthrie says, “remember Alice?” This story is kind of like that.
I asked my dad how the Bellovich family—a Croatian family—ended up making this Italian dish. What we figured out was that it (probably) didn’t come from the ancestral home’s proximity to Italy, but their landing in Benld.
You see, Benld attracted a lot of immigrants, primarily Italians, though also a sizeable number of Croatians. And it was this intertwining of cultures that must have introduced someone in my family to bagna cauda in the first half of the 20th century.
As evidence, I present this tidbit that I discovered when I looked up bagna cauda on Wikipedia:
It is also a popular winter dish in central Argentina and prevalent in Clinton, Indiana, Rock Springs, Wyoming, and Benld, Illinois, United States, as there were many northern Italian immigrants to those places. Bagna càuda was also prepared in the coal mining community of Madison County, Illinois (including Collinsville, Edwardsville, and Maryville, Illinois), due to the numerous Italian immigrants that came there to work in the mines.
According to a blog highlighting cultures around the Mississippi, Benld’s history is tied closely to “the immigration story of its miners,” including Italians, Croats, and Russians who moved to Benld for mining jobs. The blog mentions that Italian immigrant culture was so strong that you could hear Italian spoken there into the 1950s, and that most of the Italians were from northern Italy—the same region where bagna cauda comes from.
So it doesn’t seem like a stretch that one of my grandparents or my grand-uncle Charlie discovered bagna cauda, maybe from a friend, and said, “this stuff is GOOD. I’m getting the recipe!”
And the rest is history and part of every Christmas and family reunion.
One last bit about Benld
This has nothing to do with food or coal mining, but tonight my dad talked about how Benld was quite a hot spot—an “open town,” he called it, because it was much more permissive than St. Louis or other towns. And that checks out: apparently during Prohibition Al Capone hid a distillery under a fake mine in the town, and through the 1950s big musical acts would play at the music and dance venue called the Coliseum Ballroom (which succumbed to a fire in 2011 and the remaining structure was turned into shops; it may be gone now). Some of the big names that played in Benld included Chuck Berry, Ike and Tina Turner, the Everly Brothers, Fats Domino, Ray Charles, Duke Ellington, and Lawrence Welk. They even almost had the Beatles but the organizers thought a $10 ticket was too pricey.
Here’s a short documentary about the Coliseum.
Ironic Christmas gift
To wrap up this story, here’s just one more tidbit. After having bagna cauda, prepared by my dad, on Christmas Eve, we did our usual gift exchange. One of the things I gave my dad as a bit of a gag gift was a bar of Duke Cannon’s Big Ass Lump of Coal soap. At the time, I had no idea what the history of the dish was, and how it came into our family thanks to coal mining. Pretty ironic and appropriate, don’t you think?
Update 1/4/22: My dad has an art show in Jacksonville IL this month so he and I drove up there today to drop off his photos. Along the way, he told me how there used to be a bunch of brothels and organized crime in Benld, which was seen as a place for St. Louisans to raise a bit of hell back in the day. That plus the Coliseum kept the place hopping in the 50s-70s, but that's all gone now.
On our drive, he told me how a lot of people eventually moved away from Benld and since they couldn't sell their homes, some ended up torching them for insurance. And in a great story that I'll probably turn into fiction, he described one house they had found in the woods that had been burned down and all that was left was the chimney. When he and his friends went to investigate, a guy holding a long gun climbed out of a trap door in the floor and my dad and his friends took off!
On our way back we went through Springfield and then down 55. We decided, since we had been talking about it all day, to detour for a quick drive through Benld even though it was after dark. And wouldn't you know it, there was a house (or maybe a trailer, based on what I saw on Twitter) on fire one street over from his old house (which is still there, and had a guy standing on the porch watching the fire). I don't know exactly what was going on because there were emergency vehicles, but I did see flames shooting out of a window. I hope everyone was okay, but what a weird coincidence!
Anyway, there's not a whole lot there these days. A few neighborhoods of mostly tiny houses, probably built for the coal miners, a handful of businesses, lots of empty lots. A few larger homes. I didn't see the whole town but I expect the rest was much of the same.
This was a fun piece to write, and it took me in directions I didn’t see coming. I think that’s probably the best thing about asking questions and being curious! Thanks for reading, and please leave a comment if you enjoyed it.
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Your tales are always touching, but this one is extra special. I'm fascinated by the way family traditions evolve and intertwine through the years and the generations, and it sounds like your family has an excellent (and tasty) tradition to continue in the years ahead.
Great tale. I love hearing family traditions and how they came about. America is indeed a melting pot. We don't care where someone is from. We care about who they are, and each adds flavor to the pot. (pun intended. :-) )