Long before festivals Rossini, Kuumba, Irish, or Hola—heck, even before the 1982 World’s Fair came to town—Knoxville had its own little melting pot brewing right in the heart of West Hills. Tucked away between the old Vanosdale Farm and the elementary school, in the land of towering oaks and basement ranchers, was a cultural mix of people who found themselves gathering every summer for an Ethnic Purity Party.
The moniker makes some nervous, I know, so let me explain. My parents moved to town from Michigan in 1965, toting a crazy three-syllable last name and a brood of dark-eyed children. My little sister and I were born after the migration, making us naturalized citizens of the South (and yes, I have the papers to prove it), but our status was always a little suspect with a name like Prochaska. We got used to the manglings—“Patrasky?” “Perchaski?” I wanted to ask the bunglers if they had ever been hooked on phonics, but instead patiently replied, “Rhymes
My dad, Joe Prochaska, was raised in Depression-era Detroit when it was teeming with immigrants from all over Europe. On the contrary, Knoxville was pretty much Anglo-Saxon, Scots-Irish, vanilla ice-cream to him. To his delight, our neighborhood began to get a little spice over the years with suburban waves of “immigration.” Names like Grecco and Schmudde and LeBel moved in. We already had Bernsteins and Libermans on the block, and when the Greeks and Hungarians showed up, Daddy felt it was time to celebrate.
He found impetus for the party in a Jimmy Carter gaffe. (Say what you will about Carter, but there’s no denying what he did for “Ethnic Purity.”) Somewhere in a 1977 speech, Carter said he “wouldn’t want to disturb the ethnic purity of ... communities.” He was speaking about Polish neighborhoods at the time and referring to their unique cultural quaintness—a la Little Italy or Chinatown—and how it would be a shame to see them replaced with a bland suburbia. Carter caught a lot of flak for the misunderstood comment, but Daddy knew what he was talking about and decided to have some fun with it. Hence a block party was born.
Daddy chose July 3 as the date for the banquet and all were invited—Greeks and Jews, Italians and Southerners—the only requirement a dish from your heritage. The build-up for the party was half the fun. We had our own little microbrewery of sorts in the Prochaska kitchen where we made homemade root beer every summer and we would make a huge cache of it for this party. After the brewing and bottling (in saved-up old Coke and Frosty bottles) it fermented for five days in our garage pantry. Every day I’d check on our brew coming of age in those old bottles and by the night of the party it was chilled and ready for underage consumption. The “of age” crowd got the keg. There was even a year when one of my sisters’ “hillbilly” college friends brought a jar of moonshine. (If you’re reading this, Mom, I didn’t touch the stuff.)
The morning of the party was for last-minute food preparations. I still remember swinging open our kitchen screen door and being assaulted by a waft of sauerkraut and kielbasa cooking atop the stove. “Eww, that smells like the old diaper pail!” I said to my dad standing at the stove in his white canvas apron. Why do we have to cook Slovak stuff, I wanted to ask. Mom is half French and half Irish. Why can’t we make crepes or potatoes? But it was Daddy’s party so we’d have to put up with that sauerkraut. At least our chicken paprikash, apple strudel and kolacky pastries would make up for it.
The evening of the party brought everyone out. The Italians with their stuffed manicotti and pizzelles, the Hungarians with goulash and seven-layered dobosh torte, the Jews with challah bread and latkes, the Greeks with agvo-lemono soup and baklava, Southerners with fried chicken and chess pie, the Irish with corned beef and cabbage, and of course those Slovaks.
Besides the food there would be music. Daddy had come home recently with a stack of records from the public library, which made me a little uneasy. And for good reason. With the party in full swing, here comes polka music booming over the box speakers on the downstairs patio. I about dropped my cold bottle of root beer. “Aww, come on Daddy, can’t you see I’m trying to look cool here! First, the sauerkraut and now this?”
I rounded up my posse of friends and marched inside to wage battle. We emerged on the upstairs balcony, armed with an arsenal of 45s stacked and ready to spin on my little portable Ladybug record player. I selected the Beatles’ “Revolution” and cranked that baby all the way up to 11. The revolt failed. The Ladybug was no match for the hi-fi.
We looked at the crowd below on the brick terraces and saw them having fun in spite of the polka music—must have had something to do with that barrel they rolled out. Admitting defeat, we tweens and young teens, we root beer drinkers, unplugged the Ladybug and rejoined the crowd below. We hung around and listened to our parents having a good time—conversations
peppered with ethnic gaiety. “Do you know what you call an Irishwoman who marries a Slovak?” I heard my dad, the first of his family to marry outside his ethnic group, ask. Slight pause. Amused grin. “A social climber.” Everyone laughed, especially my mom, Mary Murphy Prochaska.
Eventually, Daddy lowered the volume on the polka. He had achieved the cornball effect he was going for. Darkness fell across the wide lawns of the neighborhood and we kids ran off to play Fox and Hounds as the music of cicadas and easy laughter played into the night.
We carried on the tradition of the Ethnic Purity Party for more than a decade. I’m not sure why it ended. I think summer began to mean graduation parties, weddings, and moving on. The neighborhood grew up. But we will never forget what joy it was to come together and celebrate our differences.
My dad passed away in 2010 and I am certain the sauerkraut smells heavenly now. Here’s a cold frosty one to you, Daddy. Salud, Slainte, Opa!, Cheers. m
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