A take-out original
By ROBIN FRIEDMAN | The STAR-LEDGER | June 16, 1999
The mines may be gone, and the miners too, but their most enduring legacy — the Cornish pasty — is more popular than ever in this small town.
It may look unassuming, but Wharton, a borough of 5,400 in Morris County, holds a prominent place in New Jersey’s iron mining history. Home to numerous immigrants of the British Isles, particularly Cornwall, Wales and Ireland, the former mining town’s bottom line is this — wherever Cornish miners went, pasties were sure to go with them.
A Cornish pasty (pronounced PAS-tee) is a meat-and-vegetable-filled pastry resembling an oversized apple turnover that can be eaten by hand or more elegantly, with a knife and fork. Some say it is a relative of the Scottish shepherd’s pie, Mexican burrito, and Italian calzone. All agree the hearty, self-contained culinary package makes an ideal meal for a working man whose robust appetite was stoked by hours spent underground.
Rocky’s Food Store, a fourth-generation family business, has provided the Wharton area with Cornish pasties since 1924. “Pasties are in our blood,” declares Tom Rodkewitz, 42.
If the wind is blowing in the right direction on any given day in this 1.95-square-mile town, the aroma of baking pasties is impossible to miss. “Everybody loves them,” says Mayor Harry Shupe, who was born and raised in Wharton. “I love them and I eat them. That’s how I got this big belly.”
Calorie counting was hardly an issue for the miners, who worked long hours under difficult conditions. What they needed was a nutritious, one-course meal they could take down to the shafts and heat on their shovels using the candles on their helmets. Pasties have long been a staple of the Cornish diet, considered to provide all the elements of a balanced meal: protein, carbohydrate and vegetable.
“People are always picking them up for dinner,” Shupe says. “It’s convenient, ready to go. It’s a fantastic business for a little town.”
Morris County, famous for its iron, was once recognized as the richest producer in the state. At a depth of 1,800 feet, Hurd Mine — now the site of the Wharton Fire Department — was the largest in Wharton and one of the state’s most important between 1872 and 1911. Much of downtown Wharton today is over the old mines.
Tom’s Ukranian and Polish grandparents, Anna and Andrew Rodkewitz, opened a dry goods and sundry business on South Main Street. When their customers requested Cornish pasties, they obliged. Tom’s parents, Mary and Julius Rodkewitz, continued the business. Since 1931, the store has been at its present location on 43 Robert St.
Julius Rodkewitz, 75, says he has been around pasties “all his life.” He mans the counter behind the store every day and knows everyone in town. “Every day as soon as I finished school, I helped Mom and Dad,” he says. “I never had a vacation, never had a coffee break, never had a day off on my birthday.”
The tiny store, which stocks everything from cupcakes to bananas because Julius believes in providing a gamut to a small community, is inside a clapboard row house. Tom Rodkewitz lives upstairs with his wife Mary Dunn Rodkewitz and their son, Brandon, 11. Tom’s parents live in the house next door.
“Working here is beautiful,” says Julius. “It keeps me smiling.” The family operates the business with a closeness that is rare in today’s world of scattered relatives. “It’s a unique opportunity to work all together as a family,” says Tom. “Every generation can participate.”
The family’s pasty routine goes like clockwork. No other staff is employed, and the entire operation is run by hand, with 300 beef and sausage pasties made fresh daily. Monday is “veggie day.” Sixty pounds of potatoes and 20 pounds of onions are peeled — the onions by hand — and diced by machine. Then, each evening, Julius carves the meat — he is a butcher by training — and grinds it. Tom readies the ingredients for the shortening crust. In the morning, Julius is the first one up at 5 a.m. He mixes the dough, divides it into “dough balls” — 3.3- ounce lumps — and mixes the vegetables with a special blend of spices. The recipe itself is a family trade secret, something they’re not ready to share with the rest of the world.
At 7:30, Mary and Tom Rodkewitz are up. They flatten each dough ball, place the meat-and-vegetable mixture in each center, and fold up the pasty. As they work, mother and son bond. “I love it,” says Mary. “I get to talk to him, catch up on events.”
On the weekends, Brandon helps out. “I ask him, ‘what do you want to be when you grow up?’ Tom says. “He says, ‘a pasty-maker and a zoologist. I want to stay up till 3 a.m. like you and wash pans.’”
“I want to be the fourth generation to continue it,” says Brandon earnestly.
For special orders, Tom and Mary might make hundreds more pasties. Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts, churches, and other groups often place large orders for fund-raising events. After the pasties are baked, Tom’s wife wraps them. “I always wanted to be in business with my husband,” she says. “When Brandon was growing up, I could take care of him and still work.” “The commute,” she adds, “is certainly not a problem.”
The Rodkewitzes rarely take vacations.
“When I’m any place else, I want to be here,” says Mary. “I could eat a pasty every day.”
Tom spent a few years working at Hewlett-Packard in Rockaway, where he met his wife, after earning a B.A. in accounting and economics from Rutgers University in 1978. “I didn’t care for the office environment,” he says. He left in 1985 to help his parents go wholesale.
A sister, Mary Lee, lives in Randolph but visits every day. Rocky’s pasties have traveled as far away as Alaska, Hawaii and Australia, says Julius. “I love them. If Tom leaves some in the oven too long, they’re mine.”
Some say Rocky’s Cornish pasties are better than those in Cornwall itself. Martin Trengrove, whose great grandfather and grandfather worked in Cornwall’s copper mines and Wharton’s iron mines, has been to Cornwall several times, but says he prefers Rocky’s — though he’s still partial to his grandmother’s.
“My grandmother made the best ones I ever had,” he says. “But Rocky’s come close.”
A former president of the Wharton Historical Society and member of the Cornish Heritage Society East, Trengrove is your typical multigenerational resident of Wharton, where it is no clichÈ to say that everybody knows everybody from way, way back.
“I’m very pleased to be here,” he says. “My roots run so deep I don’t see how I could live anywhere else. This is my home.”
In 1831, the Morris Canal, which connected the Delaware River to New York harbor, was completed, running right through the town. Robert F. Oram, a Cornish immigrant, judged the area — with its canal port and rich iron deposits — to be perfect for a mining settlement. In 1895, Port Oram was born. A giant blast furnace was built in the town in 1901 by wealthy industrialist Joseph Wharton — whose Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania bears the same name. The town decided to change its name to Wharton in 1902.
In Cornwall, pasties are eaten, on average, once a week, says Trengrove. In Wharton, that weekly tradition has sailed across the pond.
“My mother made them every Thursday,” says Bob McQuillan of Succasunna, who grew up in Wharton. “We looked forward to Thursdays. Ma’s were the best in the world, but Rocky’s are closest to it.”
McQuillan’s mother made her pasties with “a touch of turnip,” he says. “I could eat two or three of them easily.”
Pasty fillings vary. Some recipes use turnips, rutabagas, or even carrots. Rocky’s is strictly meat and potatoes (and onions). McQuillan, who is Irish, says pasties are his “favorite food.” He was in the lunch crowd that patronized Rocky’s in the 1950s, when Wharton High School was next door. It was the students — they ate lunch at Rocky’s nearly every day — who coined the name “Rocky” or “Mr. Rock,” finding “Rodkewitz” too difficult to pronounce.
McQuillan says pasties were 25 cents then. Inflation has made them $2.75 today. McQuillan, who retired after 30 years as chief of the general law division at Picatinny Arsenal’s Legal Office, still visits Rocky’s for his pasty fix.
Jerry Williams remembers school lunches at Rocky’s too. By then, the high school was a middle school and pasties were $1, but students still flocked to Rocky’s. Williams, who grew up in Wharton and now lives in Succasunna, would round out his lunch with a drink and some candy.
“I still like them,” he says. “They’re a nice, basic staple food. A hot meal. Meat and potatoes.”
Williams, who is English and Irish, is the current chief of the general law division at Picatinny Arsenal. Both Williams and McQuillan think Wharton is a great family town. “It was a wonderful town for a young fellow to be raised in,” says McQuillan. “It hasn’t changed much,” says Williams. “Wharton people like it that way. They’re not clamoring for change.”
When the school moved, however, Rocky’s lunch crowd disappeared. The store reinvented itself in 1987 by erecting a USDA-inspected facility behind the store, built by Tom’s brother Leon, a carpenter who lives up the street. Now pasties could be sold under the label Port Oram Foods to supermarkets, pubs, luncheonettes and delis throughout Morris, Sussex and Warren counties. Uncle Harry, another family member, makes the deliveries. The pasties are baked and delivered frozen, though no preservatives of any kind are used.
Rocky’s repositioning parallels Wharton’s, which has had to reinvent itself more than once. Everyone hoped it would be “Little Pittsburgh,” but Wharton’s iron veins were eventually depleted. The Wharton Furnace was in blast till 1911; then it sat idle for 21 years. In 1932, it was sold for scrap. The mines were gone. But Wharton still flourished.
Thatcher Glass used the furnace site for its plant, employing 750 people. During World War II, Picatinny Arsenal employed 18,000. LE Carpenter Co., maker of vinyl-coated fabrics, took over the site of an old silk mill. GHA Lock Joint Pipe Co., maker of concrete pipes, also moved in. Between 1981 and 1991, however, Wharton lost 1,400 jobs when Thatcher, Lock Joint and Carpenter all left. But, again, it refused to die. Much of the credit for its continued prosperity goes to Shupe, Wharton’s mayor for the past nine years.
Longo Industries, an industrial motor repair firm, now uses the old Lock Joint site. The rest of the old pipe factory is a warehouse and distribution center, with Nestle’s Minute Maid and Juicy Juice as clients. The old Thatcher Glass site is now the Wharton Interstate Commerce Center, buzzing with new businesses. And, mines or no mines, Rocky’s is still here, turning out Cornish pasties for a whole new generation of fans.