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Dinnertime in Garlic Gulch

Dinnertime in Garlic Gulch: “Thursday and Sunday was spaghetti day”

Rainier Valley’s Italian heritage goes back a hundred years or more. Back then, the Valley was largely forests and farms, with the streetcar running down the middle. Many of the area’s farmers were immigrants, and many of those immigrants were from Italy. In fact, the neighborhood around Atlantic Street was so heavily dominated by Italians that it was called “Garlic Gulch.” These Italian immigrants brought a rich culinary tradition to the Rainier Valley that can still be enjoyed today.

The Borracchini family opened a bakery in the Italian neighborhood in 1922, and their son Remo, still operates it. Remo describes the neighborhood when he was a child: “Our church was Mt. Virgin church. We had several Italian grocery stores at Atlantic Street, Italian pharmacy, Italian barbershop. The residents were mainly east and west of Rainier Avenue going all the way up to Beacon Hill. As far south as – oh, a little south of McClellan Street. We had the ballpark. We had the Vacca Brothers farm. And we had the Italian language school here, at Atlantic Street.”

Vincent LaSalle also grew up in Garlic Gulch. His family owned a grocery store and meat market on Atlantic Street. “On one side was the meat market. My uncle was a good butcher and they used to cut their own meat. They had this great big walk-in icebox. They had a sawdust floor. I remember in one corner of the icebox, they had a great big fifty-gallon barrel. And in that barrel was pickled pig feet. Oh, god! You never tasted anything like that. Everything used to taste so good!”

Ralph Vacca, grandson of one of the original Vacca Brothers, says that in his family “Thursday and Sunday was spaghetti day. You could count on it. It may be mustaciolli one Thursday and it may be spaghettini on a Sunday. It may be bow ties and it may be something else. But always, always Thursday and Sunday, in our household. And I would venture to say that if you talked to some others, you’ll get a smile, if you say, ‘Thursday and Sunday was spaghetti day.’ It was always good. It certainly wasn’t Franco American in a can, that’s for damned sure.”

Vincent Lasalle: “Oh, when they used to make spaghetti and meatballs at my grandma’s place. My grandma would mix the meat -- a combination of pork meat and beef all chopped up, see -- and put garlic and different kinds of flavors in it. Salt and pepper. She’d mix it all up and then [her daughters] used to take it and roll it into little balls. You’d have a stack of meatballs this big and they’d put that in the tomato sauce. Oh god! I never tasted meatballs like that.”


Garlic Gulch Legacy: “What am I going to do with these plums?”

Many Italian families – like many other Rainier Valley residents at that time -- raised their own vegetables and fruits in their gardens. Vincent’s grandmother “raised garlic, onions, peppers, tomatoes. Round the edge of the garden there was a big fence, and in that fence was raspberries. Oh man! In the middle of that there garden was a pear tree. And oh! It used to produce pears, I’m gonna tell you that. Then she had five great big cherry trees. Oh man! And one great big Italian prune tree. They would pick the prunes and they’d bring them down to the store and they’d sell them for a pretty good price. Real tasty.”

Many of those prune trees – Italian plums -- are still there: the living heritage of the old “Garlic Gulch” neighborhood. And they are still feeding Rainier Valley neighbors. Phyllis Macay moved to Mount Baker in 1994 and bought a house with seven Italian plum trees in the yard. She came up with a delicious way to enjoy the fruit:

“There seems to be no bugs that attack ‘em. I don’t even water ‘em or anything, and they’re really, really pretty, and very, very sweet. Two years ago, I got a million plums and I had no idea what to do with them. I gave them away to everybody. I mean, what am I going to do with these plums? I didn’t just wanna let them rot. I made a Chinese plum sauce. I tried to make plum pies, but that didn’t work – they’re too moist. Plum with pork is really good, but how many times can you make a pork roast?

“I had already been experimenting with this bread. I called it my Soon To Be Famous Plum Bread, and now all my friends, when I go to a party they say “Bring your plum bread!” There is no fat at all in it. Yet it’s rich and it’s good. You can make it sweet and not so sweet. If I don’t put any sugar in it at all, it’s still really sweet ‘cause the plums are so sweet. It’s a great dessert; it’s a great breakfast.”


Phyllis Macay

  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1 1/2 cup plums, chopped
  • 1/2 cup dried fruit – cranberries or raisins
  • 1 cup whole wheat flour
  • 1/2 cup unbleached flour
  • 2 Tbsp Wheat germ
  • 1 tsp each baking soda, salt, and nutmeg
  • 1 1/2 tsp each baking powder and ground fresh ginger
  • 1 cup shredded raw carrots
  • 1 cup chopped nuts
  • 1 Tbsp vanilla
  • 2 eggs

Mix sugar, plums, and dried fruit. Set aside. Mix flours, wheat germ, soda, salt, nutmeg, baking powder, and ginger. Set aside. Lightly coat 2 bread pans with cooking spray. Dust with flour. Mix plums into flour mixture well; add carrots and nuts; add vanilla and eggs. Stir well. Pour into pans. Top with whole halves of nuts. Sprinkle with sugar. Bake at 350° for 50 minutes.

Cool, then wrap in wax paper. Wait for 24 hours, enjoy or freeze.

by Mikala Woodward

This article excerpted from Rainier Valley Food Stories Cookbook