Back when I was in college I used to go to this place called the “Wallington Exchange”. It was, as the name suggests, in Wallington. Wallington New Jersey was/is populated almost exclusively by Polish immigrants. At the time they had the distinction of having the most bars per capita of any city or town in America.
That last, of course, was reason enough for any college kid to visit Wallington. But it’s not actually why I took the trip every couple of weeks. I went because I wanted to eat at the Wallington Exchange.
The Wallington Exchange was, ostensibly at least, a Slavic restaurant. You could order à la carte from their menu, but the only thing I ever ordered – or indeed ever saw ANYONE order – was the “Slavic Festival”. They had 3 chefs in the back; one Polish, one Russian, and one Czech. When you ordered the Festival you got a 9 course meal consisting of three dishes from each of the chefs, plus side dishes. There were some staples, but many dishes also rotated with the availability of seasonal ingredients.
The food was A-M-A-Z-I-N-G.
But as A-M-A-Z-I-N-G as the food was, that still wasn’t the reason I went. (Although if that’s all there was I still would have made the trip. It was that good.) The REAL reason I went was for the show you got with dinner. It was a show the likes of which I’d never seen before nor since.
See, the restaurant was really just a front for an organization that – for lack of a better word – “smuggled” artists out from behind the Iron Curtain. That’s why I used “ostensibly” back there. Anyway, these artists would perform at the restaurant as payment for their salvation. And what artists they were! There were quite a few singers, a few magic acts, some folk dancers, various musicians, and a surprising number of belly dancers.
One belly dancer in particular was quite memorable. She came out in typical belly dancer garb, but affixed to just about every joint on her body was a lit candle. So, one glued to the back of each hand, one on each elbow, shoulder, hip, and knee, plus one on each foot and finally one on top of her head. When they blacked out the lights and she started her gyrations all you saw were these disembodied flames dancing and bobbing around the stage in incredibly intricate patterns. It was one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen.
One other outstanding performer I’ll mention, to give you an idea of the caliber of talent they were bringing over, was the (former) first chair violinist for the Moscow Symphony Orchestra. Oh. My. God. For a Classical nut like me, hearing someone of such stratospheric international talent ripping effortlessly through pieces by Saint-Saëns, Wieniawski, Paganini, and others, all while seated in a little metal folding chair not 10 feet away from me as I demolished plate after plate of exotic Slavic goodness, well, it was like Christmas, my birthday, and my wedding night all rolled into one.
I think each artist was only obliged to perform for a week, because I don’t recall ever seeing a repeat performance. Every show was different, and yeah, some were better than others. But the entertainment value was through the roof just on sheer novelty. I absolutely loved it each and every time I went.
One thing that didn’t vary from week to week, though, was our after dinner drink. My college girlfriend at the time was Polish, which is how I was introduced to the place. It was also how I was introduced to “Slivovitz”, the wildly popular Slavic plum liquor. Wildly popular with the Slavs, anyway. I didn’t know anyone else at the time who’d ever even heard of the stuff, and I was working my way through school as a hoity-toity chef AND a sommelier. I thought it was just terrific, although my girlfriend always sniffed that her father’s homemade quaff was better. We always ordered a glass to go with the complimentary platter of Eastern European pastries that got plunked on each table after the show.
Sadly, since the fall of the Iron Curtain (curse you, Reagan!) there’s been no need to smuggle anyone out from behind it. So there’s no more real reason for the Wallington Exchange. It’s still there – they have a FB page, in fact – but the “Exchange” doesn’t mean what it used to. They’re pretty much a wedding and party venue now. No more sit down restaurant, and no more weekly stage shows featuring acts you never thought you’d live to see. I guess it’s for the greater good, but…
But one thing that didn’t fall by the wayside was my love for Slivovitz. I buy a bottle once in a while, and while it’s still good here and now all these years later, it’s not *quite* as magical without a floor show featuring flaming belly dancers for some reason.
So this year I decided to make my own. I’m gonna bring the magic back THAT way, baby!
As it turns out, this is a very good year for Italian plums. I know this because a friend of mine last week pointed me to a NY Times story about how their plum torte recipe from the 80’s was the most popular recipe they ever printed. I had no idea – and I have two of Craig Claiborne’s NY Times cookbooks. So a couple of days ago I grabbed a pint of Italian plums from a farmstand and made it. It was tremendous! Easy, fast, and pretty darn foolproof. I can see why everyone loves it. Give it a shot if you’re looking for a dessert that doesn’t start with “Take a tub of CoolWhip…”.
Best of all, pretty much every plum in the pile was sweet and perfectly ripe. One of the better years I can remember for Italian plums.
The plums were so good it immediately hit me that they’d make phenomenal Slivovitz. I already make my own limoncello, and I figured the process had to be similar. So I hit up a couple of Slavic websites, and found out it pretty much is. I’m in!
So today I picked up the ingredients on my way home: plums, a lemon for zest, Everclear (gotta use high proof, otherwise inevitable evaporation will drop the alcohol level down to nada by the time it’s done), sugar, and cinnamon. Oh, and a new glass jug to age the whole thing in.
It should be ready right around Christmas. If you’re in the area, stop by and try some. Bring pastries.
The pics: 1. The plum torte that started it all. I also frosted some plums and decorated the top with them, which wasn’t in the recipe, but delicious. 2. Mise en place for the Slivovitz. 3. And so the wait begins….