Dad was raised in the hills and hollers of eastern Kentucky. He was always very proud of his hillbilly roots.
Some people might have been offended if you called them a hillbilly. Not Dad. He wore that title with pride and honor.
Dad always worked hard. We were far from rich, but our family was always well fed and sheltered. Dad took great pride in being the breadwinner of the Riley household.
As a young boy in the mid-1950s, I remember going hunting with Dad. Hunting to provide dinner for the family was part of his eastern Kentucky heritage. We always ate whatever Dad brought home. I was taught to skin rabbit and squirrel before I started elementary school.
Mom would cut-up and fry the critters in her cast-iron skillet just like she would prepare a chicken. It was delicious.
Dad loved simple Kentucky-style cooking. That meant that every evening meal (we called it supper, never dinner) consisted of meat and some form of potato, a vegetable (green beans, peas or corn) and dessert. Regardless of the type of meat we were having, Mom would always make gravy. Delicious gravy.
We always ate family-style. Everybody had to be home at suppertime. We all took our seats around the table. We folded our hands in prayer, then we started to eat and talk. Laughter was always present at the table.
If our hunt had been successful, we also spit out buckshot as we ate. If rabbit or squirrel was on the menu, the sound heard from the Riley table was often, “Chew, chew, chew, plink. Chew, chew, chew, plink.”
It was proper hillbilly etiquette to spit the buckshot right back onto the plate.
One evening, I remember thinking it would be funny to hit my little brother with a buckshot. Mom did not see the humor in that. I remember being scolded, but later I hear Dad snickering about it. Mom didn’t think it was quite so funny.
Then one year Dad was transferred to the evening shift. Since he wasn’t there for supper, Mom started getting creative with her cooking. Up until then, I don’t think we ever ate anything that was served out of a casserole dish. Dad didn’t like his food all cooked-up together — it just wasn’t the hillbilly way.
It was about that same time — I was probably around 10 years old — that we first ate pizza.
Mom had occasionally worked at a local restaurant named Wampler’s. That was the first place in Germantown that served pizza-pie. At first, we never called it pizza. It was always pizza-pie.
When Mom told Dad about our pizza-pie meal, he was appalled. “Don’t plan on feeding me any of that foreign-Italy food,” he said.
But we loved it. Mom got the crust recipe from the cooks at Wampler’s and spread tomato sauce all over it. That, plus sausage and onion was the first pizza I ever experienced. Delicious.
Years later, Dad must have been in an experimental mood: he tried pizza for the first time and declared it tasty. It soon became a weekly favorite in the Riley house. Dad started to branch out and Mom even introduced his taste buds to different types of casserole.
Our supper menu changed, but I think Dad missed having gravy at every meal.
As my two boys grew up, I think they would have lived on pizza if I had let them. Our first home in Wilmington was on Westfield Drive in the Southridge neighborhood. At that time, in 1977, there was a nice, little convenience store near the corner of South South Street and Randolph called the Westside Market.
Besides the expected variety of items such a store would stock, they also had pizza. At that point in my life, I think Westside Pizza was the best pizza ever made. Normally, the three of us could pound-down a large pizza, but Westside pizza was so thick with sauce, extra cheese, sausage, pepperoni and mushrooms, we were lucky to get down two pieced each. It was great.
In the next several years, pizza shops cropped up all around town. We tried them all. Almost all of them delivered a great pie. There is simply no way I could mention every place that prepared and baked pizza here in Wilmington, but it would be a shame not to mention Poncho’s Pizza. Poncho was the Picasso of pizza makers.
It has been decades since pizza was introduced in the Midwest. There have been a lot of changes since Wampler’s made their first pizza. Now, besides New York or Chicago-style pizza, you can get meatza-pizza or veggie pizza, super-deluxe or edge-to-edge pepperoni. They are all good.
One morning, for our church’s men’s prayer breakfast, we even had breakfast pizza. It came complete with sausage and eggs.
It even had gravy.
Dad would have loved that.
Randy Riley is former Mayor of Wilmington and former Clinton County Commissioner.