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Immigrant success story

From Poland to Cowtown

Grandmother's cooking helped inspire chain of barbecue eateries

Marcela Bunkiewicz immigrated to the United States from Poland in the early 1900s. Like millions of others, she landed at Ellis Island, but she did not settle in New York.

Bunkiewicz came to Fort Worth, where she met Joe Rucky, another Polish immigrant, who had arrived at the port of Galveston in 1911.

Eventually they would marry and open a grocery store on Fort Worth's north side.

Bunkiewicz was a pretty good cook, the story goes. In addition to traditional Polish dishes, she developed a knack for barbecue, sauce and all, which she would prepare and take to workers constructing Eagle Mountain Lake.

Her cooking, in part, helped inspire a chain of restaurants that typify Texas.

Her grandson Jim Riscky tells the story about his grandparents over lunch in Riscky's Bar-B-Q in the Stockyards.

The Stockyards is a slice of the Old West in the middle of the north side, where a cattle drive is re-enacted daily and bars are called saloons. But many visitors may not know that it also sits in the heart of one of Fort Worth's renowned ethnic neighborhoods.

The north side may not be Little Italy in New York, Chinatown in San Francisco or Little Havana in Miami, but its rich ethnic roots date to the early 1900s, when immigrants from Poland, Czechoslovakia, Greece, Russia and Germany worked in the Swift and Armour meatpacking plants.

It gave newcomers to America a sense of familiarity in a new world, where they could pursue the traditions of the old country and communicate in their native language as the challenging process of assimilation unfolded.

Joe Rucky had come to America with hopes of finding a job on the railroad like the one he had in his homeland.

When he couldn't find work on the rails, he joined a legion of fellow immigrants in the meatpacking plants.

One of the first things he did in America was change the spelling of his name.

With the winds of war at full gale in Europe, Rucky was concerned that the family name would sound German. He became Joe Riscky.

Jim Riscky holds up a framed certificate signifying when his grandfather became a U.S. citizen in 1933.

He has another of when his grandmother gained citizenship in 1943. By then, Marcela Bunkiewicz was known as Mary Bunker.

She worked as a housekeeper and nanny for a Russian family in downtown Fort Worth before cultivating her talent for good barbecue.

While he may be Polish by heritage, 65-year-old Jim Riscky is Texan in every other way. His father, Pete, represented the first generation of the family to be born in the United States. Now, there are four. Jim Riscky has eight grandchildren.

The Americanization of the Riscky family paralleled changes on the north side, accelerated by the decline of the meatpacking industry.

The area is now predominantly Hispanic. The grocery stores like the one Joe and Mary opened in the late 1920s and Pete Riscky revived in the '50s have been replaced by bodegas.

And the languages of central and eastern Europe have been replaced by Spanish.

Pete Zepeda, an icon to Mexican immigrants on the north side who died Oct. 31, 2001, used to say that language and skin color made it harder for Mexicans to assimilate.

Language is still a lightning rod in the story of modern-day immigrants. But it was never an issue in his family, Jim Riscky says, even though his grandparents spoke Polish and his parents and relatives were bilingual.

"When I was a kid they all spoke Polish, but they didn't want us learning Polish or talking Polish," he said.

"We were told we were Americans, and we spoke English."

Riscky says adults spoke Polish when they did not want the kids to understand what they were talking about -- a common tactic adults in ethnic households use everywhere in the country. Of course, kids pick up on such things, although Riscky says he has a very limited grasp of Polish.

"I can say 'hello' and a few nasty words in Polish," he says smiling. "I can't carry on a conversation but I can pick out words and follow one."

But you can still find a sausage dish in Riscky's Bar-B-Q with the ribs and brisket.

A Polish soup his grandmother simmered to perfection is on the menu at Riscky's Steakhouse.

"Don't ask me to spell it," Jim Riscky said.

For the record, it's k-a-p-u-s-t-a.


Re: Immigrant success story

An interesting story. Relevant to the Lost Souls thread.