Meat, garlic and butter were the holy trinity that helped the Kalinowski family achieve the American dream.
And Victoria Kalinowski, a mother of nine, was the visionary who started it all with her garlic-and-butter studded Polish sausage. The tons of sausage she made would probably pave a road of kielbasa to the moon – and back.
Mrs. Kalinowski, 89, of Crestwood, died at Advocate Christ Medical Center this month after a stroke.
“Viki” Kalinowski was only 22 when she bought a store in Harvey with $1,800, some of it from poker winnings sent home by her husband, Gene, an infantryman in the Pacific Theater in World War II.
It was nothing fancy.
“My mother had to learn to light the coal stove to warm the place,” said her daughter Barbara.
Her dream was for her husband to be his own boss. “She didn’t want him to work in a factory after the war,” her daughter said.
The shop at 157th and Lathrop grew from a little mom-and-pop operation into a one-stop grocery where just about everybody in the neighborhood dropped in just about every day.
Factory workers from Whiting Corp. stopped in at lunch for Mrs. Kalinowski’s homemade chili, soup and Sloppy Joes. The store sold 300 “he-man” sandwiches a day, stacked with ham and beef on onion rolls and rye. On Fridays, the men could cash their paychecks and pick up a six-pack. At Valentine’s Day, they could find boxes of candy for their wives. In December, they could go to Kalinowski’s to buy a real Christmas tree.
But the meaty foundation of the business was Kalinowski’s pork-and-beef sausage, based on a recipe Gene obtained from his Polish-born mother, Kazmira. Viki made the kielbasa.
At its Polish sausage peak, Viki’s Certified Foods and Kalinowski Sausage Co. sold about eight tons a week – fresh and hickory-smoked. During the holidays, demand jumped to 20,000 pounds. It went to family homes, hot-dog stands, restaurants and other grocery stores. The family also made “Kalinowski Kiszka,” Italian sausage, and smoked ham and bacon. Customers bought duck’s blood at Kalinowski’s to make czernina soup.
She and Gene raised five boys and four girls in a home next to the store. Mrs. Kalinowski would stop stuffing sausage to run home, throw a load in the dryer and feed lunch to the kids, who attended St. John the Baptist grade school.
“She would come home from having babies and she would go right in the sausage room and start stuffing sausage,” her daughter said.
As the children grew up, they worked in the store. “Us kids peeled all the garlic,” Barbara Kalinowski said. “People used to tell my parents they had so many kids so they could make so much Polish sausage.”
The Kalinowskis extended credit – and extra groceries – to the women whose husbands left their paychecks at the tavern or the track. They bought a washer and dryer for a woman they saw repeatedly struggle to the laundromat with a cart heavy with wash.
In her later years, when Mrs. Kalinowski went to buy a car, the salesman remembered how she had often handed out candy to him and other kids. He gave her the dealer price.
Once, her daughter recalled, when Mrs. Kalinowski requested her check at a Greek restaurant, the owner told her: “There’s no bill because you gave us so much stuff for free when we were kids.”
Every Saturday was date night. While Mr. Kalinowski took the kids to the “Y” to swim, Mrs. Kalinowski had a break to doll up for an evening out later with her husband. “She always said she wanted to go out with my father because he looked like Dean Martin,” their daughter said.
Mrs. Kalinowski lost her husband in 1980, but she and the family kept the store going until 1990 and the sausage-making until 1997.
She retained a vibrant energy.
“She was doing the Macarena and the polka at the Paczki Dance at St. John the Baptist Church the Sunday before her stroke,” her daughter said.
Every Easter she made a belt-busting meal, complete with Polish sausage, sauerkraut, ham, the braided bread called plecionka, babka, pierogi, horseradish and homemade paczki.
“Easter Week was always a feast for us,” said her friend, the Rev. George Clements, an adoption advocate known for his “One Church, One Child” campaign. Mrs. Kalinowski spoiled his four sons at Easter and packed shopping bags of leftovers to keep them stuffed with Polish food when they left.
“She did not allow anyone to feel left out,” he said. “As soon as [she] noticed somebody sitting by themselves, she’d run over to them, asking them questions, getting them involved.”
Mrs. Kalinowski also is survived by her other daughters, Susie Brody, Mary Wiznajtys and Vickie Sexton; her sons, Gene Jr., Gary, Christopher, Marty and Greg; 17 grandchildren, and 15 great-grandchildren. Her 10 grandsons were her pallbearers.
Services have been held.