The defending champions, a crew of eight or so Italians, their hair gray and faces lined, stand behind a table loaded with plates of macaroni, pasta e fagioli, and eggplant parmigiana.
At the moment, they are somewhat confident, convinced almost beyond doubt that they will retain their crown as champions of the senior citizen cooking competition.
It’s an annual event, they explain, bringing together contestants from the ethnically diverse group of neighborhoods on the near west, south, and northwest sides. Some of the seniors wear their native ethnic costumes. After lunch, they will sing Christmas carols. A few may even dance. But, for the moment, the main event, the big topic of conversation, is the food.
“What do you think?” one woman, her hair knotted in a bun, asks Jeff Spitz. He is a young filmmaker who got wind of the contest last year, came, and now considers himself a regular. “Do you think we can win it?”
Spitz surveys the room. It’s packed with tables, each stacked with a variety of enticing, delicious-smelling foods. Over in the far corner is the Cajun table, prepared by a group of blacks from the west side., Close by is a table piled high with fried chicken. There’s a Ukrainian table, too, as well as one for the Chinese, Mexicans, and Poles.
Spitz turns back to the Italians.
“The Mexicans,” he says. “Look out for the Mexicans. They’ll be tough.”
“The Mexicans!” exclaims another Italian woman. She shakes her head. They had worried about the Ukrainians, as well as the Cajuns. But they had not anticipated strong competition this year from the Mexicans.
“Oh yes,” says Spitz, his voice filled with authority. “Don’t underestimate them.” They have even dressed for the occasion, he says, pointing to the sombreros and colorful peasant shirts some of them are wearing. But it’s their food, Spitz says, that will win the stomachs of the three-person panel of judges, led by Louis Szathmary, the flamboyant owner of the Bakery restaurant. They have enchiladas, guacamole, bean dip, and makeyour-own tacos. They even have an exotic coffee drink for dessert.
They thought of everything.
The cooks and food servers are behind their tables now, and the room is filling up with senior citizens, who, from the looks of them, are ravenous and ready to eat. They shuffle down the hall and wind their way around the tables, piling their paper plates high with food. The cooks from Chinatown have positioned themselves at the front of the room and do brisk business with their egg rolls.
It is then that a solidly built man in a blue business suit enters the room. Almost all of the seniors recognize him and stop to shake his hand. He is Robert Ahrens. This food contest is sponsored by his city department: the Department on Aging and Disability, to be exact. It’s no wonder that the seniors know who Ahrens is. Except for a brief “vacation” during the administration of Mayor Jane Byrne, Ahrens has run the city’s program for senior citizens since 1967.
“Mayor Daley brought me on,” he says, his voice, as always, soft and restrained. “At the time, I had five employees and a $100,000 budget.” He smiles.
Now he oversees a $24 million budget. He supervises 215 full-time workers and another 600 part-time employees. He runs dozens of programs. He has built five senior centers throughout the city, each offering nutritional, medical, and recreational programs. This sitethe Central-West Region Center on West Ogden Avenue -is temporary, Ahrens says, almost apologetically. The seniors share it with the Health Department. A permanent facility is being-built just down the street, Ahrens says, adding that if all goes well a large center also will. be built in the Loop.
He takes a bite out of a guacamole salad and sips a cup of coffee. He’s on the run, Ahrens explains, and won’t be able to stay for the postlunch prize ceremony. There is another senior citizen function to attend-this one on the northwest side.
But he has a little time, so he tells his story. He was born in Oak Park, in 1922, and raised on the southwest side of, Chicago. His father died when he was 13, so his mother raised the family on her own.
“We were Depression kids,” he says. “We had to stick together working part-time jobs to see the family through. You know the Depression made such a strong impression on people. I saw it in my mother and in many of the people I meet every day. It built in them a feeling that you can’t spend money because it [the Depression] may happen again.
“I have this one story, with my own mother. It was one hot day and she wouldn’t turn the air conditioner on. I said, ‘Ma, it’s all over. Forget those days. You don’t have to worry anymore. You don’t have to worry about the electric bill.'”
In 1944, he was shipped off to fight in Europe. He came home two years later, and signed up for classes at Roosevelt University. His face brightens at his mention of the school’s name. So much of his outlook on life was molded at that school.
Jim Sparling, the college’s founder, was dedicated to the proposition that all qualifying applicants– blacks and Jews included –should be admitted. In the 1940s, that attitude was considered radical. Ahrens graduated with the class of 1949 (his class president, by the way, was a young black student named Harold Washington) and went to work for Sparling as a top assistant. In 1956, Daley named him to a commission then investigating how to take care of a growing elderly population. It was a natural appointment. Ahrens was in charge of continuing- education programs at Roosevelt.
“Daley gave me the total freedom I needed to operate,” Ahrens says. “I never had trouble with Mayor Daley. Each year he would integrate into the corporate budget money we needed to operate programs that had been federally funded. Over the years he identified as a senior citizen and became really proud of our programs.”
The memory of Daley stirs thoughts of the other three mayors he has known. Ahrens speaks well of them all, except for Byrne.
“She was inaugurated on a Tuesday and I talked with her on a Friday,” he recalls. “She told me that she had a woman who had helped her on the campaign. She said that this woman would be ideal to run the department. I said, ‘Sure, how fast can I leave?’
“Byrne wanted me to stay on to teach the woman the job. She said, I know sometimes it takes an executive five months to relocate. But I did not want any of that.” Ahrens quit that day.
“I got back to my office and Harry Golden of the Sun-Times was on the line. He asks if it’s true that I am leaving City Hall and I say, yes it’s true. Harry says what about your assistant, Andree Oliver? Is she going to stay? Well, Andree told Harry that ‘I have worked with the best; I’m not working with a hack.”‘
Several hundred seniors organized a letter-writing campaign to get him reinstated. For a while it was a hot item in the papers. But Byrne was stubborn, and Ahrens had to leave.
Governor Thompson asked him to run the state’s program for seniors. But he declined.
“I realized that I didn’t want to leave Chicago,” Ahrens says.
He formed his own consulting firm, and later became a nonpaid adviser to Richie Daley’s mayoral campaign. When Daley lost, Washington, his old college classmate, asked Ahrens to reassume his position with the city. He was the only one of the mayor’s appointees to be approved unanimously by the City Council.
“I lost 25 percent of my city staff under Byrne,” says Ahrens, with a touch of anger in his voice. “We were going to build a center out here on the west side. We have to share this one with the Health Department. She delayed that. It was a great satisfaction to start construction when I got back into office.
His philosophy, he explains, is to accord seniors the respect they deserve. “I don’t want to shuffle them off into some home where they can be forgotten or placed out of the way. We can learn from them,” he says, adding:
“Society treats life like it is a pyramid. The bottom third is schooling, the middle is work, and the top is retirement. My attitude is that there ought to be a consistent stream, that flows through all’. aspects of your entire life.
“We have to allow for individuality. If a guy at 90 wants to work, great. If a guy at 60 wants to go around the world, great. And if a guy at 50 wants to go to medical school, well that’s great too. We should not make limits for people.
“Do you know that the government passed a mandatory retirement law? That’s an outrage. What we are saying is that when you get to a certain age you’re all alike. You’re part of a group. You are no longer an individual. So go retire and die. But this nation was built on the principle that everybody can function on their own ability.”
Of course, it’s not always easy to put his principles into action. The day-to-day problems his department confronts are staggering. Many of the people who live on incomes below the poverty level in Chicago are senior citizens. So much of what his department does is aimed at satisfying their most basic and elementary needs.
“We have hot meals on wheels programs. We help seniors get their homes cleaned. We have 106 food centers through the city,” he says. “Every day 6,000 seniors sit down to eat one hot and nutritious meal. We’re bigger than McDonald’s.”
He calls the food centers golden diners’ clubs. They are based in churches, synagogues, and social service agencies throughout the city. The cooks and eaters here, he says, pointing to the assemblage around him, participate in that program. The food contest is their opportunity to show off their skills, to meet one another and learn about their cultures.
He is interrupted by an announcement. The awards ceremony will take place in a matter of minutes. The seniors, done with lunch, file off to a nearby meeting room where Nick Coletta, an employee at the center, announces that the Mexicans have indeed won the contest.
The audience claps politely and the Mexicans jubilantly accept their trophies and ribbons. In’ second place are the Ukrainians. The Italians finished third.
Most people are surprised that the Ukrainians finished so high. The Italians are diplomatic.
“Maybe it’s time to share the glory,” says Louise Gaeto, one of the Italian cooks.
“Just make sure that you credit Reverend Nick Aguilar,” says E.L. Garcia, one of the Mexican cooks.
It is out of his church-the Millard Congregational Church in Pilsen — that they operate their golden diners’ club.
“The cooks are Genoveva Marquez, Trinidad Rodriguez, Carmen Cruz, and Alicia Ayala,” says Garcia.
“I’m surprised,” says Jeff Spitz, that the Cajuns did not finish higher. Maybe what we had is a reverse of Chicago politics. The Cajuns and the fried chicken split the black vote and allowed the Hispanics to win.”
One enterprising reporter tracks down a Ukrainian representative for an opinion.
“Our food is good,” says Frances Dachniwska with a laugh. But mostly she wants to talk about her old country.
She came to the United States from the Ukraine after World War II. She settled in Ukrainian Village, on the near west side.
“In the Ukraine I served under five occupations,” she says. “There was a Polish occupation, Austrian occupation. Polish, Russian, German, then Russian again. We ran away. And we came to America.
“My son served in the Army. He fought in Korea. Now my grandson is in the Army. And my son is now a retired major. I have had a hard life, but I love this country. You should write that this country is a beautiful country, especially if you have nice people, like this at Christmas. And you should write that it doesn’t matter who, wins the contest, so Iong as we can be friends –the Polish, the blacks, everybody — and have a nice Christmas Day.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Paul L. Merideth.