In 1946, the family gathered on Sunday afternoon at the home of one of my father’s uncles in New Jersey. The men sat around a large kitchen table drinking wine and snacking before dinner. The women were in the living room chatting.
My father, Santo, and grandfather, Giuseppe Caltagirone, along with his brother-in-law, John Vena, were having a conversation. Also at the table were John Vena’s son John II, and his son-in-law, Sonny.
My 5-year-old self listened quietly, nursing my Coca Cola. I could understand most of the comments made in English and none of the Sicilian discussion. This particular family session stays in my mind because they were talking about something new.
John Vena immigrated to Philadelphia with his parents and three sisters from Gangi, Sicily, in 1900. He sold grapes for wine from a pushcart. In 1919, he had a stall at 151 Dock St. and established John Vena Inc.
He worked hard and did well selling fresh produce. His daughter Anita joined the business in 1939 and added his son John II in 1948. The family-owned business moved to the new Food Distribution Center in Southwest Philadelphia in 1959.
On that Sunday, I remember John Vena was excited to tell his family of information he had been following for a few weeks. He had received word of a new possibility in his produce world discovered by Clarence Birdseye. This man from Labrador had invented a machine to freeze his catch. This treatment kept his fish fresh for some time. In 1927, Birdseye had a patent for a multi-plate freezing machine. Birdseye went public in 1930 with Birds Eye Frozen Foods. At the time of our family meeting in 1945-46, America bought 800 million pounds of frozen food.
John Vena said to my grandfather, “Joe, we have to get in on this.” He wanted to introduce refrigeration to the fresh produce industry. My grandfather owned an Italian bakery in South Philadelphia. I am reason-ably certain he joined his brother-in-law by investing in this exciting improvement in produce distribution.
In 2011, the Philadelphia Inquirer newspaper printed a story, “The World’s Largest Fridge to open in S.W. Philly.” John Vena III was at the ribbon-cutting with the mayor, and said, “There is nothing like this anywhere on the planet.” He spoke of the Philadelphia Wholesale Produce Market and the world’s largest fully enclosed refrigerated building with a length of fourteen football fields and 224 sealed dock doors.
From the kitchen table in Haddon Heights, N.J., in 1946, refrigeration in the fresh produce market was born in our area, and became the “world’s largest fridge.”
Dr. Joe Girone is a retired pediatrician. He practiced for over 50 years in Sellersville and Philadelphia. He and his wife live in Telford, Pa.
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