It’s Fat Tuesday, also known as Mardi Gras. We celebrate the Polish version — Paczki Day. Paczki, pronounced basically /PONCH-key/, are jam-filled donuts with a fine crumb and a rich taste. One article I read describes them as “tennis ball-sized pastries deepfried in lard.” Paczki Day is celebrated mostly in the Polish-American enclaves of the Midwest, although we did manage to score a great box of genyooine paczki at the Big Y in Mansfield, CT, one fine year. This article provides history and some recipes, which are probably better than the one in my first Polish cookbook, which yielded what could only be called paczki crepes. One of these years I’ll try to make them again, especially since all we can get around here is donuts at Safeway. We have the Zolotoy Petushok Russian deli in Eugene (and of course, the nearby Albany institution, Novak’s Hungarian Restaurant), but no Polish bakery.
I grew up in the Detroit suburbs, but didn’t really celebrate Paczki Day until high school, when I began with the zeal of a born-again paczki-thumper and haven’t stopped since. My great-grandparents came to Michigan and raised their children in Detroit, like many Polish families around the turn of the twentieth century, forming a community that still spoke Polish at home and kept Polish traditions alive in schools, shops and churches. By the time I came around, the families had long since moved into the suburbs and Polish neighborhoods like Hamtramck were in decline, as was much of Detroit. My exposure to Polish-ness was a few phrases and songs and my grandma’s cooking. Mmmm…Easter soup, kielbasa, city chicken, Polish rye bread, fresh horseradish. And it was the message to stay away from Detroit because it was dangerous.
Still, I get an ancestral pang when I see images of Detroit, a city that’s been swallowed up by a recession and its insidious opiate– the casino culture that I find truly horrifying. It’s the ache of being unwanted and misused. It’s horror at the wasteland of a once-vibrant midwestern city, and worse yet, one that bred my people and gave them a safe place to land when they began their American journey and rests their bones in forgotten cemeteries on odd lots in the city. It’s the loss of one particular community at one place and one time. It’s hopes that were scattered far beyond the streets of Hamtramck, falling into the crevices and furrows of other neighborhoods and other cities. It’s my America.
So here I am. I collect international cookbooks and live in Oregon and sit in California chairs and drive Japanese cars and celebrate Passover with the zeal of a born-again brisket-thumper. Hamtramck, I hear, has undergone a bit of a revitalization, and there is a hipster community of musicians and artists, many folks who care very much about the place. I encourage everyone, therefore, to reach into that bakery box for some paczki, because some things in life are worth tradition and some things beg to be reinterpreted, renewed, reborn. Make mine a Marionberry.