Polish Peasant Food for Beginners
If a Polish peasant from previous centuries were to visit a contemporary restaurant styled as rustic, they’d likely have only ever seen most of the dishes on their lord’s table, if at all, while the remaining dishes would be completely new as 20th-century inventions. What, then, did the majority of Poles eat for centuries?
Giovan Battista Pacichelli, an Italian chronicler and clergyman who visited Poland in 1676, called the country ‘hell for peasants.’ The peasants, in turn, had a saying: ‘The fate of a peasant in hell is also terrible, because even there he has to serve tar to his feudal lords.’ A survey of the historical menu of peasant houses reflects the position of this social class throughout the centuries.
When there’s borscht and cabbage, the pantry is not empty
Our idea of what traditional Polish cuisine was like is a strange collage of fragments of old recipes adapted to the contemporary palate, and dishes with a short tradition (for example, carp served on Christmas Eve became a common dish on Polish tables only under the communist regime in Poland).
Today, inns and taverns stylised as rustic tempt their guests with a multitude of various types of meat: all kinds of sausages, pork chops, pork neck, and spareribs. Yet in the first half of the 20th century, an inhabitant of the Polish countryside only had meat on Sundays (and only if he was well off), and many could not afford such rarities even on holidays. A peasant saying went: ‘a peasant eats meat when a chicken is sick, or when he is sick.’ There was also a popular rhyme that went like this: ’I ate cabbage and drank broth, I didn’t see meat but happy I was.’
What, then, did they eat? Minimalism and monotony are the key words that characterised the peasant menu. The pillars of their diet included floury dishes, groats, cereals, potatoes, and milk. Even in the early post-war years, peasant cuisine was still mainly vegetable-based, with just a few animal products.
Jakub Haurr, a 17th-century economist, left a rather drastic description of the eating habits of the peasants at the time. As we are going to find out soon, their diet would not vary much over the next 250 years.
Even a dog wouldn’t touch the stinking stuff that those poor people have to eat, for if a peasant is well-off he would add some rancid fat to his and his farmhands’ food. But if he is poor, and he can’t even afford that kind of seasoning, then he eats rotten weeds and vegetables with traces of groats or coarse noodles, with water alone.
Daily life did not really interest the early generations of ethnographers, who were more focused on folklore. Nevertheless, in the collections of Oskar Kolberg’s writing, aside from transcriptions of songs and folk tales, we can find fragments recording country people’s daily nourishment. This is what people ate in Morownica, a village in the region of Greater Poland, in Kolberg’s times:
In summer, in the morning, at eight, milk soup with potatoes and a piece of bread. For dinner, potatoes and dumplings, or cabbage and peas, or groats and potatoes, or potatoes and barley. On Sunday, those who are rich cook meat broth, and eat it with potatoes, barley or millet. In the evening, there is soup with potatoes, same as in the morning, but with no bread.
Jan Słomka, a peasant and social activist from Galicia, recollects in his Pamiętnik Włościanina od Pańszczyzny do Czasów Dzisiejszych (editor’s translation: Diary of a Landlord, from Serfdom to Modernity) from 1912:
When I lived with my parents and grandparents, and for the next 30 years when I managed the farm on my own, rural breakfasts, dinners, and suppers were the following:
For breakfast, there was usually borscht with wholemeal rye bread. If the farmer had enough potatoes, then potatoes garnished with some fat or just salted were served as the main course; when bread was scarce, borscht would be served with potatoes. Dinner usually consisted of two courses. The first one was always cabbage with groats, and the second – millet or pearl barley with milk or seasoned with fat. Sometimes, for a change, dumplings made from quern-ground rye or wheat flour, served with milk or seasoned with fat, and sometimes pierogi with cheese, and in fasting periods with press cake. Supper resembled breakfast.
Galicia, where Słomka was from, was a province of the Austro-Hungarian Empire at the time. It was known for its poverty, as reflected in its official name being twisted into the Kingdom of Barrenness and Hungerdom (Golicja i Głodomeria). In richer villages under the Prussian occupation peasants could afford much more, at least when it came to meat (however, as we saw in Kolberg’s account, meals were monotonous there as well). Peasant diarist Tomasz Skorupka from the western region of Greater Poland, in his memoires entitled Kto przy Obrze Temu Dobrze (editor’s translation: Those by the Byre Have It Good), described meals from the days of his youth in the second half of the 19th century:
Father did as mother did: he would take some butter, lard and eggs from the pantry, than crack the eggs over the pan and fry them (…). Each year a piglet and a two-year-old calf were killed. When the meat was gone, they would kill another.
However, meat and eggs were usually intended for sale. They were cooked only when someone in the family was ill or when an important guest was to be invited, for example, a priest visiting at Christmas time.
Food was supposed to, first of all, make people feel full. In Oskar Kolberg’s collected works dedicated to Krakow and its surroundings, we come across the following fragment: ‘(…) the peasant here is not fussy at all and is satisfied with any food (as long as it is a large portion).’ In another fragment, Kolberg notes that peasants would rather sell better products than ‘consume them without profit.’ In his memoirs, the aforementioned Słomka comments:
Peasants didn’t want to spend money or time preparing better food; and the housewife would always say: ‘I’m not going to be all creative, fuss, and waste time.’
In 1933, the Institute of Socio-Economics (Instytut Gospodarstwa Społecznego) chaired by Ludwik Krzywicki, announced a competition for peasant diaries. The texts, gathered in two volumes, are an indispensable source of knowledge on the pre-World War II Polish countryside. In one such diary, a woman from the Łódź voivodeship writes:
In the morning, dziad (a soup made from stale bread, water and some additions, depending on what was available), zalewajka (sour rye soup with potatoes), potato soup and potatoes thinned with water, for dinner: boiled potatoes with borscht, seasoned with egg whites or agaric, or barley groats with dried pears, for supper: potatoes. Over and over again.
Our kin who drowned in groats
Now that we’ve become acquainted with an example menu, let’s take a closer look at it. Staple foods were grain products, such as bread and groats. If the harvest was good, bread was baked once a week or once every two weeks. Rural bread was mainly made from rye flour; white bread was consumed only on special occasions. Podpłomyki was also common – a kind of flat bread made of flour, water, and salt.
In his monumental collection entitled Księga Przysłów, Przypowieści i Wyrażeń Przysłowiowych Polskich (editor’s translation: A Book of Polish Proverbs, Tales and Sayings), Samuel Adalberg, a historian and folklorist, lists 32 sayings dedicated to groats. Many suggest that folks had enough of this daily staple: ‘Our kin, who drowned in groats,’ ‘They threaten kids with groats’, ‘Groats are what we get for our toil’, and ‘We get groats and father gets borscht.’ However, there is also an optimistic variant: ‘Groats with milk is not poverty.’
In Lithuania, people cook borscht from beet leaves [chard]. Polish people, on the other hand, first made borscht from a plant called barszcz in Polish (hercleum sphondylium in Latin), which grows tall on meadows and near villages, and blooms in June. Evidently, there is a direct correlation between the Polish name of the plant and that of the soup, i.e. the latter originated from the former. Borscht was also made from sourdough or plums, as Poles had always fancied savoury foods, typical of their homeland and beneficial for their health
Potatoes were brought to Poland by western settlers in the 18th century. Before starting their triumphant march across the tables of all the social classes of the First Polish Republic, potatoes were approached with suspicion. Priests even warned against them in their sermons, since potatoes came from pagans and there was no mention of them in the Holy Bible. Łukasz Gołębiewski, a 19th-century ethnographer, recounted:
For a long time, Poles found potatoes disgusting and unhealthy, and even priests disseminated such ideas among the common folk. Only when it was noticed that Dutchmen and Germans living in Żuławy Wiślane grew potatoes and that their crops were abundant and that this vegetable was almost the only food consumed there, that it protected against hunger and was served in many dishes, with a large variety of spices – it was then that potatoes started to permeate the adjacent areas. Later their popularity spread, and by the end of the reign of King Augustus III, they were known in Poland, Lithuania, and Ruthenia.
Another peasant superfood was cabbage, either in the form of sauerkraut or boiled and often served with peas. There was a saying in Mazovia: ‘when there are peas and cabbage, we will not starve – cabbage is our lady and peas are our lord.’ The diet was supplemented with leguminous vegetables, such as broad beans, beans, and lentils. Swede, parsnip, carrot and turnip were also used in the kitchen.
Milk was an indispensable part of the peasant diet, although in many houses, out of frugality, it was thinned with water. Poor farmers kept goats for milk. Once or twice a year (after the harvest was done or before Christmas and Easter), a pig would be slaughtered. Lard was the main fat used, while linseed oil and hemp oil were used in fasting periods.
Fasting was observed more rigorously than nowadays, and there were many more fast days: as many as 111 in a year. During Lent, aside from meat and animal fat, consumption of dairy and sugar was also prohibited. Żur (sour rye soup) and fish (herring in particular, delivered in barrels by mobile vendors) dominated the fasting menu. In many regions, a symbolic revenge of sorts was later sought against these foods: żur would be taken outside of the village and buried or pots full of this soup would be strung up over the streets and hit (especially when an unsuspecting passer-by happened to be walking underneath!), and herring would be hung on trees along the main roads.
When Polish peasants were not fasting, their diet was more diversified thanks to poaching. In every village there was someone whose job it was to poach. Peasants had no right to hunt, as forests belonged to the landlords or the royalty, and only the owners were allowed to hunt big game. At the time of the First Polish Republic, peasants were not allowed to go anywhere near the royal forests (the so-called crown lands) with a weapon; if they did, they faced the death penalty (this regulation, however, wasn’t strictly observed). A peasant could hunt wild birds and hares. In Mazovia, rooks enjoyed great popularity; they were even called ‘Mazovian hens.’ Fish were caught, as Jan Bystroń wrote, ‘if there was any place for fishing or if any fish could be stolen from the lord’s pond.’
The best spice is hunger
As peasant cuisine was dependent on the cycle of nature and the seasons, there were times of great abundance and periods of scant rations, depending on the time of year and the crops. The worst time of year was the time of the so-called the ‘pre-harvest’– when winter stocks were beginning to end and there were still no new crops. This measure of time was rather imprecise and variable. The pre-harvest often coincided with the end of winter and hence the saying: ‘There is never one misery that you have to endure, but misfortunes, as wolves on the day of Candlemas [2 February], always come in packs.’ The second volume of The Peasants by Władysław Reymont includes the following passage:
…and for many the days of starvation which often usher in the spring seemed at hand. So, in more than one cabin warm meals were served only once a day; and people went to the miller in ever-increasing numbers to borrow a few bushels of flour that they were to pay for later in work. He was, indeed, a confounded executioner; but no one had either ready money, or things to sell in town. Other went to Yankel begging him to lend them a screw of salt, or a quart of groats, or a loaf of bread, putting their pride in their pockets; for, as the proverb runs: ‘When it comes to the worst, a good man’s belly comes first.’
The scarcity of food during these ‘days of starvation,’ just as during crop failures or wars, forced people to make do with foodstuffs that wouldn’t normally be consumed. In times of famine, the menu was mostly based on foraging. In lieu of grains, some edible weeds were used. A wild growing genus of grass, sweetgrass, was popular for making groats and flat-cakes. Flour for baking bread was made from yet another species of grass, namely wheatgrass. In especially dire situations, the shortage of flour was tackled by adding dry lime tree leaves, ground birch bark, heather, wood chips, and acorns to food. White goosefoot and nettle were consumed like spinach or added to soups. Young thistles, pigweed, and bishop’s weed were also added to soups – to both polewka and bryja. Mushrooms and all kinds of forest berries and fruits, also an important dietary element in times of prosperity, were used to alleviate the shortages. Water caltrop (known also as water chestnut), practically forgotten today, would be eaten as well as shoots of calamus, which, thanks to its sweet taste, was a snack especially popular among children.
The famine that affected Galicia in the years 1844-1845 was one of the causes of the Galician Slaughter. Zygmunt Gloger, in his Encyklopedia Staropolska (editor’s translation: Old Polish Encyclopaedia), enumerates other famous examples of famine in the history of Poland. Here is a fragment:
After the wet summer of 1627, peasants from Greater Poland ate only acorns. In Podolia in 1638, many people became slaves out of hunger; (…) in Volyn in 1699 and 1700, some people became thin out of hunger and some swelled because of it. In 1710, such a severe famine struck in Lithuania that rye had to be imported to Vilnius from Volyn, and peasants ate horses, dogs, and cats. Sometimes, travellers were killed and consumed by innkeepers. (…) Kitowicz writes in his memoirs that at the beginning of reign of August III, when hunger was prevalent, many starving folks came to Warsaw. (…) The last migration of hungry men we remember took place in 1865, when around a dozen thousand people from the area of Sejny, Suwałk, and Kalwaria went to look for work to Mazovia and Podlasie.
The fear of poor crops and hunger resulted in various magical practices and ceremonies associated with folk cuisine. Bread in particular enjoyed special reverence as a symbol of prosperity and as a staple daily food. Thus, the greatest number of traditions and superstitions were related to it. Where crops were abundant, the period of prosperity fell around the holiday of Our Lady of the Harvest (15 August), a very important feast in folk Catholicism. ‘After 15th August, everyone walks as if heavy with young’ went a popular saying.
After a good meal, even water from a pond tastes good
A lot has been said about food, so now is the time to mention drinks. Everyday beverages included water, beer, and vodka.
In the summer, when temperatures were high, the lack of access to fresh water was an acute problem. Karolina Nakwaska née Potocka, the author of a three-volume handbook for Polish gentry entitled Dwór Wiejski: Dzieło Poświęcone Gospodyniom Polskim, Przydatne i Osobom w Mieście Mieszkającym (editor’s translation: Rural Manor: A Book for Polish Rural Housewives, and for Town People As Well), shares a recipe for a refreshing drink from rye malt with a little beer yeast ‘for labourers and harvesters, which does not cost much and can be made anytime.’
This drink, pleasant in taste, is a true blessing for people working in the field, as they cannot leave their job and thus are forced to drink water warmed by the sunlight, and even worse, cloudy and rotten; also drinking cold water in hot weather is in itself bad for one’s health, when one’s body is hot. I recommend you to afford this little pleasure to peasants working for your benefit.
Kvass (kwas chlebowy) was a popular drink in the part of Poland which was under Russian occupation. After 1945, kvass was brought to western Poland by repatriates from beyond the Bug River. In regional recipes, ingredients were added to improve its taste: berries, onion, cucumber juice, or caraway seeds. In the region of Kurpie, kvass was produced from sprouting rye, oat, and barley grains, and in Zamojszczyzna from millet groats. In north-eastern Poland, mainly in Kurpie and Podlasie, a beer-like drink made from juniper berries used to be a popular refreshment on hot summer days. In some places people drank rowanberry juice diluted with water.
Sap was harvested from trees, mainly in the spring. The most popular was birch juice, as birch syrup was called. Children loved dried cherry and wild cherry syrup. In eastern Poland, people drank maple syrup, and in the region of Karpaty sycamore syrup.
Tea was made from linden leaves, St John’s wort (hypericum) and wild strawberries. Coffee was a festive drink and ersatz coffee was made from ground acorns – like coffee, this drink had a dark colour and a bitter taste. Sugar was also a rarity for a long time. In the Memoires of Peasants, a farmer remarks bitterly: ‘Sugar gives strength, but not to us.’
(…) Drunkenness in the kingdom reached its zenith, and the excessive production of vodka and the competition between people who benefited from the propination laws were at their highest as well. (…) The price of vodka dropped to 1 Polish grosz per quart (0.24 l). It was not possible to further lower the price of vodka due to the lack of a smaller coin, so cracknels and other snacks were added to booze for free. This was done as a form of advertisement and was meant to help in beating the competition. In some places, peasants would pay only for the right to enter the tavern (as for a theatre ticket), and thus for a lump sum of 1.5 copeks they could drink and sit in the tavern for as long as they wished’
The gentry constituted only between a few and a dozen per cent of the society, but throughout the ages it had the monopoly on making all the dishes we today consider traditionally Polish. This cultural domination can be seen also in culinary traditions. As an example, in Zygmunt Gloger’s Old Polish Encyclopaedia under the entry ‘Polish cuisine’ we find a description of the tables of the higher classes, abundant with food. Illiterate peasants did not leave any cookbooks behind.
Author: Patryk Zakrzewski, October 2016, translated by MF, 2017
- Józef Burszta, Stefan Inglot, A History of Polish Peasants, Warsaw 1970,
- Ludwik Stomma, Anthropology of Polish Folk Culture of the 19th Century, Warsaw 1986
- Maria Biernacka (editor), Ethnography of Poland: Transformations of peasant culture, Warsaw 1976
- The Peasants, Władysław Reymont, translated by Michał Henryk Dziewicki, 1925, published: Alfred A Knopf, New York