Barszcz, Catsup & Curry Powder: Polish American Cuisine in 1917
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What is American food? Does American cuisine even exist, or is it only an abstract concept, an amalgam of different immigrant cultures that merge into an incoherent variety of flavours and ingredients? This is a question that food writers and historians have been exploring for years.
Some of them claim this incoherence is the very essence of America, while others argue that American taste is in essence Anglo-Saxon and different ethnic traditions can only survive when domesticated – just as with, say, the German wiener and Dutch coleslaw. But how do you combine Polish and American?
In general, Eastern European cuisines (Polish, Ukrainian, Lithuanian) seem to have taken the backseat in America’s culinary history, even though they’ve also added some of their own flavours – the smokiness of kielbasa, the sourness of fermented cabbage, the comfort of pierogi – to the mainstream American plate. We recently wrote about how reinvented Polish cuisine is fighting for its place in the culinary landscape of the United States, but now, we’d like to take a look at Polish American cuisine from 100 years ago.
What the settlers ate
Cookbooks from the late 19th and early 20th century offer a fascinating insight into the history of how immigrants who came to the United States in the period shaped American cuisine. They were published for those attempting to merge their culinary culture with the ingredients, tastes and methods expected of them in the New World – and who often felt lost in the process.
The Swedish-American Cookbook was published in 1897. The first collections of Italian-American recipes began appearing in the beginning of the 20th century. The Chino-American Publishing Company offered its first Chinese cookery brochure in 1911. Yet immigrants from Central and Eastern Europe also had their say. A very good example is The Settlement Cook Book: A Way to a Man’s Heart, written in 1901 by n Lizzie Black Kander, a German Jewish author.
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Since more than two-thirds of Jewish people living in America today can trace their roots to greater Poland (including parts of Austria and Hungary, the Ukraine, Lithuania, and Russia), Jewish food in the US is very much rooted in Central and Eastern European cuisines. As Joan Nathan of the Jewish Women Archive writes:
Many Polish and Russian dishes not considered Jewish in Europe, like herring in sour cream, rye bread, and borscht, became identified in the U.S. as Jewish.
All of these appear in The Settlement Cook Book, which was one of the most popular cookbooks in turn-of-the-century America. It was designed to help Jewish migrants – mostly from Germany and mostly settling in Milwaukee – to learn how to build a fire, cook and bake. Kander collected more than 100d recipes from Central Europe, tmany of which Poles know very well but would not necessarily recognize as Jewish. These include beetroot soup, herring salad, smoked mackerel and potato pancakes
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No Polish American cookbook has earned such attention – The Settlement Cook Book has actually had more than 20 editions up to this day. But that doesn’t mean there are no sources teaching us how immigrants from Poland ate in the early 20th century.
Polish recipe collections
Kuchnia Polsko-Amerykańska: Jedyna Odpowiednia Książka Kucharska dla Gospodyń Polskich w Ameryce (Polish-American Cuisine: The Only Proper Book for Polish Housewives in America) by A.J. Kamionka was published in 1917 in Wisconsin, while the more modest Kucharka Polska i Amerykańska (A Polish and American Cook) appeared in the same year in Ohio.
While the latter offers 336 pretty classic Polish and European recipes, itdoesn’t differ too much from contemporary cookbooks published in Poland. It does, however, shave quite an amusing introduction, which begins with:
Marital conflicts often begin with a wife who cannot cook well or who neglects her duties. The husband comes home tired, and he finds a burnt broth, hard meat, raw potatoes and so forth. This behaviour obviously does not help increase love and respect in marriage.
A.J. Kamionka’s book is an interesting mixture of diverse recipes – some of them Polish, some American, and some based on ideas the author had about ‘exotic’ cuisines. The book serves a clear purpose. In the note from the editors in Kamionka’s book, we read:
Since it’s in our own best interest that we acclimate to the local customs and living conditions so that we can take advantage of this country’s boons on par with the Americans, we shall not forget how important it is to know local groceries and how to prepare them, and that our own habits in this area of life should also change.
From ‘Kuchnia Polsko-Amerykańska’ by A.J. Kamionka, trans. NMR
This gives us a clue as to what the approach to culinary assimilation will be: the book is actually designed to help Poles in America change their habits and become more Americanised. This doesn’t mean there are no traditional recipes here: on the contrary, in the first chapter, we can find 10 recipes for barszcz alone (including Belarussian, Podolski and Wołyński), as well as half a dozen versions of krupnik (soup with groats).
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Polish immigrant children wearing handmade national costumes at Fairford Hostel, Gloucestershire, the Polish government is attempting to lure its immigrants back to Poland, but few are likely to return, original publication: ‘Picture Post - 8104 - Come Back To Poland’, pub. 1955, photo: Bert Hardy / Picture Post / Hulton Archive / Getty Images
Although this might seem excessive to the modern reader, and the recipes rather undifferentiated, we have to remember that the construction of cookbooks from 100 years ago was completely different to what we are accustomed to. There wasn’t really much specialisation, so most cookbooks collected basically all the recipes the authors knew.
Looking just at the first two chapters (about meat-based and vegetarian soups), we see that next to recipes typical of the Polish lands and regions of Eastern Europe (keep in mind, Poland would become an independent country only a year later, in 1918), we can find some rather mysterious concoctions. There are soups called ‘Andolus’ (where the only vaguely Andalusian link are tomatoes) and ‘Bagration’ (possibly named after the Georgian dynasty of Bagrationi, but not at all Georgian), as well as soups that are clearly recognized as American, since their names are written in English and put in quotes. These include ‘cream of pea’, ‘cream of celery’ and, most notably, ‘clam chowder’:
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Clam chowder (read: ‘klam czander’) is a very tasty soup made with snails similar to oysters, which are called ‘clams’ and are commonly used in all of America.
From ‘Kuchnia Polsko-Amerykańska’ by A.J. Kamionka, trans. NMR
The same applies to all of the other chapters, which are dedicated to meat, poultry and game, fish and crayfish, sauces, vegetables, eggs and desserts. It’s interesting to notice, which American ingredients might not have been known to the Polish reader and are therefore introduced or explained: salcyfia or oyster plant is not common in Poland to this day, but the author also decides to introduce thyme, watermelon and blueberries. The latter do, in fact, originate from North America, and in Polishe, they’re called borówki amerykańskie – American bilberries – although nowadays, Poland is actually one of its biggest producers in the world).
Exotic & domesticated
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The wife of a Polish farmer scoops lard into a bowl, the lard was made from a home-fed pig, location: near Hartford, Connecticut, photo: © Corbis / Corbis via Getty Images
There are also new, ‘exotic’ flavours such as curry powder (which is an essential addition to all of the dishes the author deems Indian) and catsup, or ketchup as Americans now call it – a sauce which we associate with the United States, although it probably has Southeast Asian origins. As Monika Kucia and Daniel Kiper wrote in an essay for Culture.pl:
Władysław Kopaliński in his ‘Słownik Wyrazów Obcych’ (Dictionary of Foreign Words) lists a few variations of this sauce’s name: ‘catsup’, ‘catchup’, ‘katsup’ and the now common ketchup. They are believed to derive from the Malay word ‘keczap’ (or ‘ketjap’), designating, according to Kopaliński, a spicy fish sauce. Michał Arct’s Interwar dictionary defines it: ‘Ketchup, also Catchup, spicy sauce consisting of tomatoes, mushrooms, spices, vinegar, etc.’ In England, in the past, various cold sauces were considered to be ketchups: there was mushroom ketchup, walnut ketchup, oyster ketchup and, finally, the familiar tomato ketchup.
The author introduces Polish readers to the American world of pastry, namely the concepts of pie, muffin and layer cake. For a translator, it’s actually amusing to see that some of the problems that remain unresolved in modern books – like the fact that a pie is not really a placek, nor is it a ciasto, which doesn’t translate to Polish, so it has to remain a pie, or, as Kamionka proposes, paj – were being discussed as early as 1917.
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It’s also quite fascinating to notice which flavours were believed to define a dish’s place of originh. As mentioned above, any dish – whether it was soup, tripe or veal (!) – made with the addition of curry powder was called ‘Indian’. ‘Chinese chicken’ was cooked with celery, ginger and cinnamon, while ‘Virginian hen’ – with corn and beans. What’s more, the author must have known some of the most important culinary establishments of the time, since we are served both Delmonico-style and Waldorf-style potatoes (both Delmonico’s Steak House and the Waldorf Astoria hotel remain, of course, New York icons to this very day).
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Polish dance, school children, New York , 1900, photo: George Grantham Bain Collection (Library of Congress)
Reading Kuchnia Polsko-Amerykańska today gives us an insight into how cookbooks were constructed a century ago, and what was considered important when approaching cookery in the New World. Itd also provides us with some clues about how different culinary cultures might have been perceived by Polish immigrants in America. It does not, however, say much about how turn-of-the-century Polish diaspora really ate – to understand that, we would also need to look at living conditions, food availability, bar menus in Polish neighbourhoods, and so forth. In-depth research on the Polish American diet in the early 20th century has yet to be conducted.
polish culture in america
Written by Natalia Mętrak-Ruda, Jun 2020