The Tastes of Home: Polish Cuisine in the New World
default, Two women pierogi makers in aprons and hairnets at Pola Foods, located at 2303 West Cermak Road, Chicago, Illinois, 1988, photo: Richard Younker /, center, pola_foods-gettyimages.jpg
Often, to find new opportunities, a family’s primary breadwinner leaves home and country behind. But what kind of bread do they find in the places where they wind up? How do they preserve their culinary traditions? And how does cuisine travel?
The United States of America is home to the largest number of Poles outside of Poland. According to data collected in 2009 by the United States Census Bureau, there are more than 10 million Poles and people of Polish origin living there today (10,091,000 to be exact). Almost 600,000 US residents speak Polish at home. Poles and people of Polish origin currently comprise 3.2% of American society.
Buds of memory
A street view of the Old Donut Shop in Krakow (Stara Pączkarnia) on Stradomska Street. Thursday, 27th September 2018 in Kraków, Poland, photo: Artur Widak / NurPhoto via Getty Images
In her book Nowy Jork: Przewodnik Niepraktyczny (New York: An Impractical Guide), Kamila Sławińska writes:
Those who say that they would like to return do not use big words. They say ‘mom’, not ‘motherland’. They say ‘friends’, not ‘patriotism’. They say ‘homemade krupnik’, not ‘tradition’.
The taste of well-known dishes is often the most significant way of staying in touch with one’s own culture. And, often, the easiest method of presenting one’s country of origin is, in fact, through food. There is a part of our memory that stays forever in our taste buds, an imprint of specific flavours in our brains – something that will forever possess ‘this’ particular flavour and smell, something that will give us ‘this special feeling’ on our palates and in our hearts.
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Pierogi, pączki and krupnik arrived in the USA along with Polish immigrants in the second half of the 19th century. The mass emigration of Poles to the USA began in the 1870s and came mainly from the Prussian Partition at the time. In total, around 1.2 million people left Prussian Poland between 1872 and 1913, and between 450,000 and 600,000 of them went overseas – mostly to the United States (the rest of the 1.2 million ended up in Germany’s Ruhr region).
Emigration from the Austrian Partition, most notably from Galicia, had its beginnings in the 1880s. People left for the United States, but also to South America (the so-called ‘Brazilian rush’). It is estimated that until 1914, around one or 1.1 million people of Polish, Ukrainian and, in fewer numbers, Jewish origin emigrated from Galicia. According to a rough estimate, more than 80% of them left for the Americas (mainly the United States and Brazil), while the others mostly ended up in other Habsburg-ruled states. Only a fraction settled elsewhere in Europe.
The peak for emigration from the Russian Partition was in the 1890s. It is estimated that out of the total number of between 1.3 and 1.4 million people who left the Russian Partition (mostly from the countryside), around 75% went to North America, 10% to South America and the rest to other European countries. Many of these migrants were Jewish.
'A couple drops'
Two young Polish peasant women ready to leave Ellis Island, ca. 1910, photo: Bettmann / Getty Images
A peasant who was well-experienced in travelling advised his brother-in-law, who was crossing the Atlantic:
Now, my dear brother-in-law, if you have them, you should take some things for the road with you: two roasted geese, a couple roasted ducks or chickens and around two loaves of whole-wheat bread, because you won’t eat the stuff they give you onboard. Oh, and take two long sausages of your own making, those with lots of salt, pepper and garlic. And make sure they are well smoked! If you like smoked sausages raw, take them raw, but if you don’t, cook them – but remember that they have to be smoked first, or they’ll spoil on the ship. Also, pack some hard cheese and when you arrive in Bremen, near the sea, you should buy at least two quarts of good vodka. This will be like medicine for you onboard, because you won’t have much of an appetite. Simply take a couple drops from the bottle…
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This quote comes from Małgorzata Szejnert’s book Wyspa Klucz (The Key Island), in which she writes about Ellis Island, the small island near New York City that for many years was called ‘the gate to America’. From the end of the 19th century until the 1950s, it housed a centre that was in charge of dealing with immigrants arriving in the United States. During that time, almost 12 million people travelled through the island.
These people, who were often very poor, were not able to take much with them, so except for basic provisions, they packed only their best folk clothing, prayer books and family souvenirs, such as photos (although these were taken very rarely). But that is not all they took. They also took with them their memories of particular flavours. Later, they would look for them everywhere, trying to recreate them using whatever could be found in the places where they ended up. They cultivated the traditions of pickling, baking and celebrating, because it is in celebrations that traditions are preserved. This is how cuisine travels.
Knowledge of their mothers
There are magazines in the US that have been published since their establishment in the 19th century. One of them is the weekly Zgoda (Agreement) – the first magazine of Polish immigrants in the United States, which has been published by the Polish National Alliance in New York since 1881. It had a special women’s issue, thanks to which we can see how Polish housewives cooked in their new homes and what culinary advice they were given. The magazine was aimed at maintaining patriotic sentiments among the people, so it is not surprising to find a column entitled Z Dziedziny Sztuki Kulinarnej (From the Domain of Culinary Arts) – in which an anonymous author reminded readers:
America is a country of mixed people, and everybody cooks in their own way. It happens quite often that the mother arrived from Europe, brought some culinary knowledge with her and maintains her new home as she would have done it in the old country. But it is a rarity for daughters to put some effort into learning and using the knowledge of their mothers. So when the mother is gone, the daughter starts to cook in the American way, which makes the dogs hide their tails between their legs and hide. And we have steak, porkchops, ham and eggs over and over again. The husband becomes less and less picky, gets used to it and ends up indifferent towards everything. Towards everything, I repeat.
Traditional recipes appeared in the magazine most frequently. Among them were the not-so-easy faworki (angel wings), the everyday pearl barley with mushrooms, brain chops, grey tongue – this cuisine, a predecessor of zero-waste cooking, was rooted in the poverty of a people that could not afford to throw anything away.
As elements of other immigrants’ cuisines were slowly absorbed into Polish kitchens, the magazine also gave advice on how to prepare American dishes such as ketchup (written then as ‘catsup’ or ‘catchup’ – we will return to this) or the Chinese chop suey.
'And so our customs should change'
The great thirst for knowledge concerning Polish cuisine is evidenced by the fact that over the course of a couple dozen years, there were several editions (starting in 1890s) of the book Kuchnia Polsko-Amerykańska: Jedyna Odpowiednia Książka Kucharska Dla Gospodyń Polskich w Ameryce (Polish-American Cuisine: The Only Proper Book for Polish Housewives in America). It was written by A. J. Kamionka (its 1917 edition, published by Bracia Worzałłowie, Stevens Point, Wis., is available on Polona). There was also another, similar book, the more modest Kucharka Polska i Amerykańska (A Polish and American Cook), which offered a slightly smaller collection of recipes for homemade meals, vegetables (as a side for dinner), potato dishes, soups and cakes. The publisher promoted its publication in this way:
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We often say that every country has its own customs, and this is never more true than in the kitchen. The living conditions and food products are different in America than in Poland so, inevitably, the cuisine has to differ. Because it is in our interests to adapt to the local living conditions and relations and to reap the benefits of this country equally with Americans, we should not forget how important the knowledge of food products and their preparation is here. And so our customs should change in this regard as well. One of the obstacles in achieving this was the lack of a good cookbook, because most of the cookbooks offered to the Polish-American audience were reprints of European titles, written with European, and not American, conditions in mind. So, to make up for the lack of such a Polish cookbook adapted to American conditions, we give you this publication and hope that it will live up to its task in the fullest.
Alongside typically Polish dishes, Kucharka listed American novelties such as gingersnap cookies and pączki, already referred to as doughnuts.
Ketchup, as it is written today, is invariably associated with the United States and the American lifestyle. However, it came to America from England and to England from the British colonies. 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.
A recipe from Kucharka Polska i Amerykańska:
Rinse tomatoes with boiling water, peel them and then boil them until they are soft. Grate them with a sieve. Per every gallon of obtained liquid, add two quarts of vinegar, two tablespoons of salt, two tablespoons of sugar, two tablespoons of dry mustard, a tablespoon of Jamaican pepper (allspice), a tablespoon of cinnamon, a teaspoon of black pepper, a teaspoon of cloves, three quarters of a teaspoon of red pepper. Obviously, all these spices need to be powdered. Mix everything well and cook for an hour. Afterwards, pour it into a bottle and cork it shut.
Another way: Add half a quart of salt to a bushel of tomatoes and cook until they are completely soft. Afterwards, grate it through a sieve. Add half a tablespoon of cloves, a tablespoon of Jamaican pepper (allspice), one sixth of a teaspoon of red pepper (cayenne), pour into a kettle or a pot and cook until only 10 quarts are left. Pour hot into bottles, add some melted wax at the top and cork it.
In Poland, allspice is commonly added to rosół – traditional chicken broth. It grows in South America and the Antilles. The English term allspice accurately portrays its character as it blends the spiciness of pepper with the aroma of cloves and cinnamon.
Missing fried fish
Pierogi Fest: Vanessa Izokaitis & Sara Kubisz of Indianapolis, Indiana do the 'Hokey Pokey', Indiana, photo: Paul Warner / Getty Images
There are 25 Polish restaurants registered in New York City, and they mostly serve traditional dishes – big portions of fatty foods. In 2017, a pierogi place called Pierogi Boys opened in Brooklyn. Its owners, Krzysztof Poluchowicz and Andrzej Kinczyk, skilfully transform the traditional dish and fight against stereotypes associated with Polish cuisine. They serve handmade pierogi with high-quality fillings, which is unique in and of itself. The modern design of the place and its location in DeKalb Market Hall increase Polish cuisine’s prestige and visibility. Cuisine is something unmistakably nostalgic for Polish immigrants:
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Every week we make trips to Greenpoint to buy familiar sweets, Polish sausages, Hortex juice. There’s the humiliating feeling of having to ask everybody to repeat what they’ve just said. Two times, sometimes three or four. The first Christmas away from family – not as joyful as it should be. Learning, in the most literal and direct way, what being uprooted means.
From 'Nowy Jork: Przewodnik Niepraktyczny' (New York: An Impractical Guide) by Kamila Sławińska, trans. MW
I met young Poles in New York, who often live like New Yorkers. One day, they eat in a Thai restaurant. Another day, they go to a Greek restaurant. And suddenly, during Christmas, they make homemade pierogi. They could order Thai food, but they pull out a pastry board and begin to roll the dough. Immigrants miss many things. They miss mushroom picking in Mazury, Christmas Eve dinners, the smell of fried fish in Łeba. This might be the strongest and the most fundamental attachment. One that cannot be substituted.
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In the 19th century, the native cuisine of every European immigrant served for them as a symbol of their homeland. When somebody held a reception for other Poles, they would serve two soups that would symbolise the national colours: red borscht and rosół (white borsch was not considered noble enough, hence the broth). Food and traditional dishes are always strongly connected to identity – the Polish language, and maybe the idea of being Polish itself, has been preserved in dishes that share this elusive flavour that we call home. A flavour that did not abandon us, even overseas.
Originally written in Polish by Monika Kucia in coooperation with Dr Daniel Kiper of The John Paul II Catholic University of Lublin; translated by MW, Oct 2018
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Monika Kucia is a curator and culinary journalist (sialababamak.pl), as well as a designer of culinary trips and study visits. Kucia is an ambassador for Polish regional products to the world, and an organiser of cultural, artistic and educational events. She is the curator of the Polish Table: Mine, Yours, Ours project.
The Polish Table: Mine, Yours, Ours project is a joint project by the Museum of Food and Drink in Brooklyn and the Adam Mickiewicz Institute in Warsaw. Polish Table: Mine, Yours, Ours explores what flavours Poles brought with them to America from the Old Country, how they morphed over the years, and what remains of their old culinary traditions today.