A couple of months ago, I wrote about my “Polish phase,” when I immersed myself in my Polish heritage (see here). That recent writing trip down memory lane got me thinking about things Polish once again, so I checked out our local library’s online catalog and spotted the novel, “The Best Polish Restaurant in Buffalo” and put a hold on it. Even better, I subsequently discovered Amazon offers a Kindle version free to Prime members (see here).
The Best Polish Restaurant in Buffalo
By William Kowalski
Orchard Street Books, 2017, 216 pages
It’s 1908, and sixteen-year-old Aniela and her two sisters and mother are on a ship to “Ameryka” to escape their difficult existence in partitioned Western Poland, where the Prussian-German occupiers oppress the Polish inhabitants and the menfolk of the family mistreat their women. They arrive in New York City and make their way by train to Buffalo where there is, they have heard, a large Polish community. The women scrape to eek out an existence as cleaning women for Buffalo’s wealthy citizens, but they still earn more than they could ever dream of in their small farming village in Poland. Aniela eventually marries, has children, faces tragedy, and sets a course for her family by establishing a bakery in the city, which is eventually transformed into a popular restaurant serving Polish favorites.
Interspersed with the chapters describing Aniela’s struggle in the early-twentieth century, are chapters set in 2015, which focus on her forty-five-year-old great-grandson, Iggy, who manages the restaurant she started. The Poles moved out of the city to the suburbs long ago and the ethnic restaurant has seen a steady decline in customers to the point where it’s no longer feasible to remain open. Iggy wrestles with the inevitable. By closing the restaurant, he feels he’s betraying his great-grandmother, his family, and his Polish heritage. But he’s the only one who seems to care. The rest of the family eagerly anticipates any money they can make from the sale of the restaurant building while Buffalo’s Polish population generally stopped caring about their heritage decades ago.
Bravo! I don’t read fiction that often, but I was delighted by this novel. The author captured the hopes and fears of the late-19th, early-20th century immigrants from Poland. Buffalo’s burgeoning Polish community on the city’s East Side allowed the immigrants to establish a stake in their new homeland with the strong support of their fellow Poles. It’s estimated that 380,000 Poles resided in the Greater Buffalo area by 1923. Kowalski interjects a lot of Polish words and names of Buffalo Polish landmarks to give this story a very authentic feel.
Iggy’s despairing story juxtaposes poignantly with Aniela’s optimism and determination. The old aspirations that motivated the Podbielski family for four generations had finally run dry.
During my “Polish phase,” I often made the one-hour trip to Buffalo to check out the old East Side Polish neighborhood. Most of the Poles began moving out to Cheektowaga and other suburbs after World War II. What’s left is a mammoth, sprawling area of urban decay with a declining number of Polish institutions (churches, social clubs, taverns) still hanging on by a thread. You wouldn’t want to walk this area during the day let alone at night. It’s actually an amazingly decrepit area to drive through. There’s street after street after street where every third or fourth home is boarded up. Buffalo’s economy flatlined when the steel industry and other heavy manufacturing moved out and has never rebounded.*
There are still a couple of Polish restaurants in the blue-collar suburb of Cheektowaga owned by the Kutas family (they once owned the legendary Warsaw Inn on Broadway), but the futures of those establishments are less-than-tenuous. A meal of kielbasa, pierogies, golabki, and kapusta just doesn’t appeal to 5th-generation Polish American millennials. See the two websites below:
I’ve eaten at both locations and the fresh (not smoked) kielbasa, the barometer of any Polish eatery, is only so-so. Feeling brave? Ask for a large bowl of Czernina aka duck blood soup. Yes, you read that correctly! In Poland, it’s served infrequently, but over here it became a novelty staple at Polish restaurants.
As much as I enjoyed this novel, I’m reminded that no one can find fulfillment in their ethnicity or by any other temporal pursuit or status. The only lasting fulfillment comes from salvation by God’s grace through faith in Jesus Christ alone. The author refers several times to Aniela’s Catholic faith, which is a mixture of religious legalism, ritual, and Old World superstitions. Not much has changed in that respect for most Polish Americans.
* Presidential candidate, Donald Trump, was appalled by the economic miasma of Western New York when he visited Buffalo and Rochester as part of his 2016 campaign. In July 2017, President Trump stated that Upstate (including Western) New York was beyond any economic hope and that everyone should move out and go to where the jobs are. See here. Don’t worry, President Trump. Western New Yorkers have been moving out of this highly-taxed, economic disaster area at a significant rate for the last 30 years.