My Polish Deli Haul

The liturgical calendar with its seasonal religious holy days/holidays is the warp and woof of Roman Catholicism. After 27 years of being a Catholic before trusting in Jesus Christ as Savior by faith alone in 1983, I had had my fill of following the liturgical calendar, but I don’t begrudge my fellow believers who enjoy the seasonal religious holidays. I’m also not a fan of using the word, “Easter,” for the commemoration of Resurrection Sunday since it may possibly have a pagan connection (although the presumed connection to the pagan fertility goddess, Ishtar/Asherah, is not an open-and-shut case as some assume, see here), but it’s not my hill to die on, either.

Anyway, last Thursday, Easter/Resurrection Day was coming up and for any Pole that means getting some “fresh” kielbasa. Many of you are familiar with the delicious smoked variety of Polish sausage/kielbasa, but you may not know about the fresh, unsmoked biała (“white”) version. Growing up, my family always had fresh kielbasa for the holidays. So delicious. But it’s hard to find. Fresh kielbasa was occasionally available at our local big box grocery store, Wegmans’, but I haven’t seen it there in long time. No big loss. Their version of fresh kielbasa isn’t all that good, anyway. The word “pedestrian” comes to mind when thinking about Wegmans’ fresh kielbasa. You see, a Pole is very fussy and discriminating about their fresh kielbasa. Nope, my aim was to drive to the Polska Chata (pronounced pole-skuh ha-tuh, “Polish House”) deli/restaurant in Irondequoit to pick up a couple of pounds of fresh kielbasa because I knew from experience that theirs was excellent.

So, on the Thursday before Easter/Resurrection Day, I first took a trip to the Dybowski Authentic Polish Market (photo above) on Hudson Avenue on the fringes of Rochester’s old Polish Town neighborhood. Dybowski’s has a much larger variety of Polish food items than Polska Chata and I had a few things in mind. The place was busier than downtown Warsaw with Rochester Poles preparing for Easter/Resurrection Day dinner. I bought two cartons of Krakus brand zurek (“sour rye soup”) and two bottles of Vavel (Americanized version of the Polish Wawel) brand black currant juice aka czarna porzeczka nektar. Both zurek and black currant juice are very popular in Poland. Both food items are so delicious. I also couldn’t resist browsing Dybowski’s impressive sausage display. They have about ten different varieties of smoked kielbasa in addition to many other types of Polish-style meats. I ended up buying two large links of cherry wood smoked kielbasa aka kielbasa wisniowa. I also noticed they had two varieties of fresh kielbasa, but I was determined to pick up my biała sausage at Polska Chata.

Above: Polska Chata deli/restaurant

I then got in my car and drove the two miles to Polska Chata and they were packed with customers as well. The deli/restaurant changed hands in 2018, but I was hoping they still offered the fabulous fresh biała kielbasa that the previous owner, Margaret Gorniak, had shipped in from Toronto. No such circumstance. As I stood in the long line, I noticed several customers requesting fresh kielbasa and the owner retrieving frozen…ach…FROZEN fresh kielbasa from the back freezer. Two problems, 1) fresh kielbasa should never be frozen, and 2) the kielbasa looked mediocre, like the stuff Wegmans’ sells’. It certainly wasn’t the sausage imported from Toronto that I bought in previous years.

So I got in my car and drove back to Dybowski’s. I asked the young pana behind the display cases, which of the two fresh biała varieties she recommended. She suggested the big, fat variety produced by the Winding River Meat Company (Bloomfield, NJ, Joe Krzyworzeka, proprietor). The kielbasa actually resembled my previous favorite imported by Margaret G.

I drove home with my Polish stash and a couple of hours later I prepared my fresh biała kielbasa. Unlike smoked kielbasa, you don’t pan fry fresh kielbasa. My mom always boiled it, but I subsequently learned from “old country” Poles that there’s only one way to cook fresh kielbasa and that’s to put it in a pyrex baking dish with about a half-inch of water, cover with aluminum foil, and bake at 350F for 45-60 minutes.

Mój, o, mój! My, oh, my! The fresh biała kielbasa from Winding River was sooooo good. The best I ever had. My wife concurred that it was the best she had ever tasted. Very little fat. Mild. No grizzle. The cherry wood smoked kielbasa wisniowa was also good, but I couldn’t detect the slightly sweet flavor it was claimed to have.

Well, my Polish fresh kielbasa excursion adventure definitely had a happy ending. I’ll be going back to Dybowski’s in a month or two for another Polish fix.

Note: Fresh kielbasa is served with freshly-ground horseradish.

Above: My Polish deli haul: Back row: Krakus zurek sour rye soup and Vavel Black Currant Juice. Front row: fresh biała kielbasa and cherry wood smoked kielbasa wisniowa.
Above: Some of the varieties of smoked kielbasa on display at Dybowski’s
Above: A large variety of food goods imported from Poland line Henry Dybowski’s store shelves

Polska Dotty

Polska Dotty: Carp in the Bathtub, Throttled Buglers, and Other Tales of an Englishman in Poland
By Jonathan Lipman
CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2011, 224 pp.

5 Stars

When Americans consider traveling to Europe for a vacation, they rarely think of Poland. If you go to Amazon.com, you’ll find very few Polish travelogue books. Why is that? Due to its unique history, Poland didn’t have a chance to develop at the same pace as other European countries. Poland was absorbed by Russia, Austria, and Prussia in the late-18th century and did not reappear as a nation until after the conclusion of the First World War. The Great Depression hit a decade later, followed by the horrific devastation inflicted by the invading Nazi Germans and Russian-Soviets, followed by 44 years of Russian-Soviet domination and oppression. Poland finally achieved its independence in 1989 and has been trying to catch up economically ever since.

In this interesting book, British lawyer, Jonathan Lipman relates his experience living in Poland from 1997 to 1999. Lipman had met a Polish panna (single woman) when the two were studying at Oxford in 1994. They subsequently married and Lipman took a job with a Warsaw law firm advising on foreign business investment contracts written in English.

Lipman describes daily living in Krakow (home of his wife’s family) and in Warsaw along with some interesting vacation trips to Sopot (a resort city on Baltic Sea) and Zakopane (a village in Tatra Mountains). He devotes chapters to such topics as transportation in Poland, weather, religion and festivals, entertainment, customer service (or the lack thereof), Polish work ethic, and “the Polish character.” There’s also a chapter on Polish-Jewish relations, a fascinating topic that I studied intensively during my long “prodigal season.” Poland is probably the most Catholic country in Europe, but as Lipman describes it, Polish Catholicity is mostly about bonding with family via religious rituals and traditions.

Although the events and observations described within happened over twenty years ago, this book still offers many very relevant and astute insights into the Polish nation and its people. The author interjects a good amount of entertaining droll British humor throughout, although there are some British-isms that will leave the American reader scratching their head. For an independently published book, this was very well done. I read the Kindle version and the transcription was excellent. I’m impressed.

Postscript: Poland isn’t all Soviet-style, utilitarian, nondescript, gray, architecture. There are many, many lovely spots to visit. My wife and I spent five days in Krakow in 2016. The extremely well-preserved, former capital of Poland until 1596, Krakow was largely untouched by WWII bombardment. Krakow’s central city is as nice a place to visit as any city in Europe.

Above: A view of a portion of Krakow’s massive main market square, the Rynek Główny, at nightfall. It’s the largest medieval town square in Europe at 9.4 acres.

American Warsaw?

American Warsaw: The Rise, Fall, and Rebirth of Polish Chicago
By Dominic A. Pacyga
University of Chicago Press, 2021, 329 pp.

5 Stars

This book is a fascinating history of the large Polish diaspora in Chicago, Illinois. Polish immigrants came to the city in droves as part of the Za Chlebem “for bread” migration in the years 1860-1918. These immigrants of partitioned Poland were mainly poor peasant stock seeking better opportunities in the United States. They were attracted to Chicago because the city was a growing industrial center that required many low-skill, manual laborers. Next to Warsaw, Chicago would eventually become home to the world’s second largest Polish population.

The Catholic church, the repository of Polish nationalism in partitioned Poland, played a leading role in the establishment of Polish immigrant neighborhoods. Tensions arose as Poles challenged the dominance of Irish Americans in the American Catholic hierarchy, leading to the splinter Polish National Catholic church and the rivalry between the Polish Roman Catholic Union of America and the more secular Polish National Alliance fraternals. Many Poles intended to return to their homeland if Poland were ever re-established as a nation (that happened in 1918), but those dreams faded over time. The relationship between the Chicago Polish diaspora and Poland, with its struggle for independence and subsequent trials and tribulations under Nazi and Soviet domination, is a fascinating story.

Subsequent waves of Polish migration to the city occurred following World War II and during the Solidarność (Solidarity) opposition to the Soviet Polish government, 1980-1989. There were often tensions between the new arrivals and the Americanized Poles over Polskość (Polishness) or who is really Polish?

Following World War II, returning Polish American vets and their families began moving out of the city to the suburbs. Some Polish institutions remain within the city proper, but many of the old Polish neighborhoods with their modest houses are now home to African Americans and Hispanics. In Greater Chicago, generational assimilation continues to grind away at Polish ethnic identification.

“American Warsaw: The Rise, Fall, and Rebirth of Polish Chicago” is a thoroughly enjoyable read for Polish Americans and for others interested in the history of immigration to the United States. This book would have been even better if the author had given some focus to a particular Za Chlebem immigrant family or two and their generational journey through assimilation and acculturation.

Postscript: Roman Catholicism is so interconnected with Polskość (Polishness) that a Pole who is not Catholic, like myself, is considered by many to not be a “true Pole.” For a believer, while our ethnic, racial, or national identity can be a positive and enjoyable aspect of who we are, it’s (very) subordinate to our identity in Jesus Christ.

Postscript 2: While reading this book, I could not help but think of the millions of Ukrainian refugees currently fleeing Putin’s genocide. Local news has reported that a few of the refugees have already made their way to the Ukrainian diaspora community here in Rochester.

Fading Polish-American Identity

The Blondes of Wisconsin
By Anthony Bukoski
University of Wisconsin Press, 2021, 152 pp.

5 Stars

Like many industrial cities in the Rust Belt, Rochester had its Polish Town neighborhood, which was centered along Hudson Avenue, north of Clifford Avenue. The Polish immigrants of the late-19th and early-20th centuries settled along Hudson Avenue and established churches, businesses, and social clubs where Polish was spoken and the shared ethnicity was the binding currency of the “Polonia” neighborhood. My paternal grandparents lived on Avenue D, just a few houses down from Hudson. Vets returning from World War II, like my Dad, chose to buy houses in new developments in the bordering suburb of Irondequoit rather than live in Polish Town. Second-generation Polish immigrants had a strong desire to assimilate and downplay their ethnicity.

As first-generation Poles died off, their small, cottage-style houses were bought by African Americans who had moved up to Rochester from Sanford, Florida and elsewhere in the South to take advantage of the city’s then-economic opportunities (Kodak, Xerox, etc). Polish businesses and institutions in the Hudson Avenue neighborhood shuttered one after another. Manufacturing has since moved out of Rochester and most of the city’s neighborhoods, including the old Polish Town, became steeped in poverty. There’s still a few hold-out Poles and Polish-owned businesses and institutions remaining in the crumbling and crime-ridden Hudson Avenue neighborhood. I occasionally frequent a Polish deli on the fringes of the old neighborhood.

Anthony Bukoski has written several books of short stories about life in the declining Polonia of Superior, Wisconsin. “The Blondes of Wisconsin” is his latest offering. These are sad and melancholy tales describing characters living amidst the last gasps of fading Polish ethnic identity, just like the few Polish-Americans still living on Hudson Avenue. This is a reminder that all things of this world are fading and are built on foundations of sinking sand. Polish ethnic identity was strongly intertwined with membership in the Roman Catholic church. St. Stanislaus Roman Catholic church is one of the few Polish ethnic landmarks remaining on Hudson Avenue and inside they still preach a false gospel of salvation by sacramental grace and merit.

Above: Boarded up cottage-style houses in nearby Buffalo’s vast former Polonia neighborhood. This style house was also typical in Rochester’s Polonia neighborhood.
Above: A vintage photograph of the former Christ Polish Baptist Church on the corner of Hudson Ave. and Roycroft Drive in Rochester, N.Y., a Gospel light in a thoroughly Polish Catholic neighborhood. The church was built in 1911, however, the small congregation disbanded in 1945 and the building was subsequently demolished.