Confession: I almost never eat what
most Americans, including most Polish-Americans, think of as "Polish
food": pierogies, kielbasa, "bigos" – hunter's stew, or
"kotlet schabowy" – breaded, fried pork cutlet.
As I'll detail below, though, what most Polish-Americans think of as
Polish food really wasn't authentic Polish food at all.
Another confession: I served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Nepal and I
fell in love with my dream cuisine in the Himalayan Mountains of the Indian
subcontinent. From the poorest peasant homes in the shadow of Mount Everest, to
street stalls in Bombay, I never had bad food. Well, some of the food was
tainted, yes, and I did get every intestinal parasite you can imagine, but that
was a small price to pay to discover this cuisine. It's low-fat, satisfying,
nutritious, and easy to digest (when it's not tainted).
Indian-Nepali meals are based on combinations of legumes and grains or
other starches that produce complete protein. A meal is typically rice plus
lentils, or wheat chapattis plus chickpeas, or chickpeas plus potatoes, or, if
you are really lucky, some dairy product like raita – yogurt with some spices
and maybe a bit of shredded cucumber. How we would yearn, up in the hills, how
we would talk about it for days, if we hit the trifecta – rice AND lentils AND
yogurt. Rounding out the meal are vegetables and hot, spicy, maddeningly flavorful
achars. One of my
favorite achars is made from unripe mangos, garlic, salt, hot pepper, spices
like fenugreek, and mustard oil. Mouth-watering. My mouth, right now, is
In a tiny, isolated, Himalayan settlement –
can't really call it a village – an illiterate and barefoot woman with soot
perpetually blackening her fingernails served me an achar made from "lapsi" – hog plum. I've
never had this lapsi achar, or anything like it, anywhere else. The lapsi had a
liquid, seductively elusive texture. Though surrounded by heat, it was cool. You'd
catch it on your tongue and it would elude you – always tempting, never letting
you feel secure of its taste or texture. As coy as a flirt at a dance. And this
in a tiny mountain hamlet populated by subsistence farmers without electricity
or running water who would never travel more than fifty miles in their entire lives.
You've got to respect a cuisine that can produce moments like that.
I used to trek for weeks, up and down thousands of feet a day,
saluting the sunrise under parrots winging overhead across sweltering river
valleys and through fat rice paddies up to thigh-deep, snow-choked ten-thousand-foot
passes, and do all that on a Nepali staple: roasted corn and soybeans. I felt
strong and well fed. Never a hunger pang, never an upset stomach.
After my first Nepali meal of daal-bhaat-tarkari (lentils,
rice, and vegetables) I never looked back. To this day, food to me is,
primarily, rice and beans, lovingly handled fresh vegetables, and judiciously
applied spices – always with something exotic and surprising in there to keep
the tongue engaged, after yet another meal of rice and vegetables. But, alas,
never anything as good as that long-ago lapsi achar.
|Neither the Nazis nor Soviets ever reduced us to this. Source.|
harshest confession of all: Gastronomic Poles make me want to scream. Gastronomic
Polonians are convinced that Polishness is something fatty and starchy that you
put in your mouth. If you post a photo of a pierogi on your facebook page, that
makes you REALLY Polish.
I wish the pierogi-brains
would come to recognize, cherish, and respect Polish thought, Polish writing,
Polish scholarship, the heroism of Polish minds and hearts, their fellow,
living, Polonians. Someday, maybe. Someday. Meanwhile, I filter their facebook
posts. Starch? Fat? The essence of Polishness? No. Please. No. Not the Nazis,
nor the Soviets, ever reduced Polish identity to the triviality so beloved of gastronomic
When I was living
in Poland for a year, I bitterly wrote a Polish cookbook. Here it is, in its
entirety: "Shoot it and fry it. Dig it up and boil it."
Admittedly, 1988-1989 was a bad year for Polish cuisine.
Communism was dying and the comrades were really tightening the screws. I
remember days spent just walking around Krakow, looking for something I might
want to eat. If you saw people standing in line, you didn't ask. You just
joined the queue, and bought whatever they were selling from the back of the
truck, from oranges to carp.
After we, in an Orange
Alternative protest, threw cartons of yogurt at a statue dedicated to the
Soviet "liberation" of Poland, you couldn't buy yogurt in Krakow for
love or money. Smalec – lard – seemed always to be available, and it amazed me
that people actually wanted to eat it. In America eating lard would sound like a
category of dementia. "Doctor, he's going mad. He insists on eating
lard!" Or a form of slow-motion suicide. "He's trying to kill himself
slowly. He keeps eating lard. Closing off one heart valve, and one taste bud,
at a time."
Jacek, a Jagiellonian University
student, was offered a scholarship to go to England. He sat me down and asked
me to provide him with key sentences he'd need as soon as he got off the plane.
His very first request: "How do you say, 'I want lard?'"
I gazed at Jacek with compassion. "Jacek, when you get to
England, you won't have to eat lard." He could only look puzzled.
England was probably grateful to Soviet-era Poland for being
one country that could, by comparison, make English cuisine appear appetizingly
Communist Poland's dreadful food situation
was encapsulated in jokes. Poland was the rebellious Soviet-bloc nation. After
the crushing of the Prague Spring, the Czechs were seen as more obedient. Chronic
food shortages were Poland's punishment for its refusal of the communist yoke.
Czechoslovakia was rewarded with better consumer goods. Thus the joke:
Two dogs meet at the border between Poland and Czechoslovakia.
The Czech dog says, incredulously, to the Polish dog, "Why on earth are
you trying to enter Czechoslovakia?"
The Polish dog responds, "I want to taste your
meat." He, in turn, incredulous, asks the Czech dog, "Why on earth
are you trying to enter Poland?"
The Czech dog responds, "I want to bark."
I did achieve gastronomic nirvana
in Communist-era Poland, though: in spring, when the berries come into season,
and flood the farmer's markets. You could step into any ramshackle stall on any
side street and buy enough blueberries, at cheap enough a price, to dye your
I also loved zurek, fermented rye soup.
Thick, sour, and hot – on overcast days, the soul craves it. Salad made from
finely shredded cabbage, carrots, vinegar, salt, pepper, and a pinch of sugar:
perfect. Zapiekanki: a split baguette, buttered mushrooms, mild, melted cheese.
Nothing else. As yummy as anything you will eat anywhere, ever. And I love my
kiszka, aka kaszanka, all the naysayers be damned. Buckwheat groats and blood
stuffed into a pig's intestines: what's not to like? And headcheese.
I remember asking an ex-boyfriend, very American, if he wanted
to meet my family. He said, "As long as they don't feed me anything made
out of the head, intestines, or feet of a pig."
was astounded. It was early in the relationship; I had not yet revealed to
Captain America my closeted passion for kiszka or headcheese. And this guy had
grown up in Ridgewood, N.J., an exclusive suburb of assimilated achievers, not
at all a center of Polish butchers. Where did he get this idea of Poles as
eating pig heads, feet, and intestines? Anyway, we do. Glad when that
relationship ended. I've forgotten his name.
told me that her first memory was the sound of a pig being slaughtered. Later a
Croatian-born friend, Bruno Zovich, would tell me the same thing. I've since
heard the sound of a pig being slaughtered, and I now understand.
My Slovak mother used to make a Slovak specialty: cow lungs.
Slovak peasants made use of animal parts that others might ignore, including
cow lungs. In 1971, the U.S. Wholesale Meat Act declared lungs unfit for human
consumption. How do I know this? I remember it. It was a black day in our
My mother announced to the family, in the kitchen, with
great sadness, frustration, and grief, that the butcher told her that the
American government had passed some kind of law outlawing human consumption of
cow lungs, and the butcher wouldn't let her have them anymore. To her it was
just further proof, along with Yalta, coal mines and American passivity during
the crushing of the Prague Spring in 1968, that America was a perfidious nation
bent on making the lives of Bohunks miserable. As good a theory as any.
My mother used to rhapsodize about a childhood treat in
Slovakia: cakes made from beets. My mother and I finally returned to Slovakia,
and our gold-toothed, black-clad relatives there, as part of immediately and
thoroughly satisfying my mother's every whim, whims stored in mothballs since
her tearful, forced departure decades before, cooked up some of these legendary
beet cakes, cakes whose unique deliciousness I had heard heralded in praise
songs all my life.
I ate one of the moist, hot, gritty,
dirt-flavored, barely sweet, very heavy cakes and instantly barfed. I can still
taste it, going down and coming back up again. I felt a surge of compassion for
my mother. *This* was your special treat? The highlight of your childhood? No
wonder you are the way you are. Beet cake and the squeals of slaughtered pigs.
And the slivovice. Don't get me started on the slivovice. Do a blind taste test
of slivovice and kerosene; see if you can detect a difference.
Goat milk. My mother always insisted that she had been raised
on goat milk, not cow milk, like Americans, and that's why Slovaks were
superior to Americans in every way – that early infusion of goat milk, and
avoidance of cow milk. As good a theory as any.
One of the many things that gastronomic Poles don't get is
that their idea of Polish food is not their ancestors' idea of Polish food.
Most of us Poles descend from peasants. As Wyspianski put it in "The
"There are people who despise me
Just because I'm peasant born.
When they see a scythe, they
How it makes me sad at heart.
We're all in this
and we've all got peasant blood."
Polish peasants did not eat a lot of breaded pork cutlets. Probably
not even a lot of pierogi.
In his beautifully written
and invaluable memoir, "From
Serfdom to Self-Government," Jan Slomka described the Polish peasant
menu. It was painfully simple and there wasn't much meat. Food was potatoes,
peas, beans, buckwheat, cabbage, bread, fish and eels, and maybe a pig a year. Wincenty
Witos wrote, "There were months when we did not see a piece of
bread." Sugar, citrus fruit, cucumbers, and tomatoes were inaccessible.
"There would be every year with rare exceptions pre-harvest famine."
I experienced something like this menu when I went to visit my
mother's village in Slovakia.
A big, immediate
surprise: hunger. My Uncle John (Jan) did not even own a refrigerator. Why
should he? If he wanted to eat something, he went into his field and harvested
it, or to his stock animals and killed it. He went down to his cellar and
sliced off some pig fat. He did purchase bread and yogurt at the store.
We visiting Americans were quickly hungry, and we really
didn't know what to do about it. My mother, so aggressively Slovak in America,
realized how American she was in Slovakia. These people were pulling out all
the stops for us, but we weren't used to their ways. We weren't used to going
hours without eating, and eating only what grew in the backyard.
Finally my mother pulled my Aunt Jolana aside and explained
that I was hungry. My aunt immediately went into the backyard and killed a
But I ate the
Chickens are often quite disgusting in
their behavior. They like to eat luggies, something I saw too much of in Nepal.
Some village guys, without other entertainments, would really get into feeding
the chickens their spit. Also, chickens peck their fellows to death. This makes
chickens easier to eat. Easier than, say, puppies. Well, you can dislike the
chickens, but then you realize you are eating previously digested luggies and
fellow chicken, and then you turn to the rice. At least until hunger and time
cause you to forget the mental images of chickens eating spit and each other.
Slovakia was the first place I ate visible bugs in food. I'm
something of a clean freak and had a real problem with bugs when I was a kid. My
beloved Aunt Jolana served me chicken broth with bugs floating on top. I was so
hungry, and I loved her so much, I spooned it all down. I wasn't so hungry, and
I did not love her enough, to erase this memory of my self-sacrifice for my
aunt. I can still see that bowl of chicken broth in front of me, the fat
forming iridescent rings on the surface, and the little floating bugs I dare
not even pick out with my fingertips while my aunt's back was turned.
I remember my Uncle John sitting down to his own meal, while I
was served the guest's meal of chicken broth. He ate a slice of pig fat and a
fistful of hot, raw chilis for lunch. "Strycko!" I protested. "Uncle!
That pig fat is bad for your heart!"
great grandfather Gregor Cerno ate this for lunch every day, and slivovice,
too, and he lived to be 93!"
You can't argue with
these people. How do you argue with people who are still vertical after being
flattened by both Nazi and Soviet tanks?
bread: dense, heavy.
Whenever I return to America after
a long time away, I go to a produce store, and a salad bar. I crave lightness,
including light food: California lettuce, Florida oranges. And it's all there,
and cheap. We Americans are so damn lucky, and we don't realize it.
But there were cherries in Slovakia. I remember walking under
a tree and a boy hanging upside down by his knees and offering us his hat full
of cherries. And the yogurt was so thick and so good, and it had a skin of
cream on top.
What was I
That I don't eat much Polish food.
But, really, this is what I was saying: It's been a tough few
I got back from Poland, in August, 2011, my computer died.
And then, in September, 2011, we had the flood. See here. That footage was
taken a few hundred feet from my front door.
After the river
entered our building, brusque and unsmiling authorities insisted that we leave,
immediately, no questions asked.
I tried to explain that
I am Polish, and we can handle any kind of an invasion, even one by water. The
authorities evacuating us were scarier than the flood. I think someone told
them, "You are evacuating Paterson. A tough town. Be as rough as possible."
I was wearing a shirt, shorts, and sneakers. I
threw my sleeping bag onto my back and headed out into the night, unsure if I'd
see any of my stuff again.
Charlene Lovegrove is a
saint; she put me up for the duration.
I came back, and
I saw my stuff again. :-) I was much luckier than my neighbors who live lower
down in the building. They learned the lessons that loss teaches.
I bought another computer from Office Depot. It arrived with a
broken on/off switch. I bought another computer from Office Depot. It arrived
with a broken DVD player. I tried to buy a computer from Dell. Kafka himself
could not imagine the tortures to which Dell subjected me. Over the course of a
week, by email, facebook, and telephone, Dell operatives in Pakistan approved, and
then canceled, my order ten times. Why? They wouldn't tell me, but I do live in
a low-income, high-minority neighborhood, which even Dell operatives in
Pakistan may know. Still no computer.
But, really, the
worst thing is this.
I spent every free second of fall,
2011, applying for full-time teaching jobs.
thought this might be my year.
I published "Bieganski,"
a prize-winning, scholarly book. It has been praised by big names and it won an
award. I've spoken about it at Brandeis and Georgetown and universities and
museums in Poland.
I will publish a literary book soon,
Send Delete," and it has received advance praise from bestselling
authors like Robert Ellsberg and Larry Dossey.
bosses and students continue to give me evaluations that warm my heart and make
And, after all those job applications this
fall, nothing. Not even an interview. I can't overcome the
fate of too many of the ethnically incorrect working class in the Ivory Tower.
I'm sad about leaving teaching. What next? Any work I
I wish there were something out there for me
where I could make use of my passionate commitment to Polonia. I wish I did not
have to go to waste. Polonia, I wish you cared. I wish you supported your
The New Year was not a time of popping
champagne corks around the Goska household.
A friend showed up the other day with a brown paper grocery
bag from Schwind's Pork Store.
Someone bringing me groceries? On what planet? No matter what is going on, I
have always managed to stock my own pantry, and other people's, as well, by
hook or by crook. Food is primary, baby. All Bohunks know that.
The contents of this brown paper grocery bag shocked and awed
me: the biggest kielbasa I have ever seen. I measured it – two and a half feet.
(Enough with the snickering! This was actual sausage, not a euphemism for some
naughty something else.) A loaf of rye bread that I can only describe using
terms usually reserved for heroic feats, historical eras, and tracts of
geography: this rye bread was vast, this rye bread was imposing. This rye bread
was monumental! And a tub of sauerkraut saturated with pork fat, studded with
little bits of crackling.
I just did not know how to
First of all, as a Bohunk American woman, of
course I felt affronted, castrated even. (We are a pretty manly bunch.) How
dare anyone bring food into MY kitchen! Bohunk food no less! I CAN ACQUIRE MY
OWN FOOD THANK YOU VERY MUCH! I give YOU food, YOU do not give food TO ME!
Thems the rules!
But this person was obviously trying
to be nice. "In Poland there are no women, only ladies," as the
saying goes. So, I accepted the bag graciously, with feigned gratitude, wondering
how I'd dispose of its contents.
After this person left
… I took a little bite, just a little bite, of the kielbasa.
Paging Grand Duke Witold, Wanda, Pilsudski, my late father!
But that kielbasa tasted so good. So amazingly good. Beyond good. It was waking
up areas in my limbic system that have not been so much as tickled for years. I
wanted to give the maker of this kielbasa an NEH grant. This was an art form!
I went further. I approached the mountain range of rye bread.
Really, I wish I could introduce you to this loaf of rye bread. If it were a
human being, I would marry it. If it would only have me! It is so earnest,
macho, unyielding. This is serious bread!
I dug out my
special bread-slicing knife. No wimpy serrated pseudo-steak knife or butter
knife. This bread demanded a knife at least a foot long and designed to slice
very serious bread.
Approaching this bread, I flashed
on an otherwise long-forgotten memory.
My Aunt Jolana. My
Uncle John's partner. The woman I lived with when we visited my mother's natal
village in Slovakia so many years ago.
Aunt Jolana was
the single most beautiful ugly woman you'd ever see. Jet black hair, pale, pale
skin, bulbous nose, deep eyes, pools of kindness and ready sentiment and
laughter and tears. Loose, abundant flesh and loose, flowing dresses. She was a
human candle. She radiated love. Healing, warm, endless, generous love.
Jolana was a witch. Through an elaborate ritual involving
muttered incantations and the measuring, pouring, and re-measuring of water she
had poured onto my prostrate form, she removed an evil eye curse from me that
one of the villagers had put on me in church. Of course I am grateful to her
for that. On sturdy legs, Jolana rode her bicycle all over neighboring
villages, ministering to those in need of beneficent witchcraft.
Uncle John and Aunt Jolana's union was not blessed by the church. My uncle
had a "real" wife in the village. "I was tired of a skinny woman
dressed all in black and I wanted a fat woman in colorful clothes who
laughs." What could I say? It's hard to argue with an uncle who has killed
a man. (Yes, he did. But it was justifiable! At least as he told it. I never
heard the other guy's side.) My uncle condemned the priests as
"blazons" – lunatics. My Aunt Pavlina, Uncle John's sister, bought
the church an expensive golden monstrance. My family.
is what I suddenly remembered the other day, after my friend brought the
groceries, including the epic rye bread: Aunt Jolana would pick up a loaf of
rye bread, one as imposing as this one my friend had brought over on Friday,
and hold it against her bosom, and, long knife in other hand, she would saw
through the bread, toward her breast. She never even looked at the bread, never
so much as glanced at the knife rapidly approaching her breast. The whole time,
she would be gazing at me, smiling, as if I were a miracle baby she had found
in the field of rye out the window. And then she would hand me a slab of perfectly
cut bread. And the knife never so much as nicked the loose cloth of her dress. That
long ago slice that Jolana handed me in Slovakia tasted just like the bread my
friend brought over the other day.
I couldn't get the
same payoff from even the best Indian meal as I got from this kielbasa, rye
bread, and sauerkraut.
Eating these foods, very well
made kielbasa, and sauerkraut, and rye bread, I remembered the best times in my
family. The old folks would get together. They would speak in their own
languages: Polish or Slovak and sometimes Yiddish, depending on who was there.
These people were not perfect. But this can't be denied: they
survived. They survived so much. And sometimes, sometimes, they laughed, and
danced, and sang, and managed a humanity that taught me about how deep and
complex and untameable life can be. I used to feel so good, as a kid, just
being in the background, maybe washing dishes or drifting off to sleep, hearing
all the stories, the stories about how much they survived.
The cabbage saturated with pork fat is almost
gone. The kielbasa is still floating my boat out to sea. The bread now dominates
So, no, I don't eat a lot of Polish food.
But this food that my friend brought over the other day did a lot for me,
reminded me of a lot, knitted a few things together, present and past, dreams
and reality, muscle and bone, memories of my family and me, gave me the
strength to go on for another day, in a way that only Bohunk food could.
Below is an excerpt from the very
excellent book, Jan Slomka's "From Serfdom to Self-Government."
Slomka describes the cuisine of average Polish peasants.
As for articles of food, only salt and beverages were bought in the shops.
Village folk lived mostly on what they themselves sowed and planted on their
own land. Potatoes, peas, beans, buckwheat, cabbage, soup, and, of course,
bread – these were the regular eatables at breakfast, dinner, and supper.
Special breads or cakes were made for the yearly festivals from home flour,
ground by hand or at the mill. People never bought flour at the village store.
Beef was never eaten the year through, unless by the well-to-do, who would buy
it for Christmas or Easter. It was used in case of sickness. Yet meat was
cheap, only a few cents a pound.
Nor was it the habit
to kill chickens or fry eggs for home use. Both were rarely done. Eggs were
used almost exclusively at Easter time, or for sick folk. The housewife might
fry some for a guest, e.g. the village priest, when he came for the Christmas
offering. This was thought to e the highest mark of respect for him. The women
preferred to turn these things into money to buy salt with. The saying was that if you have salt in the
house, you have everything. They begrudged both the expense and the time
involved getting ready fancy foods, and the saying was: 'Am I to wrack my head,
and make faces, and lose time!' The fact was that apart from the simplest
things, they did not know how to make anything.
used a good deal, more than nowadays. They were caught in the ponds on the
pasture and meadowland. Most common were carp and jackfish. They were eaten
Most common were the eels, and especially in the
forest areas, where there were marshlands. They could be caught during the
whole year, but best in winter. One set a trap under the ice, a so-called
'funnel' woven of wild vetches, with a bait of pea-straw inside. Eels were
caught in heaps. When caught they would be nailed alive to stakes or rods, and
smoked in order to keep them from spoiling. In this condition the peasants
would sell them at the fairs, carrying them in bundles or baskets. They cost a
few cents a pound, and were used chiefly cut up in soup instead of bits of
sausage. They tasted good and were nourishing. One could eat one's fill of this
broth, just as of porridge.
People used to gather wild
mushrooms more than they do nowadays. There were many kinds, and they were
stewed with buckwheat meal. When dried they were used in soup during Lent. For
frying things bacon or tallow tht had stood a while was used, since then there
was a 'flavor' to it, and a little sufficed. Every farmer, poor as well as better
placed, took care to have a pig to kill in time of need, since in this way he
was sure of fat for home use. The well-to-do killed two or three times a year,
others only once – mostly in winter-time. Aside from this, butter was used, and
during Lent the practice was to use only oil – mostly linseed.
For seasoning the commonest means in use were: mint, dried and
crushed into tiny pieces; caraway, which was sprinkled into sauerkraut, and
into the dough before the loaves were made, or scattered on top of the loaves;
sage cut up, used in summer together with beet leaves in soup or for sausages;
parsley in potato soup or with mashed potatoes, and finally pepper, used in
vodka, sausages, cottage cheese, as well as in bouillon or broth.
For breakfast, there was soup, and with it rye bread. If there
were potatoes enough, then as a second course we had fried potatoes, or boiled
ones with salt. When bread was scarce, potatoes were used instead with the
soup. For dinner we had two courses: cabbage with buckwheat or other meal to
thicken the sauerkraut, while the second was a sort of milk pudding. At times
for a change we had dumplings, made like doughnuts of coarse wheat or rye meal,
ground at home. They were either done with milk or in fat. Again we might have
little patties with cottage cheese, but during Lent instead of curds linseed
was used, from which the oil had been pressed out. Supper was just another
The head of the house, the children and the
servants ate from one dish. The dish stood on a talbe, or bench, or the stump
of a tree in the middle of the room, and all sat about it, or, rather, the
elders sat while the children stood. Where the family was large some would have
to reach by the othrs to get their food. Before the meal there was a tussle to
get the biggest spoon. Only the housewife could not eat with the rest, since
she was constantly bringing more food. While the soup was being eaten either
the father or the eldest hired man was in trouble, for he had to cut bread for
the rest, and only then had he a chance to eat. He would cut it in large
slices, so that they would last longer for others and he himself would have
time to eat.
In those days, folk had pretty good
appetites. When soup was prepared the housewife had to reckon at least on a quart
for each two persons, while each week the baking used half a sack of rye flour.
As for potatoes or sauerkraut, what one man ate then would do for five
Coffee, tea, sugar, rice, raisins, almonds,
oranges, lemons – things sold today in every store with other articles of food
– were virtually unknown in the village. One could find them only in one of the
shops in Tarnobrzeg. If coffee or tea were used it was only on great occasions,
such as at Christmas or Easter. In case a few coffee beans were left over, they
were wrapped up with care and kept till next time.