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History of Food in Poland and America

by Rosemary A. Chorzempa

Poles are noted for their hospitality, and serve food to their guests at every gathering, no matter how large or small. Czem chata bogata, tem rada (The little cottage shares what it has.). Even in times of government rationing of food (for example, the 1980s, when meat, butter, sugar, chocolate and other foods were rationed by the Communists) or poor economy, Poles serve whatever they have, even if it means going without after their guests leave.

For many centuries, social status, politics, economics, geography and history played a large part of the everyday diet and special events party food of Poles.

In the Middle Ages (5th to 15th centuries), the staple diet consisted of cereal crops (millet, rye, wheat), groats, meat (wild game and farm animals such as pork, beef and poultry), fruits, berries, honey, herbs and spices, and lots of salt (from the Wieliczka salt mines). A large portion of the daily diet came from beans and peas, with cereals and meat.

The groats (whole grained hulled kernels of oat, wheat, rye) were soaked before cooking, boiled with optional flavors and used is soup and porridge. Kasza is one of the oldest known dishes in East European cuisine, having been eaten for more than 1,000 years. Dairy products such as butter, sweet cream, sour cream and buttermilk, made their way into Polish recipes. Dairy and eggs have always been used profusely in Polish cuisine.

People gathered many foods from the forest: mushrooms, berries, nuts and wild honey; many Poles nowadays still do. Commoners did not use bread, but depended on cereals or flatbreads. The difference in the diets of the upper and lower classes was mostly in the quality and quantity of the meat consumed. Fish and lentils were also consumed. Soon vegetables such as carrots, onions, cauliflower, parsnips, beets and turnips grew in popularity. Fried onion and mushrooms were the primary flavors in Polish kitchens, even today. Many root crops grow well in the cooler temperate climate of Poland. Root crops, those that grow underground like carrots, potatoes, and beets, store well for months.

When King Sigismund I married the Italian Bona Sforza in 1518 A.D., the Queen brought her Italian entourage to Poland, including her cooks. They brought with them lettuce, leeks, celeriac and cabbage, which became extremely popular and easy to grow in Poland. Many foods brought from southern Europe and America and western Asia that were served at court became part of the Polish cuisine: oranges, lemons, olives, tomatoes, potatoes, corn, chestnuts, raisins, almonds (including marzipan), rice, cane sugar, olive oil, parsley, dill, fennel, ginger, cloves, cinnamon, black pepper and nutmeg. Because of the trade between Poland and Turkey and the Caucasus countries, spices like nutmeg, marjoram and black pepper were much more affordable than in the rest of Europe.

Poland was the breadbasket of Europe until around 1600 A.D. Polish wheat commanded the highest prices in the European markets, because of its quality. Then the climate cooled (called “the Little Ice Age” in Europe, lasting more than 200 years) and wars ripped through Poland. Peasants ate better in the earlier Middle Ages than they did at this time. Most people’s diets suffered from the political and economical changes, even through the 1800s. The population increased rapidly, despite mass emigration.

By 1700 A.D., following the grain production crisis, potatoes began to replace the traditional use of cereal grains. Potato recipes were included in the oldest surviving Polish cookbook, called the “Collection of Dishes,” by Stanisław Czerniecki, published in Krakow in 1682 A.D. After the partitions of Poland by Austria, Prussia (Germany) and Russia in the late 18th century, Polish cuisine became heavily influenced by those of the conquering nations. Potatoes became the staple food of the growing number of town dwellers by the 1840s. Poland and the rest of Europe was hit by the potato pest in the 1846-1855 time period, causing disease, starvation, and increase in the mortality rate and decrease in population. Soon the Poles began to emigrate.

They drank beer (especially ales with hops, easily grown in the temperate climate) and mead/miód (made from fermented honey). Daily beverages were milk, whey, buttermilk, small beer and herb-infusions. Vodka was being made in Poland from grains (rye) or potatoes since at least the 8th century, became widespread by the 11th , and large scale production began by 1600 A.D. Vodka is at least 40 % (by volume) alcohol.

Tea became popular in the 19th century, because of the Russian influences during its occupation of Poland. Hot tea was flavored with berry juice, sugar or lemon, and no cream or milk was used. Tea is served in tall glasses, not tea cups. Coffee was introduced to Poland in the 18th century, and is served with whipped cream.

Horseradish, native to eastern Europe, is grown for its root which is grated and mixed with vinegar, and sometimes beetroot, and served as a condiment with meats such as kielbasa, or in horseradish soup.

Two of the dishes most identified with Polish cuisine are kielbasa and pierogi. Kielbasa is a fresh sausage (not smoked) made of coarsely-ground pork with the fat left on, and with spices added, such as marjoram and garlic. Kielbasa-makers guard their secret-ingredient recipes.

Smoked kielbasa, sometimes called “Polish kielbasa” or “Polish sausage” in American grocery stores, is another type of sausage. Many cooks in Poland today make their own kielbasa, and it is as varied as the hundreds of recipes for it, ranging in consistency from the coarse well-known kielbasa to something similar to an American hot dog, in fresh and smoked varieties.

Pierogi (one is called a pieróg) are dumplings traditionally filled with cheese (often ricotta, curd or pot cheese), potato, sauerkraut, fruit or ground meat. A stiff dough is rolled out, and circles of dough are cut out. A small portion of the filling is put in the middle of the circle, the dough is folded over and the edge is sealed with a little water and crimped. The pierogi are then boiled in a large pot of water until they float, scooped out and set aside. Pierogi can then be frozen; or if to be served soon afterward, pan-fried in butter with or without onions, and garnished with sour cream if desired. Pierogi were traditionally considered peasant food, but gained popularity through all social classes. In the 1600s, pierogi were a staple of the Polish diet.

The patron saint of pierogi is St. Hyacinth, who lived in the 13th century. An old expression of surprise is “Święty Jacek z pierogami!” (“St. Hyacinth and his pierogi!”) Legend says that Hyacinth invented pierogi, and fed them to the poor people of Kraków.

Soups are popular: beet soup (clear, or with sweet or sour cream), mushroom soup, cabbage soup, chicken soup, cold fruit soup (often drunk from a glass), czarnina (duck blood soup), flaczki (tripe soup), dill pickle soup (with sweet or sour cream, dill, chopped or grated dill pickles, meat stock or broth, sometimes with diced potatoes and carrots).

Fresh cucumbers were sliced and mixed with dill and sour cream (or sweet cream and vinegar) to make a type of salad. To preserve the cucumbers and have another vegetable available for the winters before refrigeration, many Polish households made dill pickles in a crock. The classic recipe called for a brine of water, vinegar and salt, fresh dill heads, garlic cloves, and grape leaves to preserve the crispness of the pickle.

Cabbage was used in many dishes, sometimes mixed with other ingredients to form a dish like cabbage and noodles. Sauerkraut was made in ceramic crocks. Sweet and sour cabbage uses just a few ingredients besides the cabbage: onion, sugar, vinegar; sometimes bacon, apples or caraway seeds are added.

Gołąbki (pronounced “goh-woomp-kee”) or “little pigeons,” also known as stuffed cabbage or pigs in a blanket (because of the traditional use of ground pork), are made by wrapping a partially-cooked cabbage leaf around a mix of ground pork (or ground beef or turkey), parboiled rice and maybe a few herbs. The pigs are then placed in a casserole dish and covered with tomato soup, juice or sauce, and placed in the oven.

The bread most associated with Polish cuisine is rye bread, with or without caraway seeds. Rye is well suited to the Polish climate, and rye bread has been made there for more than 1,000 years. Placek is a sweet “coffee cake” yeast bread, with or without raisins, usually reserved for special occasions.

There are many kinds of Polish desserts, most well-known being nalesniki and babka. Nalesniki are thin crepes filled with a sweetened soft-cream cheese type of filling, or a fruit filling. Babka is a yeast cake baked in a bundt-type pan, the name meaning a grandmother, with the cake resembling the petticoat or skirt. Poppy seed cake is a yeast roll filled with ground poppy seeds. Gingerbread is popular, especially famous is the Torun piernik, made since the Middle Ages in the city of Torun.

Pączki (one is a pączek) have been made since at least the Middle Ages. They are made from very rich ingredients, with lots of eggs, which give true pączki their yellow color. Traditionally deep fried and plain with no filling, or prune- or cheese-filled, they were dusted with sugar, powder sugar or left plain. A wee bit of spirits (alcohol) was added to the dough before frying, as it evaporates it prevents the oil from being absorbed deeply into the dough.

Chrusciki are fried pastries shaped like twisted ribbons made with many eggs, flour, cream and often rum. Kolaczki are made by rolling out dough, cutting it into small squares, placing a small amount of nut or fruit filling in the center, then folding over two corners onto the filling.

Many Polish and Polish-American housewives made their own kluski, noodles for soup and other dishes such as cabbage and noodles, even until the 1960s. A very simple recipe of flour, eggs, salt and water was mixed and rolled out on the wooden board, then cut with a knife into the desired width and length noodles. The kluski were dropped into boiling water to cook, or dried for later use.

All parts of an animal were used when it was butchered. Chicken neckbones were used for making soup, and duck blood was used for the czarnina soup. All the parts of pigs and cows, including the tongue, heart, liver, feet, snouts and blood, were used for making meat products like head cheese, liver sausage and kiszka (blood sausage).

Baked or fried pastries, like chrusciki (pronounced “kroosh-cheek-ee” – angel wings), pączki (pronounced “pahn-chkee”) and pies, use lard for shortening, which adds a distinctively delicious flavor and makes a flaky pie crust. Lard also was used as an inexpensive replacement for butter on bread. Pre-Lenten foods used the richer and forbidden (during Lent) ingredients like butter and eggs, to make treats like pączki. Just in the past few years, Pączki Day, the day before Ash Wednesday, has become a kind of American national feast day in communities like Toledo with Polish-American residents. Traditionally, pączki and chrusciki are eaten on Fat Thursday, the last Thursday before Ash Wednesday, in Poland.

Many Polish food customs are connected to the Catholic Church calendar. On Fridays all year long, the people abstained from meat (and in some families, meat products also, like eggs). During the 40 days of Lent, there were also food restrictions. On Easter Saturday, the forbidden foods, like ham, and kielbasa, and the richer foods, like placek and cakes, eggs (a symbol of the Resurrection, often decorated in ornate patterns with wax and dyes – pisanki), horseradish (representing the bitter Passion) and butter molded or carved in the shape of the Lamb of God, were placed in a Święconka (pronounced “shvyen-sohn-kah”) basket. The baskets were taken to Church on the Saturday afternoon before Easter Sunday and the food was blessed and prayed over by the parish priest. The wonderful smells from all those baskets tempted everyone to nibble on the foods as soon as possible, but the food was supposed to be eaten on Easter Sunday.

On Christmas Eve, the Wigilia (pronounced “vih-gee-lee-ah”) dinner began after the children spotted the first star in the dark sky. Traditionally a meatless dinner, it was served with many courses. Before the Wigilia, the opłatek (an unblessed and unleavened wafer of flour and water) is shared by the family with greetings for each other. A colored wafer was given to the farm animals. Ornaments like stars and worlds were cut and assembled from opłatki and hung as decorations.

From centuries-old traditions (czarnina was served to a rejected suitor by the girl's parents) to modern ones (Pączki Day), food plays a big part of celebrations by Poles and Polish-Americans. Polish food is probably the best-known party food in America, even being served at weddings of non-Poles.