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What is Polish food all about?

Polish Heritage Cookery, the nearly 1,000-page cookbook my wife and I wrote back in early 1990s, defined Polish cookery as follows: “Polish cuisine is a blend of hearty peasant dishes and more elegant gourmet fare, served with a flair and generous helping of hospitality (...) It has succeeded in assimilating a broad cross-section of (foreign) cultural influence, but has not lost its distinctly Slavic favor in the process.”

Polish food is a bit more inclined towards the tart and tangy than mainstream American cooking
Polish food is a bit more inclined towards the tart and tangy than mainstream American cooking
Polish cookery might be described as a middle-of-the-road European cuisine, meaning that is has wide potential appeal. It is less fiery than the food of Hungary and Mexico, less vinegary than German cookery, less starchy than that of Czechoslovakia, and not as sweet as traditional Jewish cuisine. One the whole Polish food is a bit more inclined towards the tart and tangy than mainstream American cooking.”

Like every other cuisine, Polish cookery has developed as the sum total of the geographic, economic, cultural, religious and even political factors that have gone into the nation’s making.

When Poland was first emerging as an independent state at the turn of the second millennium, the basic staples for the masses of peasantry were coarse breads, groats, root vegetables and the plentiful wild mushrooms and berries that were there for the taking. Wild honey was the only sweetener available. Back then, the upper classes ate pretty much the same kind of plain and simple fare with the addition of plenty of fish and meat, especially wild game. The peasant also occasionally feasted on the game he managed to ensnare, except that was called poaching and entailed painful consequences if he got caught.

Over the centuries, foreign monks, itinerant merchants and travelers as well as soldiers returning from the military exploits abroad brought with them the foods and eating habits of distant lands, including exotic Middle Eastern spices and fruits.

A major turning point occurred in the early 16th century when Italian Princess Bona Sforza became the Queen of Poland after marrying King Zygmunt the Old. She moved to Poland with her entire court, bringing along her cooks, gardeners and the copious use of hitherto unknown ingredients such as tomatoes, lettuce, leeks, cauliflower, spinach and chives. To this day the standard soup greens (carrot, parsley root, celeriac, Savoy cabbage and leek) used by Polish cooks are referred to as włoszczyzna (Italian stuff).

Although the 18th-century partitions deprived Poland of its independent statehood for 123 years, they did enhance Polish foodways through closer contacts with the cuisine of the three occupying powers. Wars, invasions, occupations, uprisings and reprisals, destruction and reconstruction also played a part in the overall process. Like everyone else, refugees, exiles and prisoners also had to eat but were often forced to make do with what was available. Perhaps that too has helped to shape Polish culinary ingenuity — the creative ability the whip up a tasty and appetizing repast from next to nothing.

When the first bread-seeking immigrants arrived in America in the latter half of the 19th century, they naturally brought along their traditional food preferences. Accustomed to crusty, full-flavored rye bread, they found that spongy cotton-fluff stuff (American white bread) highly unpalatable, so they baked their own. They also tried as best they could to replicate the foods they grew up with in the Old Country. As more and more Polish immigrants flocked into America’s cities and towns, ethnic bakeries, grocers, butcher shops and poultry stores sprang up to cater to their needs, and existing farmers’ markets expanded their offerings to include the things the Polish newcomers needed.

The familiar Polish dishes were especially in evidence whenever the whole family gathered at Christmas and Easter, for christenings, First Holy Communion parties, nameday get-togethers and festive Sunday dinners. Apart from grandmothers, mothers and daughters who kept their families fed, early Polonia did develop a category of cooks specializing in weddings and funeral banquets.

Unlike the old Polish neighborhoods of yesteryear, most Polish Americans now live in ethnically diversified areas and probably don’t get a steady diet of traditional Polish delicacies anymore. But for many, the dishes they remember from their childhood continue to be their foods of preference whenever the opportunity arises. Since more and more of them are now visiting Poland, that gives them a chance to compare the foods of their family circle with what is now being served in their ancestral homeland.

There are many good Polish restaurants serving the traditional dishes Polish-American visitors remember from their childhood. But the tastiest, most wholesome food of all, both in Poland and Polonia, continues to be prepared by those homemakers who have ignored the industrial fad foods and convenience items, stick to their family heirloom recipes and insist on preparing things from scratch using only the finest, natural ingredients. To which all the need be added is: “smacznego!” (Bon appétit!).

Author/Source: Robert Strybel