So, it’s Pączki Day. In a tradition believed to have been started as a way of using up all the sugar, fruits, and dough before Lent starts tomorrow, Polish people everywhere are eating absurdly rich donuts filled with fruits, creams, and/or chocolates, called pączki (and pronounced, roughly, “PONCH-key”). This observation of excess is celebrated by Americans of Polish descent throughout the country, but especially in the Midwest, where we’re particularly numerous. I’m Polish. I like doughnuts. This is a holiday made for me.
There’s just one problem: Before a couple days ago, I’d only ever heard it mentioned once in my life. The person who talked about it came from the Detroit area, and I assumed this was something that was local to Michigan. But the other day, my wife, who grew up in Chicago, pointed out a sign on a donut shop advertising Pączki Day. “What’s that?” she asked.
“Oh, huh,” I replied with my customarily sage-like pith. “It’s a Michigan thing that must be making its way here.” And I didn’t think anything of it.
Until yesterday, when she brought a box home from the grocery store. We each had one for dessert. They were delicious. So I hopped onto Wikipedia* to try to track the origin and progress of Pączki Day.
In Poland, they are eaten especially on Fat Thursday (the last Thursday before Lent). Many Polish Americans celebrate Pączki Day on Fat Tuesday (the day before Ash Wednesday). Traditionally, the reason for making pączki was to use up all the lard, sugar, eggs and fruit in the house, which are forbidden during Lent.
Ah, OK, makes sense.
In the large Polish community of Chicago, and other large cities across the Midwest, Pączki Day is also celebrated annually by immigrants and locals alike. In Buffalo, Cleveland, Detroit, Hamtramck, Windsor, Milwaukee, Pulaski and South Bend, Pączki Day is more commonly celebrated on Fat Tuesday instead of Fat Thursday.
OK, wait a minute. I’ve lived in Cleveland and Chicago and I swear I’d —
[L]ines at bakeries can be seen up to 24 hours before the deep-fried delights go on sale Tuesday morning. This happens especially in Parma, Ohio at Europa Deli & Imports, Colozza’s Bakery and Rudy’s Strudel and Bakery.
What? I used to live right down the street —
The same thing happens also in Buffalo, NY, Cleveland or Garfield Heights, Ohio…
But Garfield Heights is where I grew up!
…outside the Charles Peters Bakery, which is near the border of both cities (at the triple intersection of Turney Road, Grand Division and Sladden Avenue).
That’s across the street from my house!
According to Garfield Heights police, one year 3,000 people waited for pączki. Police had to close Sladden Avenue, and Rybicki and Son Funeral Home had to delay funerals due to this.
OK, WHAT THE Tłusty Czwartek IS GOING ON HERE? I swear to God I have no knowledge of this. Can someone get me a nutritional anthropologist, stat? I need to know when this observance started in this area, because either it’s very recent, or I’ve stepped into an alternate dimension.
Or I’ve gone mad.
UPDATE: One of my grade-school classmates posted this on Facebook: “Sorry, Joe we have always had pączki today….. gram used to make ’em every year…and they lived on Garfield Blvd for 40 some years…..” Can has new brain now pls?
*UPDATE 2: Changed the link to reflect the version of the page I was looking at at the time.