Talking Poland with Papa

Over the weekend, I had a long conversation with my Papa (grandfather) about foodways. Before going into the interview, I knew a little bit about his background from the stories I heard growing up and the food we would eat. My grandpa’s family comes from Poland, but they moved to Chicago in the early 1900s, and that is where my Papa and his siblings were raised. They opened a restaurant where I had thought they served predominantly Polish food, but it turns out that they mainly served Czechoslovakian food that catered to the community of Western Chicago known as Little Bohemia. I will get into that more again later, but first, my Papa and I talked about Polish food on the holidays.

When I asked him how big of a part Polish food played in his life, he responded by saying that he remembered eating Polish meals on holidays.They would make pierogi, which are kind of like dumplings in the sense that they are boiled dough, but my Papa’s family filled them with potato and farmer’s cheese, and also golumpki which is meat stuffed cabbage. He said that “golumpki was a special treat because it was a lot of work.” He told me that “all those foods were tied to the Catholic holidays. Christmas and Easter were both big polish holidays.” What was very interesting to me about him saying that is that these traditions have carried on throughout my family. Every Christmas and Easter we have a brunch that consists of Kielbasa (polish sausage) with beet horseradish and sometimes homemade pierogies, although making a pierogi is very time consuming and difficult so unfortunately it isn’t something my Nana is able to do as much anymore as she is getting older. However, hopefully this year I can learn the recipe so that I can make them for everyone. Another huge tradition we have is dying our Easter eggs by boiling them with onion skins. I didn’t know that this was a Polish tradition, but I looked it up and it turns out it is known as “Pisanki.” In Polish tradition, “Natural dyes are prepared from vegetables and other plants. Onion skins are the most common dye, producing shades of brown, bronze and gold” (“Welcome to the PGSA”). I remember when I was little, my siblings and I used to argue over getting the golden eggs. We would have egg cracking contests, and the golden eggs were always the strongest, so naturally we would fight over who got them. 



As I mentioned earlier, I knew that my Papa’s family owned a restaurant called the Plantation in Western Chicago, but what I didn’t know was that they only had a couple of Polish dishes and actually were mainly serving Czechoslovakian food. My Papa explained to me how where they lived in Chicago was filled with what were known as Czechoslovakian “bohemians” who were “radicals, hippies, people outside of the norm.” According to Thomas Friese, “Bohemia [was] a historical country that was part of Czechoslovakia from 1918 to 1939 and from 1945 to 1992” (Friese). When they bought the restaurant it was actually called Little Bohemia and even though they changed the name of it to The Plantation, they still kept a lot of the former restaurants most popular dishes because they were really popular in the neighborhood. 

Bohemia in Czechoslovakia

After learning about the Czechoslovakian background of the restaurant I began to learn a bit more about The Plantation itself. As you can see in the picture below, it was a fancy restaurant. Their most popular dishes were “a pork dish with dumplings and sauerkraut, and duck with dumplings and sauerkraut.” Although these were considered Czechoslovakian dishes, my great grandfather changed the sauerkraut to a polish version including split peas. My Papa said it really was one of the most delicious things in the world and people loved it. He also said that they made their sauerkraut from scratch and I really wanted to know what that entails and luckily I found this really fun video by Brad from Bon Appetit where he made it from scratch. Of course Brad is hilarious, but even watching his light-hearted video it is clear how complicated of a process it is. It helped me a lot while trying to picture my Papa and his father making it every day from scratch for the patrons of the restaurant.

The Plantation

My great grandparents at The Plantation

 I thought it was really cool to hear about my great grandfather blending his culture of food into the restaurant because it reminds me of how we have seen so many variations of Mexican foods throughout this course. It actually reminded me a lot of the chapter from American Taco, “Jewish and Kosher Tacos” where Jose Ralat talks about putting pastrami and pickles on tacos. He writes, “the beef pastrami slices, thin and presented atop tangy sauerkraut, are the briny ribbons to the kick of the pickled serranos bows. And then there’s the mustard, a required condiment if ever there was one” (Ralat, 170). Just like these pastrami tacos, the Polish version of sauerkraut was delicious and people loved it!

That thought brings me back to pierogis. At the end of my conversation with my Papa we went back to talking about pierogies and how everyone makes them differently. He said he has seen families make them with meat, onions, and cabbage as well as sweet versions with fruit.  It reminded me a lot about how empanadas and tamales can change so much based on what part of the world they are being made in. For example, in Planet Taco, Pilcher talks about how the Florentine Codex made “tamales with greens served in crab sauce and tortillas made with cactus fruit” (Pilcher, 40), while the Mayans “prepared nixtamal as porridges and tamales with various wrapings and fillings” (Pilcher, 40). It is so interesting how every culture has a food that is essentially meat, potatoes, or vegetables wrapped in dough.

 When it comes to my family, we make them with potatoes and farmer’s cheese. That is very important, my Papa says “it has to be farmer’s cheese.” It really does make the world of a difference because the texture is completely different if you use a different type of cheese. However, farmer’s cheese is very expensive so not everyone will do that, especially when it comes to mass consumption. My Papa told me about how they were a lower-class food. In fact, “it is known that this food was introduced in the United States at the onset of the Great Depression. Pierogi were originally a family food among immigrants and were also served in ethnic restaurants” (“The Polish Villa Restaurant). But like many foods, as richer people discovered the dish it became more expensive by using fancier cheeses, meats, and fruits, depending on what filling you want. It is also a very complicated process which you can see in this video from YouTube. 

Lastly, my Papa talked in length about how important cabbage is to Polish food. It is cheap and it lasts a long time. Poland has very long winters, so it was a staple item in Polish cuisine, like corn in Mexican food. Many of the foods he described in the interview such as golumpki and sauerkraut were reliant on cabbage. While recording my interview, some of my audio cut out, but luckily my mom was nice enough to record my Papa talking about his favorite foods and how they were cooked! Here is the video:

I really enjoyed doing this project and learning more about my heritage and my Papa’s relationship with Polish food. I hope you all enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed making it!