September 19, 2019
Essay

Poland’s persona evident in cuisine

Editor’s Note: Phil Galucki a Jefferson resident who worked for more than two decades as a Maine Superior Court reporter in midcoast Maine, recently traveled to Poland to trace his family roots and celebrate his daughter Lauren’s college graduation. He never missed a meal.

When I went to Poland on a trip seeking my family roots, I expected a lot of borscht and pierogies, but reindeer tartare?

Having grown up in Buffalo, I thought I knew a lot about Polish food, things such as borsch and pierogies, since I had a grandmother who used to feed us those things as kids. And, yes, she wore a babushka.

The Buffalo neighborhood where my grandparents lived, in fact, was so Polish that for the first decade of my life I thought that part of New York was actually annexed by Poland. Everyone spoke this mysterious language but none of the younger generation bothered to learn it to figure out what the old folks were saying.

I would regret that on the trip.

It wasn’t until the trip to Krakow with my daughter Lauren, who just graduated from college in Atlanta, that I discovered a whole new country of people who spoke just like my grandparents. And I couldn’t understand those people any better.

As I expected, borscht was everywhere.

The restaurants there had Summer Borscht, Ukrainian Borscht, Eastern Poland Borscht and the ever-popular borscht with beans. I had to try them all. After all, how many times would I ever be sitting again in the Old Market in Krakow on a beautiful spring day?

After tasting all of the various types of borscht, I found it still comes down to the fact that it’s beet soup. I mean, how many ways can you cook a beet?

Then there were pierogies. Now, I’m accustomed to the pierogies my grandmother made, which had cottage cheese and raisins inside them with sugar and cinnamon sprinkled on top.

I think the translation for Krakow is “Pierogies Heaven.”

There were pierogies with cabbage, with mushrooms, with potatoes, with cherries, with sausage, with bacon … with almost anything.

When in Rome, do as the Romans do.

We found Polish portions quite small compared to in the U.S. Perhaps that is why the Poles are so much thinner than Americans. I don’t remember any of the charming waitresses asking, “Can I

supersize that pierogi for you?”

My daughter and I would try to order from the menu and tell the waiter what we wanted in Polish. The waiter would look at us and in most cases would say, in broken English, “nice try.” Looking back, we both should have taken a crash course in Polish. As arrogant Americans we thought everyone would speak English. Apparently, the folks in Krakow haven’t gotten the message.

The famous Polish toast noztrovia will only get you so far. You can’t be making toasts at 7:30 a.m. and yelling noztrovia.

Well, not every morning.

Jzien dobry was a handy phrase to drop now and then (good day). But after hearing me say that, the locals would still say “nice try.”

Krakow is a city of pierogies, borscht, cathedrals and castles. There seemed to be a 600- or 700-year-old cathedral about every 50 yards. We walked through them all, it seemed.

Some of these structures took hundreds of years to build, employing many generations of the same family. There is no record of Wednesday night Bingo games, as far as we could determine.

The 16th century Church of the Virgin Mary dominates the city square in Krakow.

Naturally, it has a legend.

During the Tartar invasions, a watchman spotted the approaching enemy, climbed to the top and sounded the bugle to alert the townspeople. Sort of like Gunga Din. Unfortunately for the trumpeter, just like Gunga Din, an arrow struck him down right in the middle of his alert. Looking up from the ground to the tower, you realize that was one heck of a shot by the archer.

As a result, every day at noon, a volunteer climbs the 287 steps and plays a soft melodious tune on the hejnal. The volunteer stops abruptly mid-note, honoring the poor, anonymous hejnal player who took one for the home team.

The interrupted song is played on Poland’s National Radio everyday at noon.

I didn’t take my computer with me to keep up with my e-mail, but that was no problem. Hidden in the back alleys of the Old City were numerous, little Internet cafes. The charge was incredibly small. I was able to read the Bangor Daily News and check my e-mails and finally be in touch with people who spoke English.

I’ve always enjoyed steak tartare (raw ground meat). But I was taken aback one day when I spotted Reindeer Tartare on a menu outside a caf?.

I don’t know about you, but I need all the help I can get around Christmas, and if Santa ever found out that I was eating Rudolph or Dancer or Prancer, there probably would be a lump of coal under the tree for me – again.

We walked everywhere in Krakow.

On some little cobblestone streets, we would be walking and the smell from a little meat store would hit me, and take me back to the days when my grandparents had a little neighborhood grocery store in Buffalo. Their shop had the same pungent smell. My cousins and I used to steal them blind and take as much candy and Popsicles as we could when we visited.

No wonder they went out of business.

Comparing Krakow and Buffalo, it looks like the former made out better, despite the ravages of World War II. I don’t remember Buffalo being invaded by anyone, but the downtown Main Street looks like it’s still being occupied by unfriendly forces.

Perhaps Buffalo could take a page from Krakow by building a castle or two and erecting a plaque out front saying that the Poles, lead by Jon Dombroski, defeated the Swedes here in 1432.

Build it and maybe the tourists will come.

All in all, Krakow was a delightful city with more cafes than you could ever visit in a life time. Next time I go I’ll take the time to learn more of the language.

I was getting tired of hearing “nice try.”


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