Paczkis and sweet sacrifices

March 07, 2000|By Rafael Alvarez

DON'T LET the name fool you.

Marianna Frederick is as Polish as paczki, the doughy, deep-fried confection from Poland eaten with gusto today before the long and sacrificial season of Lent begins in the Christian world.

Pronounced "punchkie," in the local dialect, these globular goodies of sweet cream and yeast, good butter and sugar were once whipped up in kitchens throughout Polish Baltimore, particularly in Canton and Curtis Bay and especially at this time of year, when "punchkie parties" were common.

These days, many of the young people fueling the waterfront renaissance in southeast Baltimore happen by Marianna's store of Polish treats and trinkets -- located across from Holy Rosary school on South Chester Street -- and remember where they came from.

Today, they will stroll in to the aroma of fresh paczki, all lined up at 50 cents apiece.

"The old Poles are dying or moving out or dying and their families are selling the old houses," says Marianna, whose mother was born in Poland and whose maiden name is Groah, an American bastardization of the Polish word for peas.

"But when the weather breaks, the young people walk in and look around and say, `You know, my grandmother was Polish --' "

And then Marianna -- a self-proclaimed "true Polish citizen of Baltimore" -- schools the youngsters on things they should already know.

My maternal grandmother, Anna, was Polish and lived her entire life in the shadow of St. Casimir's parish at 2729 Dillon St. A cannery house worker and industrial seamstress, Bushi didn't have the time or energy for the three-hour process of making golden brown paczki dimpled with raisins and dusted with powdered sugar.

But her daughter Gloria, my mother, had a best friend named Angie Hetmanski, and Angie's mother was a cook at St. Casimir's rectory who every year made paczki on the day before Ash Wednesday.

"When punchkie day rolled around, you could always count on Miss Hetmanski to do her thing, and I was always fortunate to be in her kitchen. She was a very gentle woman, and you knew it when you were in her presence," my mother remembers. "The raisins and sometimes minced nuts were added separately to each punchkie, never mixed into the dough. Then she deep fried them and let them cool before they were sprinkled with powdered sugar."

Whether it be Mardi Gras or Shrove Tuesday, the glee and gluttony that usher in Lent are practiced throughout the Christian world. Baked goods are common to the day, perhaps because the making of them helps clear the pantry of butter and eggs.

Goodbye to foods of comfort. Goodbye to plenty. Hello to carnival, which means "goodbye to meat."

"Have some jam with your tea," says a character in an Anton Chekhov short story about the start of the Easter season. "Tomorrow the great fast begins. Eat well today."

In England, they feast on pancakes. In New Orleans, gumbo is the fattening fare. Swedes savor semlor, cardamom-flavored buns with almond and whipped cream.

And in Venice, they gorge upon sweets that patrons of Vaccaro's would die for.

Here, in our own Poland along the Patapsco, it's paczki.

"You've got to eat them warm. If you don't, it's just a regular doughnut," says the former Elaine Fabizak, whose elderly neighbor on South Streeper Street makes paczki year-round. "The dough has to rise, and you punch it down and let it rise again. A lot of people just make a regular doughnut and put raisins in it and call it a punchkie. That's not a punchkie. By the time [a bogus] punchkie hits the bottom of your stomach, it's a stone."

Genuine paczki were plentiful at Holy Rosary church hall this past Sunday and Marianne Frederick makes them at her shop, Polish Treasures, year-round. Sometimes, says Marianna, the Safeway will carry a version of punchkie for a day or two, and Harry's Bakery at Fleet Street and Montford Avenue will be selling scores of them today at 59 cents each.

Tomorrow, the 40 days of Lent begin and the well-meaning will strive to give up sweets along with habits as harmful to the soul as tooth.

Rafael Alvarez is a reporter for The Sun. He can be reached at

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