A Family History Through Polish American Food

Food can be found at the center of Polish culture, traditions carried over from Polish immigrants to America. For the Polish American, food maintains a large part of our culture, standing at the center of every celebration, big or small, blending traditional Polish foods with foods accessible in America. As a third-generation Polish-American, exploring Polish-American food has led me to not only a better understanding of my own Polish-American heritage, but also a better understanding of the lived experiences of my mother and grandmother.

My Babcia (far left), Ciocia Peggy (behind Babcia) and her siblings in Poland (c. 1945)

One of six children, Eufemia Genowefa Piasecka was born in Bielawy, Poland in 1935. After coming to America, she would go by her middle name, meaning Genevieve in English; Genia for short by her Polish friends or Jean by others. She was known to me as Babcia, or grandmother in English. 

As I looked into my family history, wanting to learn not only about Polish American food, but also more about my culture, I asked my mom all the questions I wish I could have asked Babcia before she passed away in late 2019. As I read about Polish culture and traditions especially in regards to food and conducted research into what made up the Polish American, I found the stories being told about Polish immigrants and the native American Pole to be the same stories of my Babcia and my mother. 

The first record of Polish immigration to America was in 1608 in Jamestown, Virginia.1 However, the Polish American culture that we know today was formed by the mass immigration from Poland to America between 1860 and 1910, when around 2.5 million Poles arrived in America.2 Between the First and Second World Wars the Polish American population skyrocketed due to the birth of children to Polish immigrants. At this time, two-thirds of the Polish speaking population in the United States had been born here.3

Babcia and Ciocia Lilka, Babcia’s niece (Ciocia Peggy’s daughter) at my high school graduation party in 2018.

Like many other European immigrants, my Babcia was not the first in her family to move to America.4 Her older sister had married a Polish-American soldier stationed in Poland after World War II. My Ciocia Peggy, her husband, and two children, eventually moved to America, and my Babcia followed some years later in the early 1960s when she was in her early twenties. Babcia and Ciocia Peggy came from Bielawy, a small village in Lodz province, Poland, with a current population of about 620.5 Babcia’s family owned a farm which mainly consisted of dairy cows, geese, and chickens which they used for eggs and meat. They also farmed wheat, rye, and fruits and vegetables. Growing up, Babcia and her siblings had to help on the farm, as was the case for many other Polish families. They sold the milk and eggs, which helped pay for the other food they bought at the market located in the larger neighboring towns, keeping most of the fruits and veggies for themselves. It was this agrarian and semi-feudal background of peasant life that played a role in shaping the Polish American.6 Polish people are incredibly hardworking, allowing them to thrive in America, a country that revolves around work.

The food eaten in Polish culture is heavily influenced by its geographical location. Poland is densely forested so the use of mushrooms, forest fruits, nuts, and honey was common.7 Pork is the national meat of Poland and sausage and cold cuts are incredibly popular.8 At a similar latitude to Nova Scotia, the climate of Poland is fairly cold and the growing season is very short meaning they had to make the food last throughout the year, so root vegetables like parsnips and potatoes were also popular and butter was in everything.9 Pierogi, debatably one of the most known traditional Polish foods, is a sort of Polish dumpling. Fillings could be anything, but are most commonly sauerkraut, mushrooms, or my favorite, cheese or potato.10  Soup was a common dish and it was most seen with egg noodles. Zur, or barszcz, is a polish soup made with fermented liquid made by soaking rye bread or oatmeal in water and allowing it to sour and thicken.11 We eat a similar soup that is fermented with rye wheat and mushrooms every year on Wigilia, which is the traditional Polish Christmas Eve celebration. During Wigilia, our family abides by the tradition of The feast of the seven fishes. Illustrative of my family’s Polish American culture, we enjoy pierogies and barszcz and chruściki, a thin deep fried pastry dusted in sugar for dessert, as well as lobster, shrimp, and salmon with a corn and pea bechamel sauce, more americanized seafood dishes. One of my mom’s favorite dishes is jellied pig’s feet, or żimne nogi, which is popular on Easter or special occasions. Zimne nogi is made by slowly cooking pigs’ feet and knuckles with salt, pepper, and other spices. After the broth is made, it is strained off from the meat, which is separated from the bones. The bones are discarded, the meat is cut up and tossed back into the broth, which then cools overnight into a jelly form. Lemon or vinegar is added to sour the jelly.12

My mom (left) and her sister, Krysia (right) at Our Lady of Częstochowa, a Polish American Church in Pennsylvania in 1983, where they performed traditional Polish dances with a group of other Polish Americans.

The Polish immigrant had every intention of adapting to their new home in America, which offered them access to foods and other resources for which they were grateful.13 Poles brought with them their knowledge of their own food and cooking and maintained their traditions, but also wanted to assimilate to their new way of life by blending traditional Polish and popular American foodways. It was in America where Poles were finally able to embrace patriotism, not only for their new home, but also for their birth country which they saw as “the home of suffering heroes and glorious causes.”14 This is part of the reason why Polish people were so willing to adapt to American culture without necessarily losing sight of their homeland.

Despite the hardships, poverty, and oppression that many Poles faced, on top of the long and cold winters they experienced in Poland, they were resilient and celebrated food and sharing. America may have brought more opportunities and resources, but finances were still tight for many immigrant families. Nonetheless, food was always involved and always shared. There was always an abundance of food at every gathering my Bacbia and Dziazi (grandfather) held, my mom recalls, whether it was just to play cards with friends or celebrate a birthday. More importantly, extras were always made in the event of an unexpected guest or 2.

The living conditions and food products are different in America than in Poland so, inevitably, the cuisine has to differ. Because it is in our interests to adapt to the local living conditions and relations and to reap the benefits of this country equally with Americans, we should not forget how important the knowledge of food products and their preparation is here. And so our customs should change in this regard as well.

The publisher Of Kuchnia Polsko-Amerykańska: Jedyna Odpowiednia Książka Kucharska dla Gospodyń Polskich w Ameryce (Polish-American Cuisine: The Only Proper Book for Polish Housewives in America)15

The Wisconsin cookbook of 1917 titled “Polish-American Cuisine: The Only Proper Book for Polish Housewives in America,”16 one of the earliest known Polish American cookbooks, shows the early Polish immigrants’ interest in adapting to American culture while still maintaining their own connection to Poland.17 The publisher of the cookbook from 1917 states how “One of the obstacles in achieving this was the lack of a good cookbook, because most of the cookbooks offered to the Polish-American audience were reprints of European titles, written with European, and not American, conditions in mind. So, to make up for the lack of such a Polish cookbook adapted to American conditions, we give you this publication and hope that it will live up to its task in the fullest.”18 When going through my Babcia’s recipes and cookbooks, I realized that she didn’t have any Polish cookbooks, but quite a few American ones, and this was why. Traditional Polish recipes were generally passed down through families which helps us understand the lack of Polish or Polish American cookbooks available in America. Moreover, due to the difference in conditions from Poland to America, it wasn’t always the easiest task to recreate their traditional recipes. My Babcia already had knowledge on how to make traditional Polish recipes so she experimented with American recipes from popular American cookbooks, blending what she learned with what she knew, cooking food for her children that they would remember forever, and looking back, would be considered Polish American food.

Cover page of Kuchnia Polsko-Amerykańska: Jedyna Odpowiednia Książka Kucharska dla Gospodyń Polskich w Ameryce (Polish-American Cuisine: The Only Proper Book for Polish Housewives in America), a Polish American Cookbook published in Wisconsin in 1917.

I had a conversation with my mom about her childhood and what she ate growing up with Polish immigrant parent in the 70s. Her father, my dziazi, passed away when she was young. By the end of our conversation, I realized what she ate growing up hit Polish American food on the head. My mom recalled her favorite meal from growing up and I was surprised to hear her say that it was her Babcia’s spaghetti and meatballs. Though the meatballs were not traditional Italian, rather Polish meatballs smothered in brown gravy and served with egg noodles. My whole family went crazy for Babcia’s chicken noodle soup. Unlike traditional chicken noodle soup that is clouded by the chicken and vegetables, Babcia’s soup was very clear. She would skim the fat and other mess from the chicken until the broth was clear and would also serve the broth separately first, then adding the chicken and the egg noodles. My mother recalls eating nalesniki, a Polish crepe, quite often, as it could be made to be eaten during breakfast, lunch or dinner, and it was my Babcia’s “go-to” recipe when she didn’t feel like cooking.

A side by side of a recipe of naleśniki in Kuchnia Polsko-Amerykańska (Polish-American Cuisine), 1917, and my Babcia’s own naleśniki recipe.

Food played a large role in shaping the Polish American. Every event, big or small, included an abundance of food. Food was a blessing to be shared with everyone, and while the Polish people faced much oppression in Poland, Polish Americans were able to maintain the connection to their homeland through embracing both their Polish culture and blending it with the experiences of their new home. The experiences with food that both my Babcia and my mother had were very characteristic of Polish immigrants and their children in America, and I think that’s pretty cool.

  1. Swastek, Joseph. “What Is a Polish American?” Polish American Studies, vol. 1, 1944, pp. 34. JSTOR, https://www.jstor.org/stable/20147024. 
  2.  Locke, Donna. “Leaving Their Hometown .” The Polish Americans, Mason Crest Publishers, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania , 2009, pp. 17.
  3. Swastek, Joseph. “What Is a Polish American?” Polish American Studies, vol. 1, 1944, pp. 35. JSTOR, https://www.jstor.org/stable/20147024. 
  4. Locke, Donna. “Leaving Their Hometown .” The Polish Americans, Mason Crest Publishers, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania , 2009, pp. 19.
  5.  “Bielawy, Łowicz County.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 25 May 2020, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bielawy,_%C5%81owicz_County. 
  6.  Swastek, Joseph. “What Is a Polish American?” Polish American Studies, vol. 1, 1944, pp. 35,36. JSTOR, https://www.jstor.org/stable/20147024. 
  7.  “The Influence of Polish Cuisine and Traditions in American Society.” House Cleaning West Palm, 22 Feb. 2019, https://housecleaningwestpalm.com/essay-influence-polish-cuisine-traditions-american-society/. 
  8. Ibid.
  9. Zand, Helen Stankiewicz. “Polish Foodways in America.” Polish American Studies, vol. 14, no. 3/4, 1957, pp. 90. JSTOR, https://www.jstor.org/stable/20147454. 
  10.  Ibid,  pp. 83. 
  11.  Ibid, pp. 80. 
  12.  Ibid, 83. 
  13.  Swastek, Joseph. “What Is a Polish American?” Polish American Studies, vol. 1, 1944, pp. 38. JSTOR, https://www.jstor.org/stable/20147024. 
  14. Ibid.
  15. Translation found in, Mętrak, Natalia. “Barszcz, Catsup & Curry Powder: Polish American Cuisine in 1917.” Culture. P, 5 July 2020, https://culture.pl/en/article/barszcz-catsup-curry-powder-polish-american-cuisine-in-1917.
  16.  Kamionka, Napisal A.J. Kuchnia Polsko-Amerykanska. Wydawcy Bracia Worzaowie, 1917, Internet Archive, https://archive.org/details/kuchniapolskoame00kami/page/n1/mode/2up. 
  17. Translation found in  Mętrak, Natalia. “Barszcz, Catsup & Curry Powder: Polish American Cuisine in 1917.” Culture. P, 5 July 2020, https://culture.pl/en/article/barszcz-catsup-curry-powder-polish-american-cuisine-in-1917.
  18.  Kucia, Monika. “The Tastes of Home: Polish Cuisine in the New World.” Culture.P, 31 Oct. 2018, https://culture.pl/en/article/the-tastes-of-home-polish-cuisine-in-the-new-world. 

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