One of the most significant elements that makes up the food culture of any region is the ethnicity of the people that settle in that area because they bring with them the traditions of their land of origin. One such example is the influx of Polish immigrants to the Detroit area in the late 1800s and early 1900s. It is estimated that the city was home to 13,000 Poles in 1904, and a little over twenty years later, that number had grown to 115,000. Among the traditions they carried with them were recipes for a sweet treat commonly known as paczki–special jelly-filled buns, very similar to doughnuts.
The people in Poland may have created paczki, but it seems the tradition known as Paczki Day belongs entirely to Polish Americans. Primarily a Catholic country, most residents of Poland would participate in a 40-day fasting period beginning with Ash Wednesday. However, the time period before the fast called Zapusty, also known as Karnawał, included a variety of festive celebrations in which paczki were a staple on most tables.
In the old country, the majority of the jelly-filled doughnuts are made or bought on Tłusty Czwartek, which is the Thursday that precedes the start of Lent. Here in America, the tradition is to purchase the pastries on what is known as Fat Tuesday, the day immediately prior to Ash Wednesday.
In some places Fat Tuesday is also known as Mardi Gras, but here in Michigan, it is more widely nicknamed Paczki Day. Once common only in the Detroit area, the practice has caught on around the state. People place orders in advance or risk standing in long lines at bakeries the day of, to score them by the dozen.
Not only do Michiganders stock up on these jelly-filled delights on a slightly different day than in Europe, we have also widely expanded the flavor profiles in true American style. The deep-fried dough was traditionally filled with plum (prune) or rose hip jam. Stateside you can also find them in apple, cherry, blueberry, strawberry, lemon, and other fruity versions. Many have custard flavors instead of jam, and more recently cheese has become a filling alternative. Where once, they were only made in bakeries in Polish neighborhoods in Detroit, paczki can now be found in grocery stores all over the state.
If you want the true holiday experience though, Hamtramck is still the place to be. Once home to the densest population of Poles in the nation, Fat Tuesday has taken on a life of its own. That includes packed bars, live music and paczki bombs, which are what happens to the tasty treats when bartenders infuse them with flavored vodka.
Happy Paczki Day! Please support your local bakery…and don’t forget to slot some extra time for a visit to the gym.