Written by Max Rudy
This summer, my girlfriend moved to New York from our home outside of Washington D.C., and by the time I followed in the fall, she already knew exactly what neighborhood she wanted to live in: Greenpoint, Brooklyn. Greenpoint is known for its more laid-back, less pretentious and friendlier vibe than neighboring Williamsburg—and, as I found out quickly, also for being New York City’s Little Poland. The northern tip of Brooklyn, originally settled by the Dutch, has been firmly planted in the hands of the Polski since the late 19th century. From then on, steady waves of Polish immigrants have been flowing in. The fall of Communism in Eastern Europe has brought the latest migration of first generation Polish-Americans.
I know a thing or two about Polish culture and food, I grew up 35 miles outside of Pittsburgh. Our football team’s official fight song is a polka. Our baseball games have a pierogi race. Ask around Pittsburgh, and you bet your dupa you’ll find more than a few yinzers who know a thing or two about eating Polish food! During the late 19th through the early 20th century, Pittsburgh received a massive influx of Polish and Slavic immigrants starting a new life in the industrial boomtown. These same people grew up and moved out of city neighborhoods like Polish Hill and settled in the towns and suburbs surrounding Pittsburgh. For my family and many others I’ve known since I was a kid, halupki, halushki, kluski, and kielbasa have been staples at family reunions, birthdays, graduation parties, and in everyday life.
But why is the stuffed cabbage I’ve always known as “halupki” called “golopki” in Polish Greenpoint? Are we so far removed from our roots we’ve bastardized the food names? And if we butchered the names, how authentic can these passed-down recipes really be? Google to the rescue! The answer to that riddle is that “halupki” is actually Slavic, while “golopki” is Polish. Polish, Slavic, and Hungarian food are all very similar with special twists and turns per region. So now that I am settled into a real working first-generation Polish community, one where pictures of Pope John Paul II benevolently bless every storefront and where the sound of Polish conversations echo through the streets, I had to find out: how will my heritage stand up to the real, straight-off-the-boat Polish food of today?
I called a childhood friend from the Pittsburgh area (who happens to be GFS head honcho Casey Barber) to see how our childhood memories of Polish food stacked up to Greenpoint’s finest. Plotting our course, our first stop would be a butcher shop. Because I live in the dead center of Little Poland, finding a quality butcher shop was easier than reciting an old Polish joke from childhood (yes, I do know how to sink the Polish Navy). We stepped through the doorway of Krajan Quality Polska Meats (160 Nassau Avenue) directly into a line of Polish women patiently waiting for their turn. This had to be a good sign, right? Krajan is one of dozens of delis/butcher shops in Greenpoint that serve as anchors in a tight-knit community. The store is reminiscent of a market in Europe, as almost everything in the store is imported from Poland. Even common brands (Nestlé, Hellmann’s, etc.) are the imported versions, sharing shelf space with tetra-packed beet juices and ready-made borscht.
As we waited, we eyed juicy house-smoked pork and bacon sitting on top of the deli counter, barrels of store-made pickles and sauerkraut below the counter, and multiple types of kielbasa filling the entire bottom shelf of the deli cabinet. We opted for the darkest smoked link of kielbasa we could find, some new-style and sour pickles, and a thick slice of the house-smoked pork butt, paying prices that would make even the most stingy Pittsburgher proud.
We all remember the terrible bread lines that served as a symbol of Communism’s collapse. It turns out the Polish like to wait in bread lines–at least for the best Polish bread and pastries in the neighborhood at locally-famed Syrena Bakery (207 Norman Avenue; 718-349-0560). We took our place in the snaking line, poking through racks of fresh-baked Old Country Rye and Pumpernickel, breads that I can still remember smelling from my grandparents’ bread drawer that they would buy fresh, right after church. I had to place a loaf of Old Country Rye in my bread basket; maybe it’s my Bohemian genes.
The bread line finally reached the promised land, a 24-foot-long glass-enclosed pastry display that was nothing if not overwhelming. In typical Polish fashion, the always direct Polish sweet-slingers behind the counter immediately asked for our order. Hastily, we ordered a generous slice of blueberry-topped cheesecake and a layered Napoleon with never-ending pastry crust and creme. When it came time to pay, we were passed over by a language communication issue; the cashier assumed we were Polish and we were not responding. Thirty minutes later, emerging victorious, we took our bounty back around the block to my apartment to indulge.
Pan-fried, the dark smoked kielbasa was sweet and full of flavor, and the smoked pork butt, eaten cold, was tangy and salty; each made better only with its marriage to imported mustard and Old Country Rye bread. The flavors, so deeply imprinted from childhood, were at once the same and better than we were accustomed to. The cheesecake was very much like I remembered from my friend’s Polish grandmother, the kind he would warn us about before she sliced it for us: “Max, it’s not like normal cheesecake, it’s more of a strudel. Don’t tell her it’s not cheesecake!” It’s just like this you start to see a pattern of passed-down traditions and foods from our childhood, and see these alive and well in Greenpoint’s thriving Polish community.
Aided by Casey’s husband, Dan (who already comes fully equipped with a Polish last name), we soldiered on to Lomzynianka (646 Manhattan Avenue, 718-389-9439), the top-rated traditional Polish restaurant in Greenpoint (even Frank Bruni and Eric Asimov agree). During my first visit to the restaurant, I met two gentlemen who’d studied at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Mellon University, one with his Polish wife he had met on assignment in Poland. They all lived in Manhattan, but visited Lomzynianka once a week so the wife could load up on her favorites. Out of all the restaurants in the neighborhood, “this one tastes like home,” she confided.
Not only does Lomzynianka taste like home, it looks like it too: the restaurant feels like the inside of a Western Pennsylvania grandma’s kitchen. There is taxidermy, faux brick, and a drop-panel ceiling, but it lacks Brooklyn hipster irony. Food arrived quickly on mismatched Corelle plates, just like the kind Mom picked at Giant Eagle: white borscht, a local favorite, is a sinister mix of soured rye flour, cream and kielbasa. It is sour with a hint of sweet, and totally delectable. Pierogies come boiled or fried with your choice of filling: meat, sauerkraut with mushroom, farmer’s cheese, or Russian style with potato and cheese (that’s right, Pittsburgh, you’ve been eating Russian pierogies this whole time!).
The crowning glory of the menu might be the Polish Platter—a feast of stuffed cabbage (golopki), three fried pierogies, kielbasa, mashed potatoes, and bigos. Bigos, also known as hunter’s stew, varies by region but almost always contains cabbage, sauerkraut, tomatoes, smoked meat, mushrooms and a mix of spices. Even better, the platter comes with a side of the popular salads that my Grandma used to make: shredded carrots in slightly sweet dressing, thinly sliced cucumber in sour cream, and cabbage slaw.
Though borscht and some of the deeper varietals of Polish food did not always permeate their way through generations of Pittsburgh family reunions, so many of the classic dishes have, and in doing so, barely changed. The marriage of other Slovak specialties have made the cuisine in Pittsburgh a melting pot of Eastern European tastes. But I’m proud knowing just how true these recipes have been kept as they are passed along through generations, and how Pittsburgh’s strong immigrant traditions show whether first generation or fourth generation, we still honor our heritage the best way possible: through satisfying food.
>Max Rudy is a globe-trotting, food-loving good time waiting to happen. When not running the Interwebs for Rubbermaid (not Tupperware), he can be found planning vacations based around food and friends, eating ethnic delicacies, or being woken up by his cats for their food. Max resides in Little Poland—aka Greenpoint, Brooklyn.