Carrie Gress has a doctorate from the Catholic University of America and is a philosophy professor at Pontifex University. She is the author of several books, including The Marian Option: God’s Solution to a Civilization in Crisis. Carrie is the co-author with George Weigel of City of Saints: A Pilgrims Guide to John Paul II’s Krakow. A homeschooling mother of four, she and her family live in Virginia. Visit her blog at www.carriegress.com. (Photo by Renata Grzan Wierczorek, RenataPhotography.com)
“The best polish food comes from babcia’s (grandma’s) kitchen,” says Tadeusz Barcikowski or Teddy, the owner of Café Polonia. Located on the southside of Boston in an area called the Polish Triangle, Teddy and his restaurant were recently featured on Food Network’s Diners, Drive in and Dives.
I spoke with Teddy to find out what makes Polish food so unique and delicious. “The most popular recipes have ingredients that people in villages could grow themselves in their gardens or farms. There were no supermarkets, so if you look at a dish like stuffed cabbage, all the ingredients are from the farm: pork meat, rice, or buckwheat or barley. Potatoes,” he added, “grow everywhere which is why they are in so many dishes like potato pancakes or pierogi (polish dumplings).”
“When I started cooking,” Teddy continued, “I wanted to get my recipes as close as possible to original recipes so I looked through my mother’s recipes and old cookbooks with centuries old recipes.”
“When I got started, there were no Polish restaurants in Boston. The closest place was in New York to find a Polish dish,” Teddy explained. “I decided to try my own restaurant despite the fact that it was part of the Polish tradition that people don’t go to restaurants but eat at home.”
Explaining his success despite the tradition, Teddy added, “There are many people from the older generations who remember how babcia made Polish food and then shared it with the whole neighborhood. But this takes a long time to prep. Many people who don’t have the time or the skill still want this food – those who remember how babcia used to cook and the young generations who have never tried it because their families immigrated after 1980.”
Babcias, however, aren’t the only ones who can cook Polish cuisine. When John Paul II became pope, he summoned Polish nuns to come to the Vatican to cook the food of his homeland. For a man with few attachments and little by way of possessions, Pope John Paul II loved Polish food.
Wojtyla’s love of Polish pastries started early as a boy in Wadowice and seemed to continue throughout his life. “There was never a lack of pastries: the pope liked them so much,” said the Polish pope’s former secretary Archbishop Mieczylaw Mokryzycki in the book Saint John Paul II (Ignatius, 2015). “The sisters did not want him to gain weight,” he added, “but when they played for time at the end of the pasta course and did not serve dessert, John Paul II would start making little circles on the table with his index finger and would smile slyly; that is how he insisted on having his little pastry.” To this day, local bakeries in Wadowice sell kremowki, the cream filled pastries their pope loved so much as a boy.
The Polish nuns still remain at the Vatican today, cooking for Pope Francis, but their cooking goes well beyond Polish food. The nuns’ culinary work is featured in a new cookbook, The Vatican Cookbook (Sophia Institute Press, 2016), which boasts 500 years of recipes, including those for pierogi, Polish fleischvogel or “birds in red nest”, and apple kuchen, or apple cake.
Among the many restaurants in Krakow, there is one that stands out for its food and, perhaps even more, for its history. The Wierzynek Restaurant has been feeding Poles since 1364 AD. A visit there might perhaps be the closest thing to time travel, (of course with the luxury of electricity and indoor plumbing). It sits in the main square where Grodzka St. disappears into the heart of the city.
In 1364, Mikołaj Wierzynek, a wealthy councilman, made his name as a restauranteur by provided the most fabulous feast during the 20-day wedding festivities for King Casimir the Great’s daughter, Elisabeth, who wedded Emperor Charles IV of Luxembourg. (Some stories say the feast was to negotiate a peace treaty.) Among the guests were Kings Louis of Hungary, Valdemar IV of Denmark, Peter of Cyprus and scores of European princes and aristocracy along with a papal nuncio.
“The Feast at Wierzynek,” a 19th century painting by Bronisław Abramowicz, beautifully commemorates the great event. Modern diners enjoy only an excellent replica hanging in the restaurant; to see the original, you must visit the Gallery of 19th Century Art in the Cloth Hall Museum just a few steps deeper into the market square.
Having proven his ability to feed illustrious customers, Wierzynek stayed in the restaurant business. He eventually used his funds to help with the 14th century renovation of the Mariacki Church that sits across the square from the restaurant.
Over the years, the restaurant has witnessed a lot (oh, if the walls could talk), everything from invasions, fires, and abundance and squalor. It has served aristocrats, monarchs, presidents, and world famous actors. Even under communism, Wierzynek was one restaurant the party leaders insisted stay open as the rest of Krakow was crumbling around it. Anyone who has dined there can tell you why.
Today, the restaurant continues its timeless approach to Polish food, while adding hints of innovation. The menu offers an exotic array of dishes from wild boar cheeks to goose legs, complemented by various wild berries, roots and herbs found all over Poland. Desserts include the unusual elements such as parsley-mango mousse, as well as ice creams made from carrot or honey and porcini mushrooms. These might not be things in babcia’s cookbook, but one can guess that she would approve of the inspiration and the finished product.