Fat Tuesday: glazed with heritage

Ethan Sandock

By Molly Walsh, Managing Editor

If Chicagoans want to take a dozen doughnuts to class or work Tuesday, they should start lining up now. Fat Tuesday, or “Paczki Day,” is March 5, and bakeries are busy preparing for this tasty Polish tradition.

Paczki, pronounced “pownch-key,” are doughnuts typically found in Polish cuisine filled with different custards, creams and jellied fruits.

Fat Tuesday is the name for the day before the beginning of Lent, a 40-day observance in Christianity that includes fasting and prayer before Easter.

“You can find paczki everywhere,” said Jan Lorys, Polish Museum of America historian and former director. “Even Jewel has Paczki Day!”

But it’s in the small, traditional bakeries tucked away in Chicago’s ethnic neighborhoods where the paczki tradition is most authentic. Last year, Bridgeport Bakery, 2907 S. Archer Ave., sold nearly 5,000 of the billowy, sweet pastries, and this year, it is expecting lines to go around the block.

The bakery offers 13 flavors, including apple, cherry, strawberry, custard, cheese, lemon and poppyseed.

Sandra Budz has worked at the Slovak and German bakery for a decade. She said Fat Tuesday is usually a madhouse at the bakery, with preparation starting the Thursday before.

“One time it was below zero, and people were waiting all the way down the street for them,” Budz said.

Steve Walowski has been a Bridgeport resident for 63 years and said he used to deliver Bridgeport Bakery’s baked goods to gas stations and other places before he went to work in the morning.

Walowski has been frequenting the bakery for the last 40 years. He said his go-to paczki flavors are custard or cherry.

“For a small, little bakery, they say they put out like 2,000 [paczkis] or something,” he said. “It’s quite a bit.”

Eating paczki makes people feel guilty with Lent taking place the following day, Walowski said.

Eating paczki the Thursday before Lent became a tradition in Poland as a way of ridding fat and sugar before fasting. The day is celebrated in the U.S. on Tuesday in correlation with the French tradition of Mardi Gras, Lorys said.

“Now, if you celebrate both traditions, you eat paczki on Thursday, and then you eat them again on Tuesday,” Lorys said. “What could be better than that?”

Lorys, whose favorite paczki flavor is rose, said Polish heritage is important.

“For 123 years, there was no Poland on the map of Europe. There was partition amongst the Germans, the Austrians and the Russians,” he said. “The fact that there wasn’t a country does not mean that there was not a Polish culture.”

The Polish culture in Chicago is especially prevalent.

According to a 2000 census report from the Polish American Association, more than 200,000 people in Chicago have Polish ancestry.

Budz’s brother, Ron Pavelka, has owned the bakery for 46 years. Budz said paczki have always been a part of her life.

“Everything is made here. Everything is fresh,” Budz said. “I’m diabetic, so I try not to eat it at all, but when we make my favorite, buttercream, then I have to have one.”

The bakery plans on opening at 12 a.m. Tuesday with 20 employees ready to handle the thousand people expected to be waiting in line, eager to pick up a dozen or two of the filled doughnuts for $1.50 each.

“Treat your friends so they can find out [about] a small part of Polish culture. You can use that as a springboard to talk about other things,” Lorys said. “That would be a sweet opening. No pun intended.”