For Winona Polish Hall of Fame inductee Mary Edel Beyer talking about the Polish food she was raised on brings back not only mouth-watering sensations, but memories of pigs, chickens, and sausage making in the backyard barnyard her grandfather kept at his Wall Street house. It reminds her of the stump with two nails in it that held her grandfather's chicken at slaughter time and the mustard seeds he would let slip between his fingers into the sausage grinder. It reminds her of the big crocks of sauerkraut her mother-in-law let sour at her farm and slices of meatloaf-like ciszkas sizzling in her mother's skillet. Traditional Polish foods are the products of Polish history and a time when things were made by hand at home.
Photo by Chris Rogers
. In traditional Polish dress, Louise Prodzinski patted noodle dough and sprinkled more flour on her grandmother's cutting board. The simple egg and flour dough could be used for pierogis or dropped into brothy chicken noodle soup, she explained.
When asked about old-time Polish food, Polish Museum founder Father Paul Breza's thoughts turned to home-smoked sausages, stuck with a pin to see if they were done. Stores may sell Polish sausages, but "you can't get that flavor any place. That's impossible," Breza said of matching the flavor of sausages made in backyard smokehouses.
What better to go with sausages than the spook yeast sourdough that a nearby Polish-American family makes, which is made from a yeast culture that was kept alive by their family for over 100 years, Breza said. He praised the bread's tremendous flavor, especially for breakfast, soaked in kielbasa juice until it turns soft. "The flavor of the bread and the meat in there, wow! That's something else," he said, and paused for a while, gazing off.
For avid cook and Polish Museum worker Louise Prodzinski, talking about Polish food draws up memories of rolling out noodles and sliding them one at a time with a doughy finger off the flat of a knife into a steaming kettle of chicken stock. Polish chicken noodle soup is a staple, Breza agreed. "You mix up flour and egg, but only as much flour as an egg would moisten, and stir, add salt," he said, walking through the steps aloud. Push those noodles off into a pot of boiling soup — it has to be boiling — "and all of a sudden they'll float to the top and, oh! It's a little chewy but it's got all the flavor of the soup," he said.
Edel Beyer recalled how her family would cull a duck every Christmas, pierce its head, and hold it upside down to collect its blood for duck blood soup. Edel Beyer's father and other Polish families would call it chocolate soup to make it sound more appetizing to young children. "My dad would pay me 50 cents to eat a bowl," she remembered. Sometimes that did not work.
Now, Edel Beyer specializes in ciskzas, in which a mush of boiled buckwheat grits, fried onion and bacon or cracklings are stuffed into sausage casings where they cool and firm up, and slices of the casings are fried up.
"A lot of our recipes are what I call peasant food," said Breza. Not all Polish food is peasant food, but much of it can be traced back to a time when Poles living under oppression found resourceful ways to feed their families with limited resources, he explained.
Polish food, said Breza, is tightly tied to Polish history. On Saturday, May 3, Winona Polish-Americans celebrated the 223rd anniversary of the Polish constitution. That document helped elevate class barriers in a Poland that was divided between serfs and nobles, but the renewal was short-lived, according to Polish scholar Oscar Halecki. Just two years after Thaddeus Kosciuszko — who helped win the American Revolution and for whom Washington-Koscuiszko Elementary School is named — helped craft the Polish constitution, simultaneous invasions by Russian and Prussian armies brought about decades of occupation by foreign powers, and what Halecki called Poland's "saddest century."
Breza said during the 1800s, occupiers claimed the better part of Poland's agricultural products, leaving little for Poles themselves. Duck blood soup became a tradition "because you had to give the duck to the rich people," Breza said. "But if you're going to survive, there is a lot of nutrition in the blood."
Polish pig farmers would have to give up the bacon and pork chops from hogs they raised, and that gave rise to the prevalence of head cheese and grits bologna in Polish cuisine, according to Breza. Polish families brought those traditions with them when they immigrated to the Winona area, and while the ingredients may have been shaped by necessity, the dishes are delicacies in their own right. "Homemade bread and grits bologna, oh man, oh man," Breza said, grinning. After all, "Polish people are just plain good cooks."
Some people might dislike hearing about "peasant" heritage, but "I'm proud," said Breza. Polish people are resilient and strong in the face of any odds, he said, and Polish workers were the backbone of early of Winona. "You don't need to have more of everything, you can survive on less," he commented.
These traditional methods are fading away, said Edel Beyer. "There are going to be memories lost," she said. Ciszkas will live on at the Edel Beyer household, at least. Her daughter and grandchildren have learned how to mix them up and where one can buy buckwheat grits. Polish cooking "is being lost," Breza agreed, but if young people "find out how good it is, maybe they'll preserve it."