By Preeti Singh, Natasha Frost, and Nafisa Masud
What is inches thick, sprinkled with white sugar, and stuffed with jam? Paczkis—Polish doughnuts, and they were in hot demand at the Old Traditional Polish Cuisine truck, parked on west 52nd street between Sixth and Seventh Avenues on Thursday. It was not just any Thursday, after all.
February 23 was Fat Thursday, a traditional Catholic feast day in Poland that falls on the last Thursday before Lent. True to its name, Fat Thursday kickstarts a six-day period of indulging in sweets and other foods—including paczkis, the indubitable king of these foods. “Last year, I didn’t get any,” said Polish-American Monica Bielik.“I have waited all year for these.” Bielik stepped out of her office before a meeting to grab two paczkis for her lunch. Her nanny was busy at home making a pile of paczkis for the evening.
Made with flour, butter, sugar, and yeast, paczkis are thicker than New York doughnuts, and filled with everything from traditional rosehip jam and marmalade to nutella or chocolate. A popular Polish proverb roughly translates to “Live like a doughnut in butter.”
That period of indulgence runs through to Ash Wednesday, when Lent begins, and a period of sacrifice and abstinence is encouraged. On Fat Thursday, Poles will eat paczkis by the dozens, said Professor Chris Harwood of the Department of Slavic Languages at Columbia University. “The idea is to stock up on all the fat you can starting on Fat Thursday,” he said. “So you have enough meat on your body to sustain the six weeks.”
At the truck, Eva Lokaj, catering and marketing manager, had a list of customers who had pre-ordered their paczkis. This year, she had 600 paczkis in her truck. By noon, the line in front of the truck was long, but Lokaj was down to her last fifty. “They go so fast,” said Lokaj. “The Polish have to definitely eat them today.”
Some Poles had made a special trip for their paczkis, including a young mother with her child in a stroller, an older one carrying a boxful of paczkis for home, and a Polish-American police officer. Other people in the line were regular office-goers in the area, trying out packzi for Thursday lunch, along with kielbasas and pierogies.
Polish-American Anita Tsoukalos moved to the U.S. from Poland when she was fourteen. According to her, in Poland, more than a million paczkis will be consumed on Fat Thursday. While many families make them at home, plenty also buy them from their favorite local bakeries. In Poland, her grandmother and mother would make the paczkis and the whole family would gather to eat them. “The top sugar layer gets your mouth all dirty,” she said. “It is so good!”
Paczkis at the truck
Making the paczkis requires expertise. Apart from the right balance of flour, sugar, and butter, the paczki dough has to be well-aerated, so the paczkis turn out light and fluffy. They should be crisp on the outside, and moist and soft on the inside. According to Professor Harwood, most Polish bakeries in NYC set aside their poppyseed cakes, babkas, and other traditional sweets and sell only packzis on Fat Thursday.
Bielik moved from Poland when she was young and had fond memories of Fat Thursday in Poland. The whole extended family, including her grandmother and aunt would gather to eat as many paczkis as they could before Lent. “It is all about getting fat on Fat Thursday,” said Bielik. “And eating as many as paczkis as you can.”
But the result of missing your paczkis could be still more serious: A Polish proverb warns that “those who don’t eat a stack of pączki on Fat Thursday will have an empty barn, and their field destroyed by mice.” So New Yorkers should be careful.