FOOD AND CULTURE IN POLAND
Her neighbors invaded her, fought with her, divided her into pieces, and for a time even erased her name from the map of Europe. Over a period of about 400 years, from the 1300s to the late 1700s, intermittent wars with Sweden, Russia, Turkey, and Germany continually changed the borders of Poland until she was swallowed up and divided into Russia, Prussia, and part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and finally disappeared. At least her name disappeared, but the western Slays known as “Polanians” or “dwellers of the plains” clung tenaciously to their own traditions and held fast to their beloved church. And, despite the influence of three foreign masters at one time for a period of more than a hundred years, the Polish spirit proved indestructible.
Under the oppressions of the 1800s, the parts of Poland under Prussia and Austria did not fare as badly as those parts under Russia. These latter areas were subjected to forced Russification which included sharp restrictions in the use of the Polish language and even in the attendance of religious services. Feudal land systems prevailed widely and so did illiteracy and while the princes and the aristocracy dined at sumptuous banquets, the laboring peasants survived on cabbage and potatoes and their deep religious faith.
These difficult times witnessed many Polish uprisings, and following each unsuccessful attempt, waves of soldiers, political refugees, and peasants made their way to North America. With the outbreak of World War I Poles conscripted into both the Russian and the German army resulted in Pole fighting against Pole.
But on November 3, 1918, Poland accomplished a miraculous resurrection and proclaimed the Republic of Poland. Establishment of the republic was only the beginning. Poland also hoped to regain her lost territories and these hopes led again to conflicts, mainly with Russia. In the ensuing years, problems with minority groups, financial crises, and government turmoil added to the difficulties and the weakening of Poland. These problems culminated in 1939 with the Third Reich’s sweep of Poland and the beginning of World War II.
This history of repeated conquest and subjugation drained the spirit of the people, as well as taking a serious toll on the country’s natural resources and arable lands. It also intensified family relationships and the enjoyment of special occasions. Today, many ancient pagan rituals blend with religious ceremonies and festive celebrations that demand a great flurry of fine cooking and baking, decorations and party clothes. Poles, in common with all Slays, love having parties, enjoy wearing their best clothes, and sharing an abundance of good food and drink in celebrations that often last several days before finally coming to an end.
While it is inevitable that the turbulent history of conquerors and oppressions should have affected Polish life, traditions, and cuisine, it is also interesting that two royal romances, an influx of refugees, and a brief rule by a French dandy also affected the Polish culinary arts. In the early 1300s, the love Casimir III bore for Esterka, a Jewess, resulted in Poland’s welcoming Jewish refugees from all the oppressed regions of Europe, particularly western Germany. The introduction into Polish cuisine of potato puddings (kugelis) from Lithuania, honey-cakes (piernik), and sweet and sour dishes like the classic jellied carp with raisins and almonds from Germany are all attributed to Jewish influence.
Two hundred years later when the Polish King Sigismund I wed Italy’s Queen Bona Sforza, Poland not only gained a queen but also a retinue of Italian chefs and gardeners. They introduced pastas, pastries, and ice cream desserts. Italian gardeners cultivated many vegetables new to the Poles, including tomatoes. And it was the son of Catherine de Medici and Henry II of France – Henry III – who briefly ruled Poland in the late 1500s and left as probably the only redeeming aspect of his rule, a Polish appreciation for sauces and mayonnaise.
Also entrenched in the Polish cuisine are evidences of Russian, German, and Austrian culinary arts. Sour cream and dill, baked grains (kasza in Poland, kasha in Russia), cabbage soups and beet soups, zakaski and vodka are all as familiar in Poland as they are in Russia. Sausage-making, a taste for sweet and sour foods, and specialty potato dishes can be traced as favorites in Germany as well. And the influence of the far-flung Austro-Hungarian Empire (before 1918) was no doubt responsible in large part for the Polish predilection for paprika from Hungary dumplings and bread-crumb sauces from the Czechs, and strudels, tortes, and other delectable bakery from Austria.
The ingenuity of Polish peasant women combined the produce of their own land with the tastes that history meted out to them from other countries and developed the great classics of Polish cuisine. These include:
- Babka: a rich delicate yeast cake of eggs and dried fruits, special for Easter.
- Bigos: a hunter’s stew of layered cabbage or sauerkraut, mixed meats, game, and sausage.
- Cholodnik: a cold beet and sour-cream soup garnished with sliced fresh vegetables and shrimp.
- Pierogi or Pierozki: boiled dumplings made of filled noodle dough.
- Pieczony Schab: roast pork loin.