Redux: Paczki Day Is Mardi Gras, Polish Style For some Christians, today is Shrove Tuesday. For others, it's Mardi Gras, or "Fat Tuesday." But for many Polish Americans, it's also Paczki Day: a celebration of a doughy dessert.
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Redux: Paczki Day Is Mardi Gras, Polish Style

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Redux: Paczki Day Is Mardi Gras, Polish Style

Redux: Paczki Day Is Mardi Gras, Polish Style

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

Today is Fat Tuesday, Mardi Gras if you speak French, Paczki if you speak Polish. In cities far from New Orleans, such as Milwaukee and Detroit, Polish Americans are celebrating Paczki Day. Four years ago, Detroit Public Radio's Celeste Headlee sent us this report.

CELESTE HEADLEE: If you want to learn more about Paczki Day, the first thing to do is master the correct terminology. One of the rich cakey desserts is called a paczek, two or more are paczki. So there's no such thing as paczkis. That's the first thing Ted Radzilowski tells me when I ask him about the holiday. The second thing is that paczki are not doughnuts. They're similar but not the same.

Radzilowski is the president of the Piast Institute, a Polish cultural organization in Hamtramck, Michigan. He says every year people line up at midnight on the icy sidewalks of the city and buy 20 or 30 dozen paczki to share with friends.

Mr. TED RADZILOWSKI (President, Piast Institute): The celebration in the United States came down to the celebration of the paczek primarily. In part, because Polish American identity is built around food, as it is for Italians and others, so you identify yourself by the food you eat. And so, the paczek became a kind of a symbol of Polish identity in the United States.

HEADLEE: Barbara Gorjolewski(ph) is shifting between a silver mixer blending flour and eggs and a covered pot where some finished dough is rising. She says the paczek first appeared in Poland hundreds of years ago, long before refrigeration. She pours a bit of rum into the mixing bowl. Gorjolewski says the dessert was designed to use up perishables likes eggs and butter that can't be eaten during Lent and won't last for 40 days.

Ms. BARBARA GORJOLEWSKI: The paczki are very rich because they do have egg yolks, they do have a butter, and they fry in deep oil. They are very rich.

HEADLEE: The basic ingredients of a paczek are yeast, eggs, salt, butter, flour, sugar, and cream. Many are filled with jelly, prune, apricot, or raspberry. An authentic paczek has about 30 grams of fat and 400 calories. Poles have been baking them and eating them for centuries. But in recent years, Paczki Day has become something of a phenomenon in metropolitan Detroit. It's also caught on in other parts of the country.

Sales of the dessert have reached more than $650 million a year nationwide, according to the American Institute of Baking. There's even a Michigan paczki promotional board that markets the paczek. Americans of every stripe can now buy paczki in local grocery stores. But Father Mark Brokowski(ph) doesn't recommend it.

Father MARK BROKOWSKI: The paczki that we used to have it made by the ladies of our parish were a hundred times better than that which we mass-produced by the thousands. You know, you just can't take a homemade food and market like that and have it retain its real authentic homemade flavor.

HEADLEE: Brokowski drives for hours each year to buy the treats in Jackson, Michigan, his hometown. He says a real paczek has a dark-brown color and a dusting of powdered sugar.

Father BROKOWSKI: Well, I do like the raspberry, but I like the plum, and I never had the poppy seed filled ones until I met a family from Poland, and we had a competition because I had said to them, my paczki from Jackson are the best in the world. They said, well, we make our own, and they're better than yours. And so we had a little bake-off.

HEADLEE: That bake-off resulted in a respectful tie. There are many bake-offs and paczki competitions around Detroit in the days before Lent. There's even a Paczki Day parade, polka parties, and the ever popular paczki eating contest, says Ted Radzilowski.

Mr. RADZILOWSKI: Well, the last year's winner won 824 in 20 minutes. His cholesterol probably hit astronomical highs. This year, they've broken it down into men's and women's categories since the women can't contribute - or can't eat, rather, as much as men can.

HEADLEE: Most people admit to eating maybe three or four. The rich, hearty cakes taste best with a cold glass of milk. Just make sure all of the pastries are gone before Lent begins at midnight. I'm Celeste Headlee in Detroit.

BRAND: As Celeste said, the beginning of Lent is tomorrow, a period where Christians typically give up something. Well, we want to know what you are giving up for Lent during this recession. Many of us have already involuntarily given up a lot. What more is there? Let us know at daydreaming@npr.org. Write us there about what you are giving up for Lent, daydreaming@npr.org.

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