“How much for a dozen,” a woman asked, poking her head through the door. “I don’t know, I’m just security!” a man yelled back. Around 30 people had crammed themselves inside a small bakery, responsible for sending the smell of sweet dough down the street as a sort of invisible, olfactory siren call. Spindles of white strung hung across the ceiling, used to tie pastry boxes full of a once-a-year- delicacy that felt holy in more ways than one. The more people were served, the more came in. “I feel like I’m parting the Red Sea,” said a man who had just collected his order from the counter and was now trying to get through the shop to the snow awaiting him outside.
The crowd laughed, but this was serious business. It was the countdown to Packzi Day and the New Palace Bakery in Hamtramck was the official headquarters of the sugary extravaganza, or at least that’s what the red ribbons hanging across the shop said. It was also my first weekend in Detroit, and as I stood in the bakery for over half an hour, waiting with a ticket in my hand to try a paczki in one of the many different flavors New Palace was offering, accidentally ending up a participant in an impromptu bakery trivia contest, I felt like I was officially having too much fun.
Eaten on Fat Tuesday, paczki (pronounced “ponchki”) is a Polish pastry that more or less resembles a jelly doughnut. It’s made of flour, sugar, yeast and milk and just like many other Lenten practices in different ethnic communities around the world, it marks the last day of gluttony before fasting practices during Lent.
It’s eaten by Polish American communities in the U.S., but overtime, Paczki Day has evolved into an occasion celebrated by people of diverse backgrounds. The Detroit area is apparently the largest market for paczki. According to a newspaper article in the Royal Oak-based Daily Tribune referenced in the book, “A History of the Polish Americans,” $10 million of paczki were sold in Detroit alone in 2001, with national sales totaling around $300 million. The numbers have probably grown since then, but just in case you can’t find it where you live, the Polish American Journal, published since 1911, has several recipes.
There was even a National Paczki Promotional Board based in Troy (one of the Detroit metro area’s many suburbs I am slowly becoming acquainted with) founded by Carl Richardson, also known as “Mr. Paczki.” Richardson, 77, passed away just a few weeks ago, with his obituary mentioning that he was “nationally known in the allied baking industry, where he consulted and created the marketing program for Paczki sales.”
Receiving a welcome to Detroit via a box of warm, deep-fried custard-filled paczkis felt like I had traveled thousands of miles to end up at the same place again. Growing up in Los Angeles in the Armenian community meant I had my fair share of this pastry, which is pronounced in almost the same exact way (“ponchik” instead of “ponchki”). These were brought to L.A. from Armenian immigrants that came to the U.S. in the aftermath of the Soviet Union falling apart. Given their shared Soviet history, the Poland-Armenia packzi connection doesn’t seem so strange.
For many, it’s a perfect excuse to indulge, but witnessing Paczki Day reminded me of something more: the importance of ritual. Food is tradition, it is memory, it connects us to a time and place in a way that we can’t ever forget, it is the quickest way of retaining our roots, of not forgetting who we are or where we come from while we’re also constantly moving forward at the same time. Names change, language goes, but food often sticks around. . Like most people, the cooking that went on in my house and beyond while I was growing up has stayed with me. My mother's expert mastery of Iranian and Armenian cuisine, coupled with the memories shared over Salvadoran pupusas and Vietnamese pho with friends in L.A. and even the fermented mare's milk I drank while on assignment in Mongolia or the raw honey I was more or less forced to eat in a remote village in Nagorno-Karabakh all evoke more emotion than I'd like to admit, even if the food itself left more to be desired. Food is our gateway to family, community, respect and heritage and often the easiest way of understanding each other no matter where we come from, especially when it's as simple as sweet yeast dough filled with custard, raspberry jam and prune butter.
After finally leaving the bakery, I carried a bag of hot paczkis as I walked back through the streets I’m slowly becoming familiar with, beyond the Polish bakeries, the Middle Eastern supermarket, in between the homes where the constant aroma of Bengali cuisine wafting in the cold air makes me hungry, to an unfurnished home where I’m hoping to plant and blend my own roots with the ones already here.