trust me, it’s polish

After a year in Boston, I still miss the Polish food of Chicago: the $5.95 all-you-can-eat buffets, the ubiquitous delis with strands of garlic-rich sausages in the windows. Tiring of pho, chicken tikka masala, and panang curry, I longed for the comfort food of my childhood.

A Web site for Baltic European Deli promised me the finest in Polish food. I had an address, 632 Dorchester Ave. in South Boston. A woman’s voice answered when I called, and I could tell from her accent that she was Polish. When I switched from English to Polish, I could hear the relief in her voice, but even in Polish, I couldn’t get directions. All I got was: “Please come, madam, we’re open until 8 p.m.! We’re right by the church!” Great. Getting off the Red Line at the Andrew T stop, I asked the token seller if this was a Polish neighborhood. He shrugged.

It was dark and dreary with a steady drizzle, but I saw a sign that gave me hope: Syrena Travel. I knew the word “syrena” meant mermaid, and that the mermaid is the symbol of Warsaw. I think Syrena ranks second only to the White Eagle (the symbol for Poland) in names of Polish-owned businesses. Well it does in Chicago, anyway.

But the lady was right: The deli was right by the church, Our Lady of Czestochowa, which advertises Masses in Polish. The church was small and covered in white siding. Polish churches in Chicago are groaning stone edifices with five-story-high stained-glass windows, churches that could seat thousands, and a century ago, did. Although tiny by Chicago standards, the Baltic showed promise once I got to the freezer section, with its plastic tubs marked in Polish in black marker. Inside: ribs in mushroom sauce, pickle soup (trust me, it’s good), tripe soup (trust me, it’s disgusting), stuffed cabbage, three kinds of herring (in oil, in sour cream, and pickled), and rows and rows of pierogi. Name your variety: Potato? Potato and cheese? Sauerkraut and mushroom?

And there was fresh rye bread and tons of imported food: Vavel dill pickles, Adamba dried soup mixes, Kubus fruit juices with its weird cartoon teddy-bear spokescreature, and at the meat counter, my favorite Polish sausage, kabanos, and my favorite lunchmeat, poledwica. Facing a long T ride and walk home, I didn’t want to get too much. I settled for a dozen potato-and-cheese pierogi and a half-pound of poledwica.

As the clerk rang up my purchases, she asked if I wanted some paczki – a loose Polish variation on a jelly doughnut. What were they filled with? “Plums and raspberries, madam, and they’re only three for a dollar.” Sure, why not?

It started pouring as I left. I stepped in a huge puddle, and my rainproof jacket didn’t seem rainproof anymore.

When I got home, I changed into pajamas and started cooking. I melted butter in a pan, and put the pierogi in to brown. I made hot tea with lemon and got out one of my three-for-a dollar paczki.

As I bit into the warm, buttery potato dumpling, I smiled. Finally, a taste of Chicago — er, I mean, Poland.

This story ran on the Last Word column on page 12 of the Boston Globe’s City Weekly section on 11/24/2002.
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