Packages of Goodness
The Carnival is over and Lent – the 40-day period (not counting the Sundays) of fasting, leading up to Easter – is now here. In Poland, quite adequately, Lent coincides with early spring, the gloomiest of Polish climate's six seasons. If you're Polish American or Polish Canadian, or just happen to live in one of the parts of North America with significant Polish-heritage populations, you may have celebrated the last day before Lent as "Fat Tuesday" or "Paczki Day". This day is traditionally marked by eating copious amounts of paczkis, or delicious, spongy doughnuts in the shape of a flattened ball, injected with jam or other filling. This is, for example, what a local paper from Grand Rapids, Michigan, wrote about the tradition:
|[Local] supermarkets have assembled thousands of the delicious paczkis (pronounced poonch-key) to celebrate Fat Tuesday […] Paczkis originated in Poland as a part of the feasting and celebration that ends on Paczki day, or “Fat Tuesday,” the day before Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent. […] Paczkis are made from rich round yeast raised dough that is fried and filled with a variety of flavors before being coated with granulated sugar or a sweet glaze. Paczki means ‘little package’ in Polish. Traditional fillings are prune or apricot, but are also made with more conventional fillings as raspberry, lemon and Bavarian crème.|
|— Meredith Gremel: What in the world is a Paczki?, in: SpartanNash, Byron Center, MI: SpartanNash Company, 8 February 2016
The funny thing is that if you showed the text above to anyone who actually lives in Poland they would be quite surprised by how many inaccuracies it contains. First of all, the correct spelling is "pączki", not "paczki". It's true that "paczki" means "packages", but it's a completely different (and unrelated) word than "pączki" (notice the little hook under the "a"?), which is the correct term for Polish doughnuts. Secondly, the correct pronunciation is more like PAUNCH-key than POONCH-key. Thirdly, prunes and apricots seem pretty weird as pączki fillings; everybody knows that rose-hip jam is the most traditional and most aromatic one. And finally, the chief pączki-eating day is not Fat Tuesday, but Fat Thursday, six days earlier.
Tony Machalski, a Polish American who has immigrated to the country of his ancestors and now runs The Foreign Citizen Youtube channel, did a pretty good job two years ago explaining the difference between what Polish Americans think they know about pączki and what the actual facts are back in the "old country".
It would seem that Americans who proudly claim to be Polish are quite clueless about real Polish culture. But are they? Perhaps there's a good reason for these cultural differences? What if the Polish Americans are not entirely wrong after all?
Poonchkey or Paunchkey?
Let's start with the linguistic part. The Polish word for a doughnut (usually, in the shape of a flattened sphere, with some kind of filling in it) is "pączek", pronounced PAWN-check. The plural form, used for more than one doughnut, is "pączki", which is pronounced PAWNCH-kee. The latter word has nothing to do with packages. That's "paczki" (without the hook-shaped squiggle), pronounced PAHTCH-kee. It's the plural form of "paczka" (PAHTCH-kah), or "a package". As you can see, the explanation you can occasionally come across in America that pączki are "little packages of goodness" is as sweet as it is wrong. So where does the Polish word for doughnuts actually come from?
"Pączek" is a diminutive form of the word "pąk" (pron. pawnk), which is a botanical term referring to a flower bud or leaf bud. What do doughnuts have to do with flower buds, you may ask. Not so much, if you're thinking about the American ring-shaped donuts, but it's different with the ball-shaped Polish ones. Originally, the word "pąk" referred to anything that is round, bulging (pękate), swollen (napęczniałe) and about to burst (pęknąć). Ultimately, all these "pąk- / pęk- / pącz- / pęcz-" words are most likely of onomatopoeic origin, meaning that they're supposed to resemble the sound of something swollen that is bursting. Think of PAWNK! as the Old Polish equivalent of BANG!
From the point of view of a modern Pole, the English-speakers' confusion regarding pączki versus paczki is at least justifiable; after all, the English language doesn't have any nasal vowels or the little hooks indicating them (as in ą, ę). What's more grating to many Polish ears, is referring to a single Polish doughnut as "a paczki" and to more than one as "paczkis". Yet often, the same Polish people who would be ready to criticise this grammatical error have no qualms about wearing dżinsy ("jeanses"), eating czipsy ("chipses") or listening to Beatlesi ("the Beatleses"). Depluralisation of loanwords is a common linguitic phenomenon and it often cuts both ways.
But the weirdest thing about how "paczki" became a Polish loanword in English is how English speakers (in North America at least) tend to pronounce it. Why is it POONCH-kee and not PAWNCH-kee, which would be so much closer to the original Polish pronunciation? Are the Polish Americans wrong to say the word the way they do? And even if they are, then why did this "wrong" pronunciation become so common?
It turns out they're not that wrong after all. PAWNCH-kee may be the accepted pronuncation in modern standard Polish, but modern standard Polish is a relatively recent creation, a product of state-run schools, radio and television that have worked for the past few generations to unify the language across Poland. In the past, though, each region had its own dialect and subdialects, used especially by the rural populace, and pronunciation differences between regions could be quite substantial.
So was there a dialect were the standard nasal awn sound had shifted towards the nasal oon sound? Actually, there was quite a few of them. The awn → oon vowel shift could be found in dialects ranging from Ermland in the north, to the regions of Cuyavia, Greater Poland, Middle Poland, and all the way to Silesia in the south. In all these regions, pączki was, in fact, pronounced POONCH-kee. If you're reading this, then I assume you don't speak much Polish, but if you're interested in examples, then you can find a few in the Polish-language version of this blog post; look for "pónczki" or "punczki" (the spelling may vary). And all these regions produced waves of migrants who would settle in the United States or Canada, bringing their own pronunciation of "pączki", as well as the recipes, to the banks of the Great Lakes.
Let's now tackle the calendar question: why does "Pączki Day" in America coincide with Fat Tuesday and not Fat Thursday as it does in Poland? Or maybe we should turn this question around: why doesn't Carnival in Poland culminate on the very last day before Lent, which would be logical, but six days earlier? What we can say for sure is that both Fat Days have something to do with Lent. After all, the entire goal of celebrating Carnival was to have fun in advance and also to use up the stored food that would be proscribed during Lent and wouldn't last until Easter. In the days of yore, people used to take fasting more seriously, which also meant that pre-fasting revelry was more vibrant and heartfelt. So let's start by looking at how people used to fast in the past.
The exact rules as to what kinds of food were forbidden during fasting periods and how long these periods were changed quite a lot from time to time and from one place to another. Lent was different for the Orthodox Christians, Catholics and Protestants. But even within one denomination, say, Catholic, fasting wasn't always and everywhere the same. Convincing freshly converted Christians to fasting would have been most challenging; King Boleslav the Brave of Poland, for example, used to encourage his subjects to periodic vegetarianism by punching out the teeth of the unconvinced. But sometimes members of some local community, wishing to atone for their sins, usually when faced by some kind of disaster, would voluntarily vow to fast even more strictly than required by Church authorities; the entire community would then follow this more rigorous fast for decades until the local bishop, or even the pope himself, released them from the vow. This meant that fasting customs could differ from country to country and even from diocese to diocese. Generally speaking, fasting was very strict in the early Middle Ages and was gradually liberalised as time went by. But in Poland liberal novelties have always taken longer to take hold, so Polish people were considered particularly strict fasters for centuries. And Masovians, who lived in a northeastern backwater part of Poland, had the reputation of the kind of folks who would rather kill a man (especially one who broke fast himself) than eat cheese on a Friday.
And so, Polish people used to fast not only on every Friday (as many still do), but also on every Saturday and Wednesday, on every eve of each of several dozen major holidays, on Ember Days (three in each quarter of the year) and during the entire Advent and Lent (which also happened to be longer than they are today). On average, every other day was a lean, or fasting, day. Nowadays, Lent covers the period of 40 days (not counting Sundays) prior to Easter. But it used to start 17 days earlier than that. This additional 17-day period of fasting was then declared optional and, known as Shrovetide or Pre-Lent, it was treated as a time of preparation for Lent proper. Some of you may remember me mentioning Shrovetide in my post about holey breads, the pretzels and obwarzanki traditionally eaten on lean days. And also about how the Duchess of Masovia paid a visit to Queen Hedwig of Poland during Pre-Lent; when they dined together, Saint Hedwig ate only herrings and obwarzanki (ring-shaped breads), whereas the Duchess, who opted not to fast during that time, had chicken instead.
Pre-Lent contained three Sundays, known as Septuagesima, Sexagesima and Quinquagesima, that is, "Seventieth", "Sixtieth" and "Fiftieth" in Latin. These names obviously make no sense, because Sundays tend to come every seven days, rather than every ten days, and there's no way to count 70, 60 or 50 days from any of them down to Easter. Pre-Lent is also observed in the Orthodox Church, but it's more rigorous than the optional fast of its Catholic equivalent. The Orthodox use this time to gradually remove certain food types from their diet. They call the second Sunday of Pre-Lent "Meatfare Sunday", as it's the day when they say farewell to meat. They can still consume dairy products during the next week, until Cheesefare Sunday. The next day is Clean Monday, when Orthodox Lent begins; there's no Ash Wednesday in this tradition.
So when is the last time for the Orthodox to fry their Carnival pancakes before Lent? It can't be the Cheesefare Sunday, because you can't do any work on the Sabbath. Friday and Saturday are lean days even outside of Lent. So it must be Thursday, then. Same with the last occasion to cook meat; Greeks, for example, celebrate Barbecue Thursday (Tsiknopempti) on the last Thursday before Meatfare Sunday. So it would seem that Catholics copied their Fat Thursday from the Orthodox. Catholics in Poland seem to have copied even more: the traditional Polish names for the three Sundays of Catholic Pre-Lent are Niedziela Starozapustna ("Old Shrovetide Sunday", because it had been the first Sunday of fasting back when fasting was mandatory in Pre-Lent), then Niedziela Mięsopustna ("Meatfare Sunday", same as for the Orthodox) and Niedziela Zapustna ("Shrovetide Sunday"). In fact, the English word "Carnival" has the same origin as the Polish "mięsopust"; it comes from Latin "carne vale", which means "farewell to meat".
And what the heck does "Shrovetide" mean? It's from the archaic English verb "to shrive", which refers to the action of a priest hearing your confession and absolving you of your sins. "Shrovetide" is sometimes used interchangeably with "Pre-Lent", but technically, it's just the last three days before Lent – from Quinquagesima Sunday to Shrove Tuesday – when people were expected to confess their sins and get shriven. The Polish names for this period are Zapusty and Ostatki ("Last Days").
In some countries, like France, Shrove Tuesday is celebrated as Fat Tuesday. In England, it's Pancake Tuesday. And in Poland, it's Herring Day (Śledzik or Śledziówka). But herring is a lean dish, so why would you celebrate the last day before Lent by having Lenten food already? You know you're gonna be sick of it by the time Lent is over. Well, the reason is quite logical, actually. When you're partying, it's easy to lose track of time and not realise that you've slipped into Lenten territory. And, as they used to say in Poland, "on Shrove Tuesday the devil stands outside the tavern door and marks down those leaving after midnight." Chasing your vodka with herrings was a safety measure; this way, you may be still partying on Ash Wednesday, but there's no sin in doing so.
This may be another reason why the peak day of Polish Carnival is six days before Lent. You want to put some buffer between the fat-laced revelry and the mandatory fast. And don't think this is only a Polish idea. Fat Thursday is also observed in Italy (giovedì grasso), Spain (jueves lardero), Swabia (Schmotziger Donnerstag), Luxembourg (Fetten Donneschdeg) and Picardy (jeudi jeudyou). In the Catholic South Slavic countries (Croatia and Slovakia) the peak of the Carnival falls on Shrovetide Sunday. In the Nordic countries the biggest parties are held on Shrove Monday, known as Fastelavn. On the same day people also have fun in the Rhineland, where they celebrate Rosenmontag (usually translated as "Rose Monday" even though it actually comes from the dialectical verb "roose", meaning "to party"). In Cornwall the day is known as "Peasen Monday", a day for eating peasoup, while in other parts of England it's "Collop Monday", observed by eating pork collops. But in most countries, including France, the Carnival's peak day is Shrove (or Fat) Tuesday.
French colonists have brought their tradition to North America. Today it's the New Orleans version of Fat Tuesday, or Mardi Gras in French, that is best known. Women from all over the United States use this occasion to come to bare their personal little packages of goodness (not to be confused with beignets, or actual local doughnuts) on Bourbon Street in return for strings of green, yellow and purple beads tossed down to them by men standing on balconies. What a beautiful custom! But still not as good as Polish pączki, is it? Anyway, it seems that in the great melting pot of cultures that the United States are, pączki come from Poland, but they are eaten on the French Fat Tuesday.
From Cannonballs to Sponges
So what's the relationship between a doughnut and a pączek? Are these two different things or just English and Polish names for the same thing? Or is pączek a specific kind of doughnut? The perfect pączek, in my opinion at least, is filled with rose-petal jam, fried in lard and decorated with icing and candied orange zest. But what if you give it a different filling (or no filling at all), fry it butter (or even vegetable oil) and dust with powdered sugar instead? It's still going to be a pączek. And a doughnut. So what makes a pączek a pączek and what makes a doughnut a doughnut?
If we look into old cookbooks, we'll see that the bakers and pastrycooks of yore had even bigger problems using the correct terminology. Very often, they seem to have lumped all kinds of fried dough (pancakes, fritters, crullers, doughnuts) under the same label. Let's take, for example, the manuscript recipe collection written at the end of the 17th century at the court of the princely house of Radziwiłł. For the most part, it's a Polish translation of the German cookbook, Ein Koch- und Artzney-Buch ("A Cookery and Medicine Book"). The anonymous translator chose to render all instances of the German term "Krapfen" as "pączek", even if he noticed himself that the recipe was really for pancakes rather than doughnuts.
|Priestly doughnuts with almonds, but one can see from context that they are more akin to pancakes as made in Silesia and known as “gabion baskets”|
Take half a pound of finely crushed almonds, four egg yolks and one whole egg, as well as some cream; beat it all well, season with sugar and butter. Then add fine flour and mix into thick batter, but not too thick, so that you can pour it with a spoon; only then heat well an iron pan and grease it with butter; pour the batter onto it and fry over hot coals, then remove and roll up.
|— Jarosław Dumanowski, Rafał Jankowski (ed.): Moda bardzo dobra smażenia różnych konfektów, Warszawa: Muzeum Pałac w Wilanowie, 2011, p. 127, own translation from Polish
I don't really know why the German "Waffen-Krapfen" ("war fritters"?) were translated as "priestly doughnuts". In modern German the word "Krapfen" does refer to a doughnut. But in some regions of Germany (Brandenburg, Saxony and Hither Pomerania) doughnuts are known as "Pfannkuchen" which is the word for "pancakes" in other German-speaking parts. The Radziwiłł cookbook also mentions "kręple", or a kind of crullers. Here, both the recipe and the name come from eastern Germany, where "Kräppel" is a dialectical variant of "Krapfen". From the same source come the Silesian kręple (doughnuts) and the Jewish kreplach (meat-filled dumplings).
About a century after the Radziwiłł manuscript, Wojciech Wielądko translated a more recent cookbook into Polish, this time from French. The original book was La cuisinière bourgeoise by Menon. The titular "urban female cook" somehow changed both her gender and her estate in the Polish translation, becoming Kucharz doskonały, or "the perfect male cook". In this translation, the word "pączek" was used to render the French "beignet", even though it usually referred to various kinds of fritters rather than doughnuts.
|Apple or peach doughnuts|
Quarter, peel and core Reinette apples, marinade them for two to three hours in vodka with sugar, green-lemon zest and orange water; once they infuse the flavour, drain them, wrap in a piece of floured cloth and coat them well in flour; then fry them nicely, ice with sugar and serve; you may prepare peaches in the same way.
|— Wojciech Wielądko: Kucharz doskonały: pożyteczny dla zatrudniających się gospodarstwem, Warszawa: nakładem i drukiem Michała Grölla, 1783, p. 319, own translation from Polish
It would seem then that in the past the meaning of "pączek" was as broad as of the French "beignet", encompassing a whole range of fried-dough foods, usually ball-shaped, and not solely doughnuts. Among the many kinds of Old Polish pączki (typically aping the Wester Krapfen and beignets) there were such creations as "bag doughnuts" (pączki workowe, made from balls of dough that were put into bags, cooked in boiling water and cut into slices that were then fried) or "syringe doughnuts" (pączki strykowe, made by squirting batter into boiling oil, possibly related to the funnel cakes of the Pennsylvania Dutch).
There's even a mid-19th-century recipe for beignets à la polonaise that you can find in La cuisine classique by Urbain Dubois and Émile Bernard, two French chefs who had worked for Polish and Russian aristocrats. But if you think that these "Polish-style beignets" are the pączki we know from Poland today, then you're going to be disappointed. These are more like modern Polish "croquettes" made from filled and rolled-up crêpes (Polish naleśniki), but sweet rather than savoury.
|Polish-style beignets – nalesniki|
Fry a dozen ordinary pancakes; once done, trim them correctly, spread them and cover with thick pear-and-pineapple marmalade.; wrap them up into oblong, 4-cm wide envelopes; trim the ends and divide them into two parts; seal the openings with the trimmings; coat them in a few handfuls of powdered almonds, then eggs and finally breadcrumbs; then place them in a large pan greased with clarified butter, let them brown just slightly, then arrange them into a crown or a pyramid and serve with fruit sauce. You may garnish these beignets with any kind of marmalade or pastry cream.
|— Urbain Dubois, Émile Bernard: La cuisine classique : études pratiques, raisonnées et démonstratives de l'École française appliquée au service à la russe, own translation
Today, we wouldn't call any of these fritters "pączek", mostly because they all lacked one crucial ingredient – yeast. All these old-time pączki were made from unleavened dough, so they were dense and hard, as colourfully described by Jędrzej Kitowicz.
|If an old-fashioned doughnut were to hit you in the face, you could get a black eye from it.|
|— Jędrzej Kitowicz: Customs and Culture in Poland under the Last Saxon King, Oscar E. Swan (trans.), Budapest – New York: Central European University Press, 2019, p. 276
Who knows, maybe this is what the aforementioned Waffen-Krapfen were all about? There's even a legend about a Prussian army cook who supposedly invented doughnuts having drawn inspiration from the sight of cannonballs. But already in Kitowicz's times (1728–1804) there appeared in Poland new yeast-raised doughnuts, whose fluffiness must have really impressed those used to the "war fritters" of the past.
|French pastries, layer cakes, pasties, sponge cakes, and the like – doughnuts even – were brought to the highest level of perfection. […] The new doughnuts were so plump and light that you could squeeze them in your hand and they would swell and ooze like a sponge, so light that a mere puff of wind might whisk them off the plate.|
And so, by the end of the 18th century, pączki had evolved into the spongy filled delights we know today. These, at last, were real doughnuts according to the definition proposed by Ms. Heather Delauncey Hunwick, a Canadian Australian doughnut expert:
|A doughnut is a deep-fried soft to sticky dough, which may be enriched with eggs, usually but not always shaped or formed as a ring or flattened sphere, and leavened with yeast or other agents to produce a pastry that has a slight crust and a moist, spongy, cake-like interior. It is usually sweetened, either before or after frying, or both, and may be enhanced with inclusions such as jam or dried fruit.|
|— Heather Delauncey Hunwick: Doughnut: A Global History, London: Reaktion Books, 2015, p. 22–23
An early recipe for this kind of modern pączek can be found in a cookbook by Jan Szyttler from the first half of the 19th century. It was made from high-quality flour milled at Marymont (a Warsaw suburb) mixed with milk, yeast and egg yolks, seasoned with cardamon, anise and lemon zest. And what about the filling? Well, first of all, it wasn't injected but sealed inside the doughnut before frying. The former method is much easier, but not as good, as anyone who's ever bit into a doughnut only for the filling to squirt out onto their clothes will tell you. And what's interesting, the recipe mentions not only jam, but also fruit batter, as the filling. Plum butter is the most usual kind known in Poland, so it looks like prune-filled pączki aren't any less traditional than the jam-filled ones.
|Pour two quarts of dry Marymontese flour into a deep pan, make a hollow in the middle, and pour half a quart of thick white yeast and one quart of warm milk into it; mix and leave in a warm place for half a quarter. When it starts to rise, add twelve egg yolks, a quart of clarified butter and just as much finely crushed sugar, some finely chopped lemon zest, a little crushed cardamon and anise. Mix the dough with a wooden spatula, while adding small amounts of milk, not to make the dough too thin. Punch down the dough, leave in a warm place and when it rises, punch down again. Lay the dough on a floured pastry board, roll it out half an inch thick and cut into four-inch stripes. Baste one stripe with beaten eggs, spoon over a little fruit butter or jam, cover with another stripe and seal with a tin mould. Having made as many doughnuts as you need, cover them with cloth and when they rise, turn them over. After a few minutes, put them into deep boiling fat and cover; once they become golden in colour at the bottom, turn them over and cover the pan again. Once they are ready, remove with a slotted spoon, dust with powdered sugar and cinnamon, and serve while they are warm.|
|— Jan Szyttler: Kucharz dobrze usposobiony, vol. II, Wilno: Drukarnia Diecezjalna u XX. Misjonarzów, 1830, p. 68–69, own translation
And this is the kind of rich pączki that would be best for Fat Thursday, Fat Tuesday or indeed all year round!
- The six traditional (that is, pre-global-climate-change) Polish seasons are: zima (winter), przedwiośnie (early spring), wiosna (spring), lato (summer), złota jesień (golden autumn) and szaruga jesienna (gray autumn). Or, in the words of a poet:
In Poland there's six seasons
not more than that, I guess
then two autumns
one runs away with gold
the other, damp and cold
— Jan Twardowski, Sześć pór roku, own translation
Jest w Polsce sześć pór roku
chyba więcej nie ma
jedna ze złotem ucieka
w drugiej kalosz przecieka
- Jerzy Bralczyk: Jeść!!!, Olszanica: Bosz, 2014, p. 127
- Halina Karaś: Samogłoski nosowe, in: Dialekty i gwary polskie: Kompendium internetowe, Instytut Języka Polskiego Uniwersytetu Warszawskiego, 2010
- Jarosław Dumanowski, Magdalena Kasprzyk-Chevriaux: Kapłony i szczeżuje: Opowieść o zapomnianej kuchni polskiej, Wydawnictwo Czarne, 2018, p. 156
- Ibid., p. 173
- Ibid., p. 158
- Alexander Przezdziecki: Życie domowe Jadwigi i Jagiełły: z regestrów skarbowych z lat 1388–1417, Warszawa: Skład główny w Księgarni Kommissowej Z. Steblera, 1854, p. 69–70
- Zygmunt Gloger: Encyklopedia staropolska, vol. IV, Warszawa: P. Laskauer i W. Babicki, 1903, p. 488, own translation
- Heather Delauncey Hunwick: Doughnut: A Global History, London: Reaktion Books, 2015
- Jarosław Dumanowski: Pączki z przeszłości, czyli tłusty czwartek historycznie, in: naTemat, 3 February 2016
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