CHICAGO — With Fat Tuesday nearly here, lines across bakeries and grocery stores to pick up scores of beloved paczki can be traced back to Chicago’s deep Polish roots.
With the craze of getting paczki seeming to grow each and every year, it wouldn’t be quite as popular if Chicago never turned into a massive hub for Polish immigration in the 19th century.
The migration is said to begin in 1851 when Anton Smarzewski-Schermann came over with his wife and three children. He later became a key figure for the Polish community before and after the Great Fire.
Smarzewski-Schermann got his start in Chicago building the first Pullman Sleeping Car for the Chicago & Alton Railway company. In 1867, he opened a tavern and grocery store near Noble and Bradley. That same year, he was a part of a group that established the first Polish parish – St. Stanislaus Kostka, still located at 1351 W. Evergreen Ave. At one time, it was one of the largest churches in the country with 40,000 parishioners.
A year later, Smarzewski-Schermann opened up a travel agency and was responsible for helping tens of thousands of Poles immigrate to America.
As Poles started flocking to Chicago, the epicenter of the expansion became known as “The Polish Downtown.” With St. Stanislaus and other parishes later constructed as focal points, businesses started popping up on Milwaukee between Augusta and Division.
Many Chicagoans know about the 1893 Columbian Exposition, but the city had a role on being one of the first places in America to recognize the importance of Polish art and culture.
“Chicago decided because of its large Polish population to have an exhibit of Polish art as Polish art – not as Austrian art, or German art or Russian art,” Polish Museum of America historian Jan Lorys said. “So (Mayor) Carter Harrison went there to ask Polish artists to take part.”
Ignacy Paderewski, a renowned pianist who later became a prime minister of Poland, was asked to open the fair due to how popular he was among the city’s large Polish population.
“When he writes in his memoir, said there were three things that impressed him about America – the Grand Canyon, Niagara Falls and the City of Chicago,” Lorys said. “The first two are the results of brute forces of nature, but the third one is because of the intelligent power of its population.”
The Columbian Exposition helped spur immigration to the Chicago area at the turn of the century, particularly with Poles who visited the fair and left with the same impression Paderewski felt. That year, there were around 300,000 in the area, according to the Polish Museum of America.
As the community expanded from the Polish Downtown, more Polish-ran businesses started to pop up by Ashland and Division and down Archer Avenue on the South Side.
“Once you get to a certain population density you needed Polish doctors and lawyers,” Lorys said.
The focus on bringing Polish artists over during the Columbian Exposition may have been responsible for one of the world’s most gifted young sculptors setting up in Chicago – Stanisław Szukalski.
Szukalski enrolled at the Art Institute of Chicago as a prodigy at just 13. The sculptor got married in Chicago and lived here before returning to Warsaw.
In 1918, when Poland regained its independence, the community here was booming.
Businesses stretched even further down Milwaukee to Belmont and the war effort to help Poland during World War I was immense.
During the depression, immigration to the area went down as job prospects tumbled. One of the last and biggest expansions to the Polish community in the area came after World War II.
“These guys, let’s say born in 1918 in a three-flat with 40 people in it,” Lorys said. “Now, he comes back with very low-interest rates through GI benefits to move into the suburbs or farther north.”
General Eisenhower’s visit to a decimated Warsaw after the war left an impact on him.
“After he gets elected president, he says ‘maybe the reason we have wars is that people don’t know each other,'” Lorys said.
President Eisenhower started the Sister Cities program in 1956 and in 1960 – Warsaw became Chicago’s first sister city.
In 1979, Polish-born Pope John Paul II became the first Pope to visit Chicago. Some estimate the attendance of his Mass in Grant Park to have been over one million.
Due to census changes, the last one, in 2000, to have an estimate on Polish decent in the Chicago area put it around 820,000.
As the community grew, the culinary world of Poles in Chicago expanded for the better, Polish Museum of America Managing Director Malgorzata Kot said.
As a result of one of the largest communities outside of Poland in the world, every Fat Thursday and Tuesday, thousands, Polish or not, line up for delicious paczki.
“It’s easy to remember, you are symbolizing it,” Kot said. “You are standing in a line because your mom did and your grandma did.”
Kot said over the last 20 or so years, the popularity of Fat Tuesday in America has really grown.
“It’s nice to be appreciated. We are willing to cooperate with the different nations,” Kot said. “That’s why we are happy why our cookery spreads, and not just our cookery, our culture.”
To get a better understanding of all things paczki, WGN News visited Dobra Bielinski at her bakery Delightful Pastries, which is located at 5927 W. Lawrence Ave.
Polish citizens back in Europe celebrate Fat Thursday, which fell last week, in addition to Fat Tuesday.
Bielinski said many people here with Polish decent will “double dip” and celebrate both days.
“We are lucky we get to double dip. It has evolved,” Bielinski said. “(Fat Thursday) was really made famous by a market square in Krakow and the ladies would make fritters. The other orgin story is King August III in the 15th century had parties where everything was fried.”
Throughout the 20th century, paczki started getting associated with Tuesday in America due to Mardi Gras, Bielinski said. In Poland on the Tuesday before lent, families celebrate with herring and vodka. In Chicago, Bielinski’s Polish customers love to “double dip” and eat paczki on Fat Thursday and Fat Tuesday.
“It’s good to be Polish-American, you celebrate it twice,” Bielinski said. “We are making out like bandits.”
Bieliniski said with all of the Polish businesses at the turn of the century, Chicagoans have been enjoy paczki for many years.
“Bakeries were huge because Polish people love their bread, bakeries and delis,” she said.
The big differences between an American jelly donut and a paczki come down to two things; the amount of jelly inside and how sweet the dough is. Paczki typically have a less amount of filling than a jelly donut.
We’re not going to give away Bielinski’s recipe, but a main ingredient difference is butter for paczki versus shortening for American donuts.
“Polish people eat the paczki for the dough as much as the filing, but mostly for the dough, if it is too sweet, they do not like it,” Bielinski said.
Beginning in the 15th century, popular fillings were rose petal jam, plum butter and raspberry. One of Bielinski’s favorite things is to try new flavors and bounce off of different cultures in Chicago.
“We did a passionfruit one because I love Mexican culture, it’s so bright for a paczki,” she said. “I wanted to do some adult paczki; so I made chocolate custard and Jameson, a vanilla and vodka and a lemon moonshine.”
Delightful Pastries has been turning out thousands of paczki in time for Fat Tuesday. The lines will be out of the door due to how delicious they are, tradition and Chicago’s place in Polish history.
Special thanks to Małgorzata Kot, Jan Lorys, Julita Siegel, Beata Czerkawski and Dobra Bielinski.