Go Polish or Go Home

I went to the Polish butcher yesterday to do my Easter shopping. Poles, they say, are crazy for Easter, and I have found my favorite smoked kielbasa shop Jubilat Provisions, one of the few remaining Polish institutions in my neighborhood in South Brooklyn,* to have a line out the door at this time. Yesterday at noonish, not so much: Most people had already done their Easter shopping, the clerk explained, and though to the naked eye it was still sausages-a-go-go, the rye shelf and desserts were completely picked over.

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5th Avenue, Brooklyn.

I’m one of the pious who frequently says, “I don’t eat much meat,” and then goes for seconds at the brätwurst picnic. It can be so delicious, best intentions don’t always win. In recent years I’ve come to think of reducing it as an environmental obligation, and settled on the self-serving reasoning that meat consumption is okay on special occasions, like Christmas and Easter, and breaking the Ramadan fast, Rosh Hashanah, 4th of July, Thanksgiving (of course), birthdays, anniversaries, Saturdays when you’re with friends you haven’t seen in a while, uh, when you’re enjoying the hospitality of a particularly friendly Mexican  restaurateur…and you see where this is going.

I’m not one for absolutes, even while treading on what is obviously a slippery slope. Today is Easter, and to me it ain’t Easter, and nor is it Christmas, without kielbasa. Fresh or smoked – though usually smoked on holidays. Smoked, you can eat sliced and dipped in horseradish, so if the host has already decided to cook meat, like for example if your mother has already gotten a ham, then you can have it as an appetizer, and, well, it’d have been a tough month to be a pig, with or without you. (Fresh kielbasa, which lacks that smokey taste, is best simmered in sauerkraut, which gives the kraut a round, fatty-porky bass note to complement the sour treble.)

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Jubilat’s smoked kielbasa, the best in town.

Being only a quarter Polish, I could honestly let that part of me die, and might have if not for my fondness for checker-sized discs of garlicky, smoked pork with the holy trinity of Mustard, Pickle, and Beet-Colored Horseradish.

My great-grandparents Frank and Lottie Strycharski, who spoke very limited English, were health enthusiasts who liked to go for bracing swims in fresh creeks in Northeast Philadelphia. They were farm-to-table before it was a fad, and grew their own beets and horseradish, and made their own pickles and kraut. To my knowledge, they didn’t have a smokehouse, so walking into Jubilat the day before a holiday, I always feel like I’m walking in Lottie’s footsteps.

A few blocks closer to home I pass what used to be Eagle Provisions, the food Goliath of Polish and international groceries, that Jubilat the David killed. My friend Rosie Schaap wrote a very thoughtful obituary for Eagle when it closed a year ago. She said, in a way, that few of us would miss Eagle, but we were sad nonetheless to see it go.

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The old Eagle Provisions, making way for condos.

 

There’s a lot of nostalgia for a New York of the Mind floating around right now, and I plead guilty to standing up sometimes to defend something I had a hand in killing. The “Neighborhoody-ness,” the Jane-Jacobian magic element everybody proclaims to want, is something many of us would probably find stifling if we ever actually had to breathe it every day. I was a little bummed out when Eagle closed, and visited a few days beforehand, while vendors who’d bought the shelves at auction were already wheeling some out the door, and some beaten old cans of sardines and faded bottles of diet soda were marked on sale.

When Cloud Man the famous Dakota chief was hunting in a snowstorm in what would become Minnesota, he had to make a tiny tent inside a snowdrift to sleep in, and he prayed that if he got through that storm, he’d give up trying to be the last hunter-gatherer in the area and learn to do agriculture. When the last Polish store leaves the neighborhood, it’ll be for a condo in Parsippany, or Tampa.

For God’s sake, people, eat less meat…but on Christmas and Easter, go Polish or go home! Or in my case, go Polish and go home!

*(Some call it South Slope, though Park Slopers find that ridiculous. Some Sunset Park, though most Sunset residents say Sunset ends at 36th Street at the furthest. No one in his right mind ever called it Greenwood Heights. So I call it what septuagenarians call it, South Brooklyn.)

 

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