Growing up going to Catholic school in metro Detroit, I thought everybody celebrated Fat Tuesday with pączki.
The Polish treats (pronounced poonch-key) were always there on the last day before Lent. Before giving up things that we loved—Tamagotchis, chocolate, using swear words in front of younger siblings—for forty days, we’d indulge one last time with a dense disc of gluttony: thick, sweet dough, filled with fruit jelly or custard and covered in a shiny glaze or a generous dusting of powdered sugar. The doughnuts dripped raspberry and prune fillings as we ate, flooding our tongues with sugar and fat.
“Outside of the metro Detroit area, they’re not very well known,” says Sandy Bakic, who has worked at the New Martha Washington Bakery in Hamtramck, Michigan, since 1972 and is now its owner. “Detroit, and a little bit of Chicago, kept the traditions of the old country alive.”
The old country she’s referencing is Poland, though Bakic herself is Serbian. Hamtramck was called “Little Warsaw” starting in the early twentieth century, after Polish immigrants moved to the area to take jobs at the Dodge Main plant that opened there in 1914. A Polish couple opened the New Martha Washington in 1925. Bakic and her family were customers before they became its owners, and they still use the same handwritten Polish recipes.
Before giving up things that we loved—Tamagotchis, chocolate, using swear words in front of younger siblings—for forty days, we’d indulge one last time with a dense disc of gluttony: thick, sweet dough, filled with fruit jelly or custard and covered in a shiny glaze or a generous dusting of powdered sugar.
Pączki, long popular with the Poles in Hamtramck, gained a larger audience with help from former mayor Robert Kozaren, says Bakic. She credits him with tipping off the Detroit Free Press to the cultural richness of Hamtramck, in a bid to draw tourists to the city after the Dodge Main plant closed in 1980.
She’s probably right. A front-page clipping from the Detroit Free Press in 1981 highlighted “Pączki Day,” the local term for Fat Tuesday, and a piece from 1985 referenced the the holiday’s growth in the intervening four years. A big feature in 1996 focused on a local push to take the Polish treat national.
This Fat Tuesday, February 16th, New Martha Washington and other Polish bakeries in Hamtramck are expecting long lines of pączki lovers, though they’ll be standing six feet apart.
“Things are changing, and we’ll see how this year will be,” says Suzy Ognanovich, who married into the family that has owned New Palace Bakery, another Polish-American favorite in Hamtramck, for over fifty years. Ognanovich started taking overs for pączki after Christmas and will open the bakery at 3 a.m. on Pączki Day for pickup. They’ll be baking twenty-four hours a day this weekend to prepare. Ognanovich narrated the process: “We make the dough, wait for the dough to rise, then shape them into individual pączki. Then they have to rise, then we’ll fry them, cool them, fill them, and glaze them, all from scratch, all by hand.”
The round-the-clock industry of it all is a bit of a departure from the pączki origin story, which tells of the babcie, or grandmothers, who emptied their cupboards of everything that tasted good—like butter, sugar, and jam—and turned it into doughy treats for the family to enjoy before fasting for all of Lent.
After a particularly hard year, this is a good time to make something delicious to tide us through what’s to come—the next forty days of spiritual preparation, for the believers, or the long tail of winter, for the secular, along with the continued personal sacrifice that comes with living through a pandemic. We need Pączki Day.