Mardi Gras, literally translated from French to “Fat Tuesday,” is fast approaching, which means it’s almost Paczki Day! What’s that? You don’t know what that means? Well, looks like we need to talk about what paczki (pronounced poonch-key) are, and why they are so popular on Fat Tuesday. Fair warning: I’m going to talk about religion, but for historical and sociological purposes. I promise not to get preachy!
In the Catholic faith (and other Christian denominations), Mardi Gras, or Fat Tuesday, marks the last day to indulge in food and revelry before the much more solemn season of Lent. Marked by acts of service, financial giving, prayer, and fasting, Lent is a time of personal sacrifice, contemplation, and preparation where the faithful simplify their lives in some ways to better them in others. As the beginning of Lent is marked by Ash Wednesday every year, the final day to satisfy your decadent desires for the subsequent 40 days and 40 nights is, quite naturally, the Tuesday before–Mardi Gras, or Fat Tuesday.
Growing up in a Catholic family with Polish roots, in the Polish-rich Chicagoland area, this meant partaking in splendiferous Polish pastries known as paczki. In fact, because Chicago has a significant Polish population, and one set of great-grandparents were born there, in our house, Mardi Gras wasn’t referenced at all. No, in our house, it was called Paczki Day. On that day, my mom would take orders from the family, search out the best paczki bakeries, and hand-deliver them by the bunch to her sisters, and their families. Of course, we got a batch too. It was great. I mean, what better way to usher in a season of sacrifice and fasting than with pastries?!
In a superficial sense, paczki look a lot like regular old jelly doughnuts, or German berliners. And while similar, there are a couple of significant differences that make the Polish variety a bit more decadent, and, quite-possibly, the perfect pre-Lenten food. Sure, jelly doughnuts are good, but paczki are richer, and fluffier. The dough is made with lard or oil, yeast, eggs, milk, sugar, and alcohol. Yeah, apparently the booze keeps the dough from absorbing the oil. Once the dough is shaped into individual-sized round pieces, they are deep fried, then filled with sweet creme, custard, or jam, and dusted with sugar and/or topped with icing or glaze. Phenomenal.
This tradition of eating paczki (plural form of paczek) prior to Lent dates to the reign of Augustus III in Poland. Augustus III was a converted Catholic, with support from the Holy Roman Empire. At the same time, the French came to have influence in Polish culture, particularly their baking. It’s believed that this influence helped make paczki the fluffy pasty we know them to be now. These two happenings proved pivotal in sparking this new tradition.
The prevalence of Christianity in Poland meant many were looking for a way to dispose of any ingredients they could not or would not consume during Lent, due to the strict fasting practices of the time. Back then, the practice was the real deal: Fridays were complete fasting days, and on the remaining days of the week only one meal a day was allowed. Plus, there were strict guidelines regarding what could be eaten when eating was allowed. Rather than risk temptation, or waste food, people decided to put their fats, eggs, milk, yeast, sugar, and fruit to good use. Which is why this is such a perfect pre-Lenten food. Not only was the resulting dish popular, it ensured the faithful would remain observant. Meanwhile, the French baking influence ensured the pastries were pleasing to the palate, and laid the foundation for a baked good with staying power.
Since then, paczki have become a pre-Lenten staple, both in Poland, and around the world, particularly in regions with strong Polish roots, like Chicago and Detroit. Now, in Poland, Paczki Day is actually celebrated on the Thursday before Ash Wednesday, also known as Fat Thursday, or Tlusty Czwartek. In the United States, Paczki Day, while sometimes celebrated on Fat Thursday, is more often observed on Fat Tuesday. That’s because America is a land of many cultures, and many traditions. As the Polish in America were chowing down on pazcki prior to Lent, others were celebrating their unique traditions, some of which fell on Fat Tuesday. Over time, various cultural pre-Lenten celebrations combined, and took hold on Fat Tuesday. Which is why paczki are such a big deal on Fat Tuesday now.
This Mardi Gras, religious or not, make sure you get your hands on a couple of paczki. They are a staple of Polish-American culture that are sure to please. I, for one, can’t wait! Looking to make your own batch? Try this Polish Paczki recipe. Happy Paczki Day, everyone!
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