It was the Monday before Ash Wednesday in 1973 and I was working in the studio of a small ad agency. This was my first career job.
Maryann, the executive secretary walked in. She stopped by the art table of Bobby, a veteran production artist. “Bobby, are you all excited about poonchkey (spelled paczki) day?” she asked. Bobby looked up, smiled and said he couldn’t wait. Both of them were of Polish ancestry, Maryann being a first cousin of the famous Coach K from Duke.
I jumped in and asked what a poonchkey was. She looked at me and said, ”what kind of a Polack are you anyway if you never heard of a poonchkey?” They both laughed. She explained that a poonchkey was a very special Polish pastry served up on the day before lent.
My expectations were exceedingly high the next morning with youthful, bright-eyed anticipation of some pastry delight never before known to me. Both of them brought in large white pastry boxes with enough to serve the entire office of about thirty employees. Bobby opened one box, grabbed a poonchkey, bit into it, showed me the remaining pastry and said, “that, kid, is the world’s best poonchkey. Well I’ll be, I said back, it looks like a jellyroll.
Looking at me as if I were the dumbest Polack in Chicago Maryann assured me that these were very special, handing me a poonchkey filled with apple. Biting in I was not impressed. My assumption was correct. It was just a jellyroll but the filling was better than most. Not wanting to disrespect their generosity I pretended to find them very special, special enough for me to eat two of them.
Growing up in a Polish family with a strong second and first generation ethnic background I knew we had some traditions that seemed odd to others. But we had a lot of fun in our family enclave. The food they made I still crave to this day such as authentic Polish sausage and pierogis. But for the life of me I do not recall ever being treated to a poonchkey. My family lived in a Polish section of Hammond IN while Bobby and Maryann grew up in the northwest Chicago Polish enclave. The two were quite different worlds as I would learn years later. Chicago has more Poles living there than any other city but Warsaw. Hammond? Not so much.
Poonchkeys are now found all over Northwest Indiana on Fat Tuesday, even out here in the more rural redneck areas where we live. This morning I saw some at the local grocery and bought two. Not being much of a pastry fan maybe they deserved another chance at redemption.
As suspected, it’s still just another jellyroll. The same way Crispy Creams are just another glazed donut to me.
After escaping Illinois 20 years ago to the free world of Indiana I learned of another Polish tradition that was foreign to me. One that is not known even to the Poles I worked with in Chicago at that time.
My westbound commuter train began in South Bend IN with Randolph St. in Chicago being the end of the line. Unlike the commuter train I rode in Illinois where nobody talked much and people kept to themselves this one was a bit livelier. It didn’t take long for me to make friends with a group of commuters who took the same train in and out daily. These were the party people and they were of all ages, sexes and races.
One day a lovely and friendly lady named Kathy asked me to join them. I did. Commuters getting on from Michigan City all the way to Chicago’s Hegewisch neighborhood on the far south side all were friends and they took to me rather quickly, both men and women. We would dominate the seats that faced each other across both isles. We joked and talked politics, work and just about anything that came up. On the commute home we all brought cocktails or beer and munchies on board for the ride home. On birthdays we would hang around the city together after work and have cocktails and dinner. It was a real tight group that I love to this day. I miss each one of them very much.
One day a feisty, younger, tall and rather attractive woman of Polish decent named Jill suggested we all go to Michigan City to celebrate Dingus Day. I asked what Dingus Day was and she looked at me in shock and said, “What kind of a Polack are you anyway that you don’t know what Dingus Day is?”
She explained that Dingus Day is the Monday after Easter and is a big Polish party of sorts. Seems Dingus Days is a real big Polish event in Michigan City and South Bend, which both still have large Polish enclaves. Who knew? Not me.
On Dingus Day in those places the bars serve Polish food of all sorts and live Polka bands entertain. Think of it as a pub crawl with cheap ethnic food. Think of it as a Polish St.Paddy’s Day without the cheap green tinted beer.
Well, nobody seemed too excited to attend the Michigan City Dingus Day festivities since it was a long haul at a late hour. To this day I never experienced the real Dingus.
What kind of a Polack am I anyway?