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Cold cuts go great with coffee, for one thing

John Maher
November 02, 2018

Polish people have been in America for a long time. The first documented strike in North America occurred in Jamestown, Virginia, in 1619, when Polish craftsmen refused to continue producing materials ships until they were given the right to vote. Kazimierz Pułaski, of Casimir Pulaski Day fame, and Tadeusz Kościuszko, of the Kosciuszko Bridge fame, were Revolutionary War heroes. But immigration didn’t start in earnest until the early 1800s, from which point it remained consistent up until World War II, with roughly five million Poles coming from the old country to the United States throughout that century-and-almost-a-half. And with them came their food.

That food has made a mark, even if it’s not quite as ubiquitous as, say, Chinese or Italian. Nathan’s Famous and its eponymous hot dogs began at a stand in Coney Island run by Nathan Handwerker, a Jewish immigrant whose home country, Galicia, sat on what is low the Polish-Ukrainian border. In Chicago, a classic street food called the "Maxwell Street Polish” consists of a kielbasa, or Polish sausage, topped with grilled onions, yellow mustard, and optional pickled green sport peppers. And in Pittsburgh, Polish immigrants brought their golabki, or stuffed cabbages, and pierogies—dumplings stuffed with potato, cheese, onion, sauerkraut, and other foods popular in Eastern Europe—to neighborhoods including, of course, Polish Hill, or Polskie Wzgórze. Pierogies became so beloved in the city that the Pittsburgh Pirates hold an event between innings in which seven contestants dressed in pierogi costumes run the bases.

Which makes it all the more surprising that Polish breakfast is so hard to find anywhere in the U.S. My grandmother, whose own grandmother was born on Pittsburgh’s South Side and taught two generations of her family how to hand-make pierogies and kielbasa, doesn’t even remember eating Polish breakfast foods herself as a child. Like many Americans, scrambled eggs, toast, and bacon were her family’s breakfast staples. So it didn’t surprise me much when I went to Christina’s Restaurant in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, a 25-year-old Polish-American diner, to find that the menu is heavily Americanized. For breakfast I had a “farmer’s omelet,” filled with ham, kielbasa, tomato, and onion, and opted for the nutty, fluffy kasha, or buckwheat, instead of hash or fries.

Yet breakfast in Poland has a rich tradition. Like in many Eastern European countries, it’s typically a robust and varied spread, reflective of its traditional importance in coping with the colder climate, and much of the food is smoked, pickled, or salted. Called śniadanie, it has a tendency toward the hearty—meats, hard-cooked eggs, breads (typically warm, crispy rolls rather than toast), pastries, mayonnaise, and occasionally hot cereals like oatmeal and muesli—and the preserved: cheeses, pickled fruits and vegetables (often served fresh as well), and jams and jellies. Those meats include cold cuts, called wędliny, and smoked sausages, kiełbasy wędzone, which are often served as kanapki, or sandwiches, many of which are open-faced. (Kanapi also sometimes feature smoked trout, and can even be served on bagels.) Popular fruits and vegetables include beets, cucumber, peppers, radishes, and tomatoes, served pickled as often as not, and popular cheeses include kefir, quark, and a smoked sheep's cheese called oscypek.

Coffee and tea are popular as well, but another, less traditional signature of Polish breakfast is Inka, a roasted grain drink which has been produced in Skawina, a town in southern Poland, since 1971. A coffee substitute, it was originally intended to help with coffee shortages under Communist rule in the country in the 1960s, but remains somewhat popular as a caffeine-free morning drink. Inka is made with a mixture of rye, barley, chicory, and sugar beet, and the company says it includes no artificial ingredients or other additives. (It’s even available in the U.S.)

Krystyna Dura, the founder of Christina’s and my server that day, said that even breakfast in Poland has become more globalized. (Meanwhile, at another table, a Greenpoint resident in his early thirties with a Polish accent ordered white borscht, pickled beets, and toast—not traditional breakfast foods, but quintessentially Polish.) Scrambled eggs and bread are now a staple, she told me, although radishes and other pickled veggies are still served as garnish and palette cleanser. My research showed me that this is true—not just scrambled eggs, but omelets, are now fairly widely available at Polish restaurants.

On the other hand, the bagel, ever more popular worldwide and especially on the East Coast of the U.S., originated in the Jewish communities of Poland. Polish influence on American breakfast is stronger than we think—but that doesn’t mean we couldn’t benefit from a lot more kielbasa. 

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