When I visited my wife's family in Poland for the first time, I wasn't prepared for the culinary realities of the Eastern European nation. I expected, and received, ample cabbage and tube meats, but I didn't realize just how much food I would be pressured to consume. I was powerless to turn down extra helpings, since I only spoke three words of Polish—for "cheese," "fart," and "monkey," only two of which proved useful. I should have studied more so I could have politely demurred from gluttony. That, or brought along larger pants.
We arrived at a small village in the northeast part of the country and my new relatives immediately plied me with an overwhelming amount of food, most of it grown and raised in their backyard gardens. Hospitality is a gift, best accepted graciously, so I felt an obligation to eat as much as I possibly could stuff in my mouth—or at least that was what I told myself to justify my overconsumption.
Pierogis, naturally, were the very first food I encountered. I had eaten plenty of pierogis in the United States, of course, but I was unprepared for the diversity of options I would see and taste—all types of combinations of meat, potatoes, cabbage, onions, mushrooms, cheese and so forth. The biggest revelation was the existence of dessert pierogis, the same doughy dumpling filled with fresh fruit and topped with a dash of sugar or cream.
Another favorite was gołąbki, more commonly known as galumpkis for those of us not well-versed in the Polish alphabet. Galumpkis are Poland's answer to the burrito, only with cabbage in place of tortillas. They are usually filled with ground meat and rice, but mushrooms can do the trick as well for the vegetarian diners among us.
I slurped down endless bowls of borscht—beetroot soup full of veggies and a garnish of sour cream. There were potato pancakes, and bigos, which is a kind of meat and cabbage stew. Perhaps the most popular Polish dish of all is the cutlet, a fried slice of breaded chicken or pork. And with every meal, homemade pickles and a never ending chain of kielbasa—oh, the sausage!
My wife warned me that if I cleaned my plate, our hosts would immediately pile it with more food. If I really couldn't eat any more, I had to leave some behind. The idea of wasting food was directly contrary to my temperament and training, but I soon realized I didn't have any choice. I smashed some galumpki and spread it around so it looked like the plate was still crowded, nary a free space for more sausage.
Poland's population went hungry for decades living under Soviet control, and people still reminisce about the days when there was nothing to buy in the shops but salt and pickling spices. If they wanted to eat, they had no choice but to grow it themselves. Today, the people still engage in their same culinary traditions, while appreciating—and sharing—the abundance brought on by peace and prosperity.
Much of the food is still produced at home. In the countryside, families grow tomatoes, zucchini, beets, cabbage, and other fresh produce. Apple, pear, and plum trees dot the landscape. Mushroom hunting in the woods remains a cherished custom, and the eggs are always fresh from the hen. We also visited the urban gardens in the the city of Bialystok, where the family has worked a plot for 40 years amid acres and acres of other small gardens, dotted with fairy-tale shacks and framed by flowers.
Meat had a similar domestic provenance. I watched the ducks waddle in the backyard as I chomped on a duck thigh for dinner, and an aunt told us tales of raising her annual pig while she ground up sausage in the kitchen. She served two varieties—the dark brown blood sausage, which is exactly what it sounds like, and the lighter-shaded portion more familiar to American palates, washed down with some homemade wine. As we left, I was reprimanded for not eating enough slices.
My biggest challenge came on what I call The Day of the Three Aunts. We had a final breakfast at the home of one who had hosted us for several days, and she made sure that we did not leave our last meal hungry, plying us with huge piles of eggs, fresh bread, bacon, cheese, veggie platters, and more. Next we went to a different aunt's house for lunch, which is usually the largest meal of the day. It was also the only meal we shared with her so she insisted we didn't skimp on the coleslaw, salad, sausages, and pyzy, which are potatoes molded into the shape of baseballs and stuffed full of yet more pork.
For supper, we drove down to the city and had a meal with an entirely different set of family that my wife hadn't seen in a decade. You can believe they didn't let us go undernourished. This time it was galumpkis, potato pancakes, and a babka. (Not Seinfeld's notorious chocolate cake in this case but a potato-zucchini casserole.) I was sure I could eat no more, but that's when the cake parade started. Well, there's always room for a Jell-O cheesecake.
After days of this treatment I was bloated, struggling to fit through doors, crushing mattress springs, and cracking floorboards. I lived in constant danger of clogging the toilet. Under those circumstances, I admit that when I finally met my wife's grandmother I was taken by surprise by her devastating critique. "Are you sick?" she asked me. "You're far too skinny. You must not be getting enough to eat."