Food by VICE

Paczki Day Is a Celebration of Fried Dough and Booze

Paczki is Poland’s richer cousin of the jelly donut, eaten on Fat Tuesday and always with copious amounts of beer. In the Michigan town of Hamtramck, some shadier characters even head to the bar bathrooms to powder up a cocaine paczki.

by Tom Perkins
Feb 9 2016, 8:00pm

Paczkis at New Martha Washington. Photos by the author.

The final pre-Lent binges are playing out today in all the Catholic world's bright, action-packed cities like Rio de Janeiro, Tarragona, and New Orleans.

But in Hamtramck, Michigan, where the skies are as gray as the city feels, we're ringing in Lent as it's done in spots like Krakow, Warsaw, and Bialystok—with paczkis and beer.

The annual Hamtramck (pronounced Ham-tram-ick) Fat Tuesday celebration centers on the paczki (pronounced pooch-key), a Polish pastry that in the simplest terms can be described as Poland's much richer and denser cousin of the jelly donut. (It's worth noting that Poland celebrates Fat Thursday, not Fat Tuesday.)

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Paczki preparation at the New Martha Washington. All photos by the author.

Along with booze, it fuels a day of total Eastern European mutant theater before everyone gives up their vices and behaves like Mary Poppins during Lent. Tens of thousands of paczkis are consumed. Countless beers pour from taps.

Shot-and-beer dive bars like Suzy's promise "Polish Girls Gone Wild"; Small's Bar sells the "paczki bomb," a paczki filled with the Polish brandy Jezynowka, or just "jezy"; and some of the town's shadier characters head to the bar bathrooms to powder up a cocaine paczki.

On Tuesday morning, lines grew out of Hamtramck's bakeries well before sunup and well before the temperatures reached any reasonable mark. Even if it's a frigid, hours-long wait for the thousands of Paczki Day visitors, the atmosphere is festive. "It's these people's smiles and happiness" that the locals love and generates such joy on Pazcki Day, says New Martha Washington Bakery owner Sandy Bakic.

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A paczki is filled with Jezynowka, Polish brandy.

Her family bought the tiny bakery in 1973, though it opened on Joseph Campau Avenue, the town's main drag, in 1925. As is the case every year, New Martha hasn't shut down since Sunday, and employees won't punch out until it's Ash Wednesday.

"People cant pronounce 'paczki,' and they don't really know what it is, but they know they want it bad, they don't mind waiting in line, and they're clapping their hands and partying while they wait and when they leave," Bakic says of the crowds cramming into her shop Tuesday morning.

The festivities also include the "5K Paczki Run," at which runners are handed a beer and paczki as they cross the finish line. And what would full-throttle Polish gluttony be without a paczki-eating contest that pits men with paczki-like physiques in a race to swallow as many pastries as possible in 15 minutes?

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The 2016 Polish League of American Veterans paczki-eating contest champ.

The celebration is one of two of its kind in the nation—though the other, in Chicago, is a tamer affair. Paczki Day arrived with the tens of thousands of Polish immigrants who, starting in the early 1900s, left home for Hamtramck, a dense, gritty, two-square-mile city physically surrounded by Detroit. In the old country, the paczki was a means for the Polish to rid the cupboard of the sweets, preserves, and lard nixed from Lent diets.

Typically it's pumped full of fruit-based preserves or custard fillings, not jelly, says Erica Pietrzyk, who runs a small Polish food operation that's moving over a thousand made-from-scratch paczkis out of the Painted Lady Lounge.

At New Martha, Bakic is offering traditional fillings like prune, apricot, and custard, and the bakery also branched out with 27 different varieties like chocolate, rose, apple, raspberry, and blackberry.

The fillings are generally similar across the board, but the dough is where paczki chefs differ in style. New Martha and the 100-year-old New Palace Bakery prepare paczki dough that's lightly fried and spongier, while Pietrzyk's dough is crispier and more solid; it feels like the preserves are encased.

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Paczkis made by Erica Pietrzyk.

The dough undergoes several roll-rise-deflate cycles, which Pietrzyk explains creates a stronger gluten structure with smaller air pockets for denser, less crumbly dough.

At New Martha, the paczkis are fried in vegetable oil, while Pietrzyk cooks them in lard for a crispier finish. No sugar is added to the dough—a common practice with jelly donuts—as the Polish rely on the preserves' sweetness and the dough's richness to carry the pastry.

Neither approach is wrong, Pietrzyk, says, but the crispier dough, in her opinion, produces a better texture and prevents a gooey mess.

"It's a matter of preference, but my recipe was passed down from my family in Poland and I don't mess with it at all. I do everything exactly as the recipe says to do, and how my family used to do it," she says.

Paczkis are finished with either powdered sugar or icing, and calorie counts are somewhere in the 400 range. That makes the paczki-eating contest all the more absurd: Tuesday morning's champ swallowed 20 paczkis, meaning he devoured around 8,000 calories in 15 minutes.

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New Martha Washington bakers.

If one needs to balance out the sweet with the savory, two good options are the last Polish restaurants standing in town, Polonia and Polish Village. (Most of the second- and third-generation Polish fled for wealthier suburbs, though their culture still permeates Hamtramck despite an influx of Muslims.) But the better option is Bumbo's, a new bar opened by Brian Krawczyk, who prepares traditional and Polish fusion fare like kimchi kapusta, or pierogi that's stuffed with roasted scallion, sesame, and potato and topped with a hoisin-wasabi sauce.

The food and pastry is nice, but many feel the best route to joy and happiness on Paczki Day is drinking enough beer to fill a bathtub. The polka starts blaring at 7 AM as the daylong binge's first beers go down, and the fun devolves into a scene that can be a little difficult and exhausting for those who aren't inebriated.

"Everyone is getting drunk and acting like assholes," laments Andy Dow, owner of The Painted Lady Lounge, who's experiencing one of his best sales days of the year. But he clarifies, "Everywhere else in town, not here."