Polish-American cuisine: There’s more to it than pierogis

By Taryn Nobil, Medill, Immigrant Connect

The counter at Kurowski Sausage Shop. (Photo courtesy of Austin O.)

Natalia Miskowiec is concerned about the loss of business at Kurowski Sausage Shop, where she works. Though the first-generation Polish American is surrounded by dangling sausages in the store that has been a centerpiece of the old Polish neighborhood on Milwaukee Avenue south of Belmont, she laments that the sausage shop “was a bigger deal before. Thirty years ago, it was really popular… there were a lot more Polish people.” The hope is that the shop will thrive by increasing its non-Polish customer base.

Take a walk 3.5 miles south along Milwaukee to the “Polish Triangle” at the intersection of Division Street and Milwaukee and Ashland Avenues. Depending on whom you talk with on the walk, they may tell you you’re in Avondale or Logan Square or Wicker Park. Or some may still tell you you’re in Polish Village, or in Jackowo (pronounced jahts-KOH-voh), named for Saint Hyacinth’s Basilica, the neighborhood church.

What used to be the center of a bustling Polish community is now full of fast food chains, sporting goods stores and hip coffee shops. Only a couple of Polish establishments remain, including Podhalanka, a traditional Polish restaurant. As Polish businesses struggle for staying power, Poles hope that their comforting cuisine will help their culture continue to thrive in the city.

Polish Chicago is not nearly as Polish as it used to be. At least, not in the sense of Poles living in historically Polish neighborhoods. With gentrification, upward mobility and increased immigration back to Poland since the country joined the European Union in 2004, Chicago has seen a decline in its famously substantial Polish population.

“Avondale used to be one of the biggest Polish neighborhoods in Chicago, but I don’t think it is anymore,” Miskowiec says. “Other people are moving in. A lot of old customers that used to come here aren’t here anymore… but we try to do new things and bring the new people in.”

The Polish community moves but food brings them home

Miskowiec says that Poles have relocated to Niles and other northwestern suburbs.

Ewa Burgraf, owner of My Polish Deli in Des Plaines, came to America from Poland in 1978. Cooking comforted her and helped her stay in touch with her roots even though she was far from home. She opened the deli almost 25 years ago to cater to the area’s growing Polish population.

“When my husband’s family came here from Poland, they were looking for good Polish food. That’s what they ate all the time,” Burgraf says. “So we decided to open and prepare Polish food for them and for our neighbors.”

My Polish Deli now has many local customers who are loyal to Burgraf’s cuisine. Even former Des Plaines residents who have moved out of state still come to the store. “We do many orders for the holidays for people from Wisconsin and different states,” she says. “They’re usually Polish, Polish-German or Russian families.”

Polish restaurants reach out to new customers

The customers at My Polish Deli aren’t all Poles, nor are all of the products sold there Polish. Burgraf embraces her Polish-American identity and emphasizes it in her business to appeal to non-Poles and to engage Polish customers in Polish-American culture.

“We have mostly Polish food, but we have American food too,” Burgraf says. “We decided to make something different—not just for Polish people. We also make different kinds of food in our kitchen. We make what the people are asking for.”

In the meantime, although Kurowski Sausage Shop has not expanded much beyond Polish food, “non-Polish people come here to try things because they’ve heard that our sausage and pierogi are popular,” says Miskowiec.

Many of the people who have moved into formerly Polish spaces are millennials of various backgrounds, and their yearning for cultural relevance and technological savvy often brings them to traditional Polish establishments.

Picture this: a trendy twenty-something couple crave an ethnic experience in the diverse urban playground to satisfy their appetites for both food and culture. They seek out recommendations from friends—or Yelp—on the best authentic Polish food, because they know Chicago has a prominent Polish community, but they haven’t explored the culture yet and food is the most accessible entry point.

Here’s a Yelp entry from last summer: “I have never seen so many Polish foodstuffs in one place or sausages so cheap. I think some of the staff could speak English if necessary but I was with my Polish friend who was shopping for her mother.” And another from a few weeks ago: “Yes this is a polish store. It has a lot of the food in polish. Ask one of the younger people to help you find something because the older people do not know a lick of English.”

Or, they simply stumble upon the Pierogi Wagon food truck.

Polish food takes to the streets

Pierogi Wagon is not only the most popular Polish food truck in Chicago, but also one of the city’s most popular food trucks overall. It started with Damian Warzecha, who is Polish, and his partner Jessica Whitney, who is Ukranian, when they launched a Kickstarter campaign in 2013. Once they had met their fundraising goal, Warzecha and Whitney opened—well, rolled onto the food truck scene in 2014.

Now, Pierogi Wagon appears regularly at hot spots like the Willis Tower. Warzecha and Whitney are invited to bring their truck to countless street festivals and art fairs. Long lines are typical, and they often sell out of pierogis long before neighboring trucks sell most of their items.

Its Kickstarter origin and current social media presence make Pierogi Wagon even more accessible to a wide audience. This modern business model takes traditional cuisine to the streets—some of the busiest streets in Chicago—and reels in fans from all walks of life, all on four wheels.

“It’s just delicious. I never tried pierogi before I moved to Chicago,” says Isabel Olivos, a 20-year-old customer who first caught Pierogi Wagon at the University of Chicago, one of its usual destinations. “Now, whenever I’m in a spot where there are food trucks, Pierogi Wagon is my go-to.”

Restaurants aim to strike a balance between tradition and assimilation in order to keep business booming. Pierogi Wagon has proven this to be a recipe for success, but any Polish food business can stay cooking as long as it remembers the secret ingredient: family.

Burgraf uses recipes passed down from her mom and grandma to make My Polish Deli’s specialties: pierogi, stuffed cabbage, potato pancakes and other classic Polish dishes. “We have 10 different kinds of soup every week. It’s all traditional.”

“Polish food is very important because Polish people are looking for something like what their mom made,” Burgraf says. “Everybody likes it. Everybody is looking for it. We have to. We have to make this food to keep tradition.”

Kasia’s Deli lives on

Chris Bober has a deep understanding of the significance of family in Polish cuisine. In fact, it is the heart of the Bober business—Kasia’s Deli, named after his mother who opened the business in 1982. Kasia passed away a couple of weeks ago.

Kasia was known as a sort of local legend and a passionate businesswoman in the Chicago community. She was also a loving mother who used her gift of cooking to provide for her family. She left Poland for America in the 1970s with the goal of building a better life for herself and her children, and with hard work and dedication, her American dream became a reality.

“It’s mostly due to her perseverance… Not much was really given to my mother. She worked a lot of jobs,” Bober says. “Then she worked at a deli in the area for a number of years. She struggled, but she realized that in order to be able to help us, she had to go into business for herself.”

When Kasia came across an open storefront in Ukranian Village, she rented it out and turned it into her own deli. “In the beginning, she would cook at night. Then she would sell behind the counter during the day,” Bober recalls. “On weekends and holidays, she would actually sleep in the back.”

Even though the beginning was tough, Kasia had a “never-give-up attitude,” Bober says.

“My mother always tried to make the best food possible. She always tried to use the best ingredients,” he says. “Everything was priced fairly. Customers loved her cooking, and as time went by, business grew.”

In addition to the storefront itself, Kasia’s Deli was one of the first businesses in Chicago to sell pierogi wholesale. “We certainly took it from a niche and made it more of a mainstream item,” Bober says. Now, Kasia’s Deli distributes pierogi nationwide by selling to club stores and chains from coast to coast.

Today, Chris Bober, along with his sister Barbara Jakubowicz and niece Elizabeth Zbigniew, help to run Kasia’s Deli. The majority of the business is wholesale now, Bober says.

Though Bober does not consider the location of Kasia’s Deli a predominantly Polish neighborhood anymore, he does not expect the deli to struggle. “The deli is still an important part of our business. It’s how everything got started,” Bober says. “We certainly hope to continue that for as long as we can.

“We appeal to a broader spectrum of customers,” Bober says. “We don’t only serve Polish food, but that’s the backbone of our business. We hope to preserve that and we hope to be able to introduce our kind of cooking to more people.”

Bober says that he and his family plan to honor Kasia by continuing the success of both the deli and the wholesale business.

“She always tried to help people in need. She’s obviously going to be missed,” Bober says. “She was an extremely, extremely determined and hard-working person. Replicating that is going to be difficult, but we’re still going to try to continue what she started and try to grow that business.”

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