Polish people have a way with soup. I know this not just because I am Polish (half Polish, actually), but because my friend Dr. Annie Hauck-Lawson told me so, and because she led me last November to bowls of steaming zurek (white borscht) and flaczki (tripe soup) at Lomzynianka, a café in Greenpoint that demonstrated her point ever so deliciously. The borscht, thickened and soured with fermented rye bread, tasted of the smoky kielbasa of my childhood—the stock used, Annie explained, was likely the water the sausage had been boiled in. The flaczki was ruddy brown, a rich meaty broth flushed with gentle heat. “Soup continues to be very important in the Polish-American commu- nity,” said Annie, launching into lecture mode. “If you can’t make it at home, you buy it in Greenpoint and take it home in a container.”
Annie, who is fully Polish, is a scholar of Brooklyn’s culinary heritage—“foodways,” in academic lingo. Until I met her I had no idea such a career was possible. That was 18 years ago, before she’d earned her PhD (dissertation title: “Foodways of Three Polish-American Families in New York”), before she’d joined the faculty at Brooklyn College and before I began hearing her on WNYC’s “Leonard Lopate Show,” chatting companionably about the way the borough eats, from Italian Bensonhurst to Russian Brighton Beach. Annie and her daughter, Alana, now 14, are regulars at the New York Food Museum’s annual Pickle Day, on Orchard Street, where they demonstrate their family kapusta (sauerkraut) technique.
They’ve also done this on the National Mall in D.C., where Annie was a curator of the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in 2001. At 50, Annie is one of Brooklyn’s most engaging foodie pundits, with an insatiable appetite for delicious tradition, in Greenpoint and anywhere else she can find it.
Greenpoint is a tidy, aluminum-and vinyl-sided row-house district with a few brownstone blocks to the far west (these fancier homes were built for the folk who ran the once busy industrial waterfront). Although the hipster invasion is spilling over from Williamsburg, the neighborhood remains a tight-knit, working-class Polish enclave dominated by small family businesses—bookstores, beauty salons, aptekas (pharmacies) and what Annie calls “worker restaurants,” where you carry your simple, hearty dinner to your table yourself and watch European football on TV while you eat. Pope John Paul II looks out from behind many a shop counter here, in lovingly framed posters decked with rosary beads. Store attendants are mostly young, fair-haired and flawlessly polite; if you’re white, they will address you first in Polish. I mastered dziekuje (jen-KOO-ye—“thank you”) in no time.
We began our afternoon not at the Lomzynianka (regrettable, since I was ravenous), but at Podlasie Meat Market, a cramped, narrow shop on Nassau Avenue. “This place has been around forever,” Annie told me as we entered. “Pay attention to the floor.” She was referring to the green vintage tile, but I was more attracted to a bucket of foot-long brined herring by the door. Annie poked at them with tongs. “This one has the milt [sperm sack]. You can make a cream sauce with that.” She pointed out slabs of fatback (used for lardons in pierogi), a kiszka (blood and groats sausage) and a few dozen varieties of kielbasa, smoked in back (all the good Greenpoint butchers smoke their own). There were bloated-looking pyzy on the counter—meat dumplings the size and shape of a toddler’s toy football, in a glutinous potato wrapper topped with fried onion. In the refrigerator case were assorted fruit compotes, Pennsylvania-made farmer cheeses (labeled in Polish), kapusta and sundry tubs of homemade soup. I bought a hot-pink beet borscht laced with pickles and peas, and a dense whole-grain loaf from Syrena Bakery, a neighborhood favorite. Annie took a half pound of succulent bozcek (fatty rib bacon), which we ate in the street, licking the fragrant grease from our fingers and mopping our mouths with the waxy wrap.
Annie is reed-thin and sinewy, with wide gray eyes and bright streaky blond hair. She radiates high energy and good health; to look at her, you’d think her a raw-foodist or vegan (or a vegetarian, at least), never guessing her passion for inner organs, blood and fat. Surveying the tripe in the case at Podlasie, she commented, “I usually get mine from a Greek butcher in Bay Ridge; last time, they threw in a lamb spleen, as a gift.” She buys roasted pigs’ heads in Sunset Park (“just $2 each!”) and simmers lamb-head soup after scooping out the eyes for dissection lessons at her children’s school. “There are 100 kids,” she told me, “so I have to get a lot of eyes.”
She led me to another butcher, Sikorski Meat Market, where we admired a handsome pork gelatin flecked with shredded boiled meat, typically served (Annie said) sliced thin and dressed with white vinegar. There was a shelf devoted to dried forest mushrooms and marinated chanterelles. “My aunt was an ace mushroom forager,” said Annie. Returning from visits to Poland, “she used to wear necklaces of borowick [pungent, porcini-like mushrooms] under her clothes coming through customs. We’d get one of them, and that would last us the whole year.” At Sikorski, the coveted loops of plump brown caps were hung behind the cash register and sold for $96 a pound. We opted instead for bags of mahogany-brown roasted kasha.
At last it was time for lunch—not a moment too soon for me, driven nearly mad with desire by the porky fragrance in both butcher shops. For Greenpoint, Lomzynianka is kind of upscale—there’s table service and the tiny dining room is turned out with sprays of plastic flowers and strings of colored lights. Chef Janina Grzelczak, who hails from the village of Lomza, in northeastern Poland, prepares a full menu of rustic entrées—boiled ham hocks, tongues in horseradish sauce, mushroom-stuffed chicken cutlet—plus soups, pierogi, blintzes, and the customary selection of beet and cabbage salads. The priciest item on the menu ($6.25) is the Polski Talerz (“Polish Platter”), a sampler of pierogi, stuffed cabbage, mashed potatoes and bigos (a warming tew of kapusta, onion, tomato, and smoked meat). “That’s Polish chop suey,” said Annie. “In a Polish-American home, on a Sunday, somebody might open the refrigerator to see whatever scraps are left to make bigos for the rest of the work week.” Annie prizes salvaged things, including dishes like bigos, and nutrient-rich animal parts that no one else wants. She lugs home eggshells and onion skins from the Brooklyn College food lab and returns them to students as compost, and she crafts her own jewelry from marrow bones, fishing lures and sea-smoothed oyster shells. “That’s the way we grew up,” she says. “It’s Polish.” Throughout her childhood, spent on two of the best blocks in Park Slope, pre-gentrification, the family clothesline was always hung with used tin foil and plastic bags. Annie’s mother, raised on a farm in Poland, harvested tender wild greens off highway shoulders. Her father, a drain-and-sewer cleaner, brought home farm animals to raise in the backyard. “Eventually they would disappear. They’d tell us that the turkey ‘flew away’ or whatever. Years later, I was going through a box of family photos and found a picture of our pig Nicky, slaughtered and strung up by his hind legs in the basement. I was like, ‘Wow, so that’s where he went.’ He was a great pet, but I’m sure we found him tasty, too, because we always ate everything we were served.”
And the neighbors? “Well…they didn’t love that we came home from fishing trips and sorted clams in the backyard.” But it was the chick that became a rooster that really tested their patience. “We knew his days were numbered, because people would throw bottles at him out their windows every morning.”
We finished our adventure at the Star Deli and Bakery, a pocket-size grocery with a kitchen in back, where owner Ziggy Stankowski makes glorious makowiec, a jelly roll-style yeast bread filled with fresh poppy-seed paste and lightly topped with sugar icing and sliced almonds. The thicker and blacker the pinwheel of seeds, the better—it’s caviar to me, and a cherished taste memory. Ziggy bakes every day, and displays his wares (which also include sernik cheesecake made with farmer cheese and potato, and karpatki, crisp pastry layered with vanilla custard, dusted with powdered sugar to suggest snow in the Carpathians) in sheet pans in his little shop window. “This is typical afternoon fare…” Annie began, professorially, but I was too excited to listen. We gleefully devoured the makowiec in the street too, right out of the white bakery bags. For Polish people (this fellow especially) also have a way with poppy-seed cake, and no trip to Greenpoint is complete without it.
ALANA’S BROOKLYN KAPUSTA
by Annie Hauck-Lawson:
Alana’s babcia (grandmother) and her babcia’s babcia ‘put up’ barrels of kapusta every autumn. It was an important preserved vegetable for their winters in Poland. Sometimes, a freshly bathed bare- foot child was placed in the barrel to tamp down the cabbage with her little feet. Today we still make kapusta at home, and Alana, my mother, my sister and I demonstrate our Brooklyn version at International Pickle Day, held annually on the Lower East Side.
Small head green cabbage, about 21/2 pounds
3/4-1 cup kosher salt
Water, as needed
Shred cabbage thinly. Layer it in a large, non-reactive bowl (big enough to hold all cabbage, once shredded), sprinkling salt as you go. Cover with cheesecloth (or a white cotton or linen tea towel), set the plate over the cloth, and weight the plate. (The plate should fit inside the bowl and be wide enough to cover the cabbage.) Trickle cool water along the sides of the plate until the cabbage is submerged. Set the bowl in a cool place; check it every day or so. If the cloth is dry, add a little more water and re- weight. If you see mold on the cloth, the bowl may be in a place that’s too warm; move it to a cooler place and change the cloth.
Every three days or so, stir the entire bowl of cabbage and taste a piece. It should be fully pickled in 10-14 days. Store in the refrigerator. If you find it too salty, rinse before serving or adding it to a recipe.
MAY WE RECOMMEND:
Sikorski Meat Market, 603 Manhattan Avenue, 718.389.6181.
Star Deli and Bakery, 176 Nassau Avenue, 718.383.6948.
Busy Bee Food Exchange, 185 Nassau Avenue, 718.389.2188.
A small supermarket with a pierogi kitchen in back.
Syrena Bakery Inc., 207 Norman Avenue, 718.349.0560.
Their bread, sold throughout Greenpoint, is marvelous and very traditional. Chewy whole-grain especially recommended.
Flaczki, or hearty tripe soup, at the Old Poland Bakery and Restaurant.
Annie and her daughter, Alana, complete a purchase at Podlaise Meat Market.
Slicing bozcek, fatty rib bacon, at Podlaise.
Editor’s note: Podlasie Meat Market has closed.