It began uncomfortably. I stood there, pretending to know what I was doing, scanning the wares on the wall, biding my time until my connection arrived, hoping not to be identified for the interloper I was. I could tell the maiden behind the counter was growing suspicious. I began to sweat, picking up can after can of God-knows-what and scrutinizing the labels, all of which might have been written in Martian. He’d better get here quick, I thought, or I’d be cooked through, just like all those gorgeous sausages hanging by the dozen from the ceiling. They’d smoke me like those luscious links, for certain. I was just about to drop the unknown package I’d picked up–was it cheese? carrots? herring?–when the door opened, and in strode my bearded, tattooed comrade, saving my hide from untold Eastern-European scorn and butcher shop banishment.
“Thank God you’re here,” I muttered nervously. “You ready to do this?”
“No problem,” he replied. He breathed in the fragrant air, all smoke and vinegar and pig, and he smiled. “Mmmm,” he said. “Smells like home.”
* * *
I’d been living in North Brooklyn for nine years, six in Greenpoint, and this was only the second time I’d made a genuine effort to explore the many Polish meat stores and butcher shops that dot my adopted hood. Now, I’m not shy when it comes to proteins. While writing the book The Shameless Carnivore, I hunted squirrel in Louisiana, tried my hand butchering at a tiny family farm, attended the Testicle Festival in Montana, and have eaten every animal I’ve been able to get my hands on, from alligator to yak. Yet, something about these family-run Polish places always made me feel like an anxious child in waters a little too swift for my rudimentary swimming abilities.
On the other side of the BQE, I’d had no trouble talking up a storm with the Italian butchers and restaurateurs, chatting away about Pecorino and prosecco. But one step inside a Polski meat market, and I was a little boy lost among the links. Of course, there’s the language barrier: Some employees at these establishments know barely any English, which isn’t surprising, given that the lion’s share of their clientele is Polish.
Unlike the city’s Little Italys, the Polish pocket of Greenpoint—there is also a small enclave in Greenwood Heights—didn’t arrive in one postwar swoop, or blend into their environs over the past half-century. Instead, this is a thriving, modern Polish community that started in the 1970s with just one Polish-centric credit union. Now shops offer several Slavic-language papers alongside the Times and Polish supermarkets sidle up to pizzerias. With at least 20,000 Poles, most of whom came over in the 1980s and 1990s, it’s reportedly the largest Polish population in the country after Chicago’s.
And thanks to that bountiful built-in customer base, these butcher shops don’t need to take the time to spell out which of the dozen kielbasas on display are garlicky or made with black pepper, or how to tell the difference between the smoked slab bacon and ham hocks and pork loins for those who didn’t already know (none of which needs to be refrigerated, by the way, which comes in handy for the urban forager). In the end, I’d always wound up pointing at some sort of sausage, giving them my cash and leaving, wondering what I might have done wrong.
No doubt, whatever I bought—usually thick kielbasa that I’d grill up and eat with mustard—was outstanding, but given all the headcheeses, liver loaves and things that had no name in the English language so far as I could tell, I always felt like I was being shortchanged . . . and was possibly unwanted. There had to be some way to penetrate the inner workings of these establishments, to endear myself to the proprietors and, at long last, get to the really good stuff, other than by eavesdropping on a bilingual customer or by trial and error. Though if you are friendly and persistent, both, it should be noted, always work well in a pinch.
But I wanted a greater knowledge, the kind only an insider could give. Enter Lukasz.
Pronounced “Wookosh” (or just “Woo,” for short), the Pole has been my pal for years. We met through a mutual buddy and subsequently spending many long nights filled with beer and whiskey and rock shows and discussions of history and politics. Lukasz arrived in the States at age six from Warsaw by the good graces of Ronald Reagan, who at the time generously offered asylum to anyone fleeing Communist oppression. Today, he’s earned his U.S. citizenship, and though his English doesn’t bear a trace of an accent, he still speaks fluent Polish.
So I plied him with a bottle of nice Scotch (and a copy of First Blood in Polish that I fortuitously discovered at a street vendor) to spend an afternoon as my guide as I tried to get at the meaty heart of my Polish neighborhood: In a one block radius, at Greenpoint and Manhattan Avenues, sit three meat stores, all thriving . . . not to mention countless more butcher shops scattered densely about this compact hood. Of course, our carnivorous journey had one caveat: I’d be eating alone, for the most part: Woo, oddly enough for a Pole, had long ago traded kielbasy for kale: He’d become a vegetarian.
Still, he escorted me to Podlasie Meat Market, which, like most Polish palaces of meat, greeted us upon arrival with a thick, heady porcine wallop, something like being smacked in the sinuses with smoked swine. And thanks to Woo’s Polish—and his own uniquely charming ways—attitudes shifted instantly from hesitance (interlopers!) to acceptance, even warmth.
Soon enough, we chatted with the proprietor, a kindly, ruddyfaced man named Henrick. The shop has its own smokehouse in Ridgewood and makes all their products by hand, but when I asked what made the Podlasie Meat Market different from the others, the answer genuinely surprised me: “Fish,” he said.
Fish? Really? As I stood there, flanked by uncovered plastic buckets of fresh pickles and real fermented sauerkraut, not to mention a veritable forest of sausages—thick, skinny, smoked, fresh, dark, pale—Henrick went on about smoked salmon, catfish and even eel.
“It makes sense,” explained Woo. “Poland is on the Baltic Sea, and the northeast of Poland is known as the ‘land of a thousand lakes.'” Sure enough, Henrick was kind enough to slice us off generous wedges of salmon and catfish, both inexpensive and impressively flavorful.
It’s amazing what you can get when you finally have the language to ask for it.
I was fortunate to have Woo by my side, not just as translator, fixer and (vegetarian) butcher-charmer, but also as a source of culinary and cultural context. As we headed to the Polski Meat Market, he waxed poetic about the Polish sausage he had long since forsaken: “The best kielbasa I’ve ever had,” he recalled, rhapsodic, “is cooked over an open campfire. The urban centers of Poland are very small—most people live in the countryside. So if you have a barbecue, you’d cook sausages on a stick over an open flame. But because kielbasa’s already smoked, people also love to just eat it cold. As a kid, I’d eat kielbasa as a snack—get a hunk, a little rye bread, and that was it. No ketchup, no mustard, nothing.
“To me, kielbasa is so much more than just meat,” he continued. “It’s about growing up there, my family. The smell of kielbasa will bring back memories of summers with my cousins and grandparents.”
Coming from a vegetarian, this says a lot about the power of proteins. Yet even with these shared food memories—and his hearty smile, friendly voice and perfect Polish—Woo’s entreaties to the women behind the counter at Polski were met with, shall we say, resistance. If we wanted to buy, fine. But no questions.
I was dying to divine the details of their myriad prepared foods, those stuffed cabbages, pan-fried veal and fish cutlets, and especially the pyzy, fat potato dumplings the size and shape of an ostrich egg and stuffed with roasted pork. But knowing the nature of the Polish community, Woo thought it to be best that we cut our losses and leave, instead of pressing for facts on flesh.
“Polish people can sometimes be . . . how do I put this?” he paused, “a little insular. They’re proud of their community, but also protective, and that can come off as gruff.”
We met this same cool attitude at the Staropolski Meat Market, where we didn’t charm our hostess. “She says,” Woo translated, “that they buy most of their products from other vendors, that they don’t make them themselves.” Middleman or no, the ample selection of smoked meats and cold cuts was impressive. What caught my eye was a plastic cup containing shredded chicken, peas and carrots suspended in aspic, like a clear Jell-O mold of meat.
“That’s galareta,” Woo explained. “My dad used to have that all the time when I was growing up. He loved it, but it grossed me out.”
(It wasn’t until a few nights later—coming home hungry after several rounds with the boys—that I discovered how right Woo’s father was to love the stuff. It was gone in minutes, the plastic cup scooped clean.)
My quest for kielbasa enlightenment soon looked up. At the Mazur Meat Market, Woo’s affable introduction was greeted with kind openness. Proprietress Helene Oztrovska Mazur proudly explained that, in the 30 years they’ve been operating, they’ve produced all of their food by hand, just like in the Old World.
And the house specialty, she declared, beaming, is frankfurters. Woo translated: “‘They have the best frankfurters in all of Brooklyn,’ she says. They’re made with a combination of beef, pork and veal. They have their own smokehouse, all the equipment. They prepare their meats in a traditional Polish ‘at home’ style, and their store is known for that taste you would get from your grandmother’s house.”
Here, amidst gnarled, black blood sausages the size of a toddler’s leg, the most celebrated product is hot dogs? My skepticism would vanish immediately, however, when I tasted these franks at home: Juicy, smoky and rich, with that unparalleled snap of natural casing. Oscar Mayer would be crippled with jealousy.
As the sun set we made our last stop, at Greenpoint’s famous Kiszka Meat Market where a long line crowds the narrow space at all hours of the day. Decked out in red shirts and white aprons in a salute to the national colors of their homeland, a dozen or so employees move between the fully stocked counter and a back wall festooned with enough sausages to feed the bellies of a Baltic battalion.
“I came all the way from Texas for these cold cuts,” announced one older woman with obvious adoration. But when Lukasz and I finally tried to chat-up the manager–a man obviously a little weary after a long day of making and selling a staggering variety of smoked meats–he seemed incredulous about our questions of selections and Slavic affections.
“I don’t understand what you want,” he harrumphed as Woo translated. “It’s Polish food. It’s kielbasa. The people like it. What else do you need to know?”
Want to know what to order while in Greenpoint? Check out our Must-Buy Polish Meats guide.
The Curious Carnivore: Gold, shown on the previous page at Kiszka Meat Market, gets to the heart of his adopted nabe’s plentiful Polish palaces of pork.
Editor’s note: Polski Meat Market and Podlasie Meat Market have closed.