Mardi Gras (Shrove Tuesday)

Paczki Stand in Oswiecim, Poland

I was very excited to go to the grocery store this week and find not only paczki (Polish donuts) for sale but also a Mardi Gras King’s cake. My Polish grandmother would occasionally make those donuts, which we called, phonetically, “punchki,” and they were always a big hit. The pascki I find in the grocery store here in Monmouth are always filled with jelly or cream — I am especialy fond of the Bavarian cream ones covered with chocolate — but my grandmother’s were always unfilled and sprinkled with confectioner’s sugar. As I got older I sometimes helped her fry them and when I got married I tried to get her recipenever . She directed me to a Polish cookbook she had, but using that recipe has resulted in quite the same donuts. Perhaps they needed my grandmother’s loving hand to taste right, but we always also suspected that she never really ever worked from a recipe.

The box in which the paczki from Chicago comes includes some interesting information. On one side it reads: “People may not agree on how to pronounce tthem but all are gathering to gobble up paczki on Fat Tuesday, the day before Ash Wednesday. Emigrates [sic] of Poland prounounc them “Pooch key” or “Punch-key” or even “Poonch-ket”; all are correct.” So my family pronunciation is endorsed here. On the other side of the box it reads: “Each country calls it someting different. In Germany, it’s a Berliner. In Austria it’s a Krapfen. IN Romania it’s called Gogosi. In Ukraine they call it a Pampushky. In Pennsylvania Dutch country it’s called a Fastnact. And in Hawaii Portuguese immigrants call it a Malasada.”

On my trip to Poland in May 2018, I visited Oswiecim (aka, Auschwitz) where one of the more pleasant things I saw was the paczki stand in the picture above. The donuts at this stand were unfilled and a lot more like the ones my grandmother made than the Chigago-made ones I buy in Monmouth.

The King’s cake I buy for Mardi Gras is a New Orleans tradition which is not part of my family heritage, but I like the cake, filled with cinnamon and covered in multi-colored sugar frosting. The cakes sold in Monmouth come with Mardi Gras beads and a little plastic naked baby. I think the baby can be traced back to the French origin of New Orleans and the French custom of having an almond-cream gallette des rois (Three King’s cake) for Epiphany. Those gallette’s traditionally had a porcelain baby baked in them. Somehow, in New Orleans, the Epiphany custom got transferred to Mardi Gras, probably because of the Mardi Gras king.

When we spent a year in Italy with our children in 1992–93, we attended several Martedì Grasso (Mardi Gras) Carnevales. We never attended the big Carnevale in Venice, but the little ones we attended we fun for litttle children, who would run around and through confetti at each other.

I taught Classics for 40+ years and am now Capron Professor Emeritus of Classics at Monmouth College in Illinois. Read more about me at www.tomsienkewicz.com.