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Tough assignment in pre-Lent past


March 06, 2019
Note: At last week's New Member Mixer hosted by the Imlay City Area Chamber of Commerce at Maple Vista, I sat with a lively group of area business people and organizations. We talked about the upcoming Mardi Gras celebration held yesterday (Tues., March 5) in Imlay City, and of course the subject of Paczki came up. State Farm Insurance agent Doug Halabicky was particularly interested in the confection—wondering how it was different from "a jelly donut." It reminded me of an assignment I was given years ago by then-editor Cathy Barringer. It was a tough one. I had to look into the history of Paczkis, and go around to the Tri-City area bakeries and stores that sold them. I know. I know. It was grueling. Here's what I found out, and Doug, this one's for you.

Just 364 days until the next Fat Tuesday! Cheers!

Just seven days to go. Six little days that stand between us and a couple hundred ooey, gooey calories extraordinaire anticipated by thousands on Fat Tuesday.

For area bakers, this pre-Lenten holiday has become one of the busiest on the calendar.

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What's all the fuss about? A glazed 4-inch, 5-ounce gooey confection called 'paczki' (pronounced poonch-key).

While this round pastry has its roots in Poland, because of its rich ingredients and tradition, it has quickly spread like melted icing into a multicultural phenomenon unique, at first, to Michigan—specifically Hamtramck and the surrounding Detroit area.

The paczki legend began when Polish housewives wanted to rid their pantry of sugar and shortening so their families would not be tempted to indulge during the Christian observance of Lent.

For many Christians, the Lenten period, which consists of the 40 weekdays from Ash Wednesday to Easter Sunday, is one of fasting, abstinence and religious observance. Traditionally, some Christians excluded meat, pastries and other rich items from their diet during Lent. Some still do—a symbolic sacrifice of sorts.

Since the season always begins on Wednesday, the day before presents a last chance to indulge in gastronomic pleasures. The housewives of old used their culinary skills to transform the forbidden ingredients into the special pastries called paczkis.

Once a closely guarded recipe unique to the ethnic enclave of Hamtramck, the paczki is now a highly anticipated multi-ethnic Fat Tuesday staple.

New Orleans has their Mardi Gras, but here in frigid Michigan we have Paczki Day.

People might call paczkis 'rich,' they might call them 'delicious,' but never, ever call a paczki a 'jelly donut.' According to aficionados, comparing a paczki to a donut is like comparing a Rolls Royce to a tricycle.

The reason: the recipe. Authentic paczkis contain almost three times the eggs, shortening and sugar required for regular donuts. The traditional filling is, well, a little less glamorous: Prune.

The dough is richer, which is why paczkis are darker when they're fried. Today's 'Cadillac' of donuts is filled with an assortment of jams and custards to satisfy modern tastes. It's obvious that you don't have to be Polish to polish off a paczki. Just ask anyone at the local bakeries where paczkis will be flying off the shelves on Tuesday. It is one of the busiest days of the year, they say, with many loyal customers preordering their paczkis and standing in long lines to pick them up.

Interestingly, Paczki Day may have more to do with the psyche than the stomach. According to many supporters, the allure has to do with its tradition, which transformed the 4- to 5-ounce pastry into a "comfort food."

That's not all. Psychological studies have shown that the small structure located near the base of the brain called the hypothalamus contains cells that are sensitive to levels of sugar in the blood. Humans, it seems, have an innate desire for sweet and fatty foods. (So that explains it!)

As always, that innate preference doesn't come without a cost, so to speak. Paczki contain about 420 calories and 20 grams of fat each—which may explain 'Fat Tuesday.' Still, because it's just a once a year thing, we humans have the option to plan for the indulgence and then amortize the calories over a couple of days, and voila, we're back to being even on the caloric intake scale. And since it's just a once a year thing, it's one of those highly anticipated traditions that is still contained to one day, therefore there's little risk in becoming 'addicted' to paczki.

Locals can get their fix at The Daily Grind in Imlay City (call in orders by Sunday for pickup on Fat Tuesday at 724-9100), Louie's Family Restaurant in Capac, the Almont Pastry Shop and Almont Food Center in Almont, Sheena's Market Place in Romeo and Korte's Market in Armada.

They say everyone is Polish on Fat Tuesday, and judging from the popularity of a little 4-inch round pastry called paczki, it's true. That's pretty sweet, indeed.

Email Catherine at cminolli@pageone-inc.com

Catherine Minolli is Managing Editor of the Tri-City Times. She began as a freelance writer with the Times in 1994. She enjoys the country life, including raising ducks and chickens.
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