The windows of the Polish stores and bakeries in Greenpoint on Thursday were full of doughnuts. Extra-large, Polish-style doughnuts. Doughnuts in chocolate, powder, white frosting; with pieces of caramelized oranges on the top, with fillings ranging from cherry, coconut, chocolate and cream to traditional Polish rose jam.
It’s because it was Fat Thursday, the last Thursday before Lent, which accordingto the Polish tradition has to be celebrated by eating a doughnut.
“Is this a holiday? For real?” said Amber Denis, 23, who is American but works as a receptionist at a Polish beauty salon, where she was giving the customers doughnuts on Thursday morning. “I thought that the bakery just made too many doughnuts and they shared them with us.”
The once-heavily Polish neighborhood of Greenpoint has gentrified over recent years, but remains an oasis of Polish stores and businesses.
According to American Community Survey, there were 8,727 Poles living in Greenpoint in 2011, which is about 15.3 percent of the neighborhood’s total population.
Polish immigrants who moved here brought not only bakeries and restaurants serving their homeland’s flavors, but their customs, like Fat Thursday.
“It’s all about tradition,” said Krzysztof Konieczny, 40, who came to Syrena, the biggest Polish bakery in Greenpoint on Thursday morning to buy six doughnuts for himself and 50 more for his coworkers at the Polish Mission at the United Nations. “These are much better than American doughnuts,” he added.
In fact, bakers at Syrena said that the Polish doughnut, called a paczek, is a totally different kind of pastry than the American doughnut. It is made from different dough, it has different ingredients and its secret lies in the process of growing the dough in two 90-minute periods.
“It is a whole art of baking a paczek,” says Tomasz Kowalczyk, a doughnut specialist at Syrena, where he has been making paczeks for the last 13 years.
On Wednesday night Kowalczyk and his crew aimed to bake 25,000 doughnuts that they would sell in the bakery and deliver to Polish stores. Kowalczyk said that his crew would be in the bakery until Thursday evening in case Syrena would run out of paczeks.
“It would be a shame if we didn’t have enough doughnuts,” Kowalczyk said. “Everyone needs to eat paczek on that day.”
Poles stood in long lines Thursday to buy their sentimental paczeks, but many of them said they didn’t know the origins and reasons for eating doughnuts on Fat Thursday.
“My mother and grandmother used to make them on Fat Thursday back in Poland,” said Roman Zubrycki, 54, who bought eight doughnuts for his family. “Now I am just keeping to the tradition.”
Grazyna Rak said that the custom dictates that everyone should eat a doughnut in order to have a fat and prosperous year. Rak is a dialectician and she doesn’t buy doughnuts on all other days of the year. On Fat Thursday she got 10 of them.
“Each paczek has 350 calories!” said Rak, who refused to give her age. “You need to run for an hour to burn all these calories!”
Rak said that the best time to eat paczek is before noon because the metabolism works faster in the early hours of the day. It’s also important to eat them sporadically, not every day.
“It’s a caloric bomb!” she said.
Although there were lots of doughnuts in Greenpoint, nobody ate them in the cafes or out of a paper bag on the streets. It’s because eating paczeks should be a celebration and Poles usually do it at home.
The newcomers to the longtime Polish neighborhood said that they are learning the tradition.
“I’m just having trouble pronouncing the name,” said Denis, the receptionist.