My Polish grandma died five years ago. Babcia lived in the middle apartment of a triple tenement house in New England for all of her married life. She worked all those years, too, in a beat-up shoe factory she called the “coop.” When I was a kid, I thought she meant it like a chicken coop, a place of barbed wire and rows of feathered ladies like hens producing shiny patent leather inventory. Later I learned it was really short for The Cooperative. Babcia spent long days drilling tiny holes into men’s wing- tipped shoes. She was an artist.
Babcia wore oversized vests she called housecoats. She sewed them out of patterned sheets she bought at the Salvation Army. She taught me how to hold the material together and let it run under the dragon fly of her ancient gunmetal sewing machine. When she died and my Grampa let me walk through the house to choose something as a momento, I walked past my sisters hoarding her vintage jewelry and took those faded housecoats. Nothing else seemed like Babcia.
She loved cooking squash and potato perogi, which she called “little pies.” I lived with her for a few years, and we drank percolated coffee and milk out of striped bowls and wondered what Father George might discuss at his next sermon. Sometimes Babcia cried. The fancy ladies at the coop, the slim ones with the modern A-line skirts and black-lined eyes, didn’t like her. They made fun of her housecoats, her weight, her sack lunches of sauerkraut, beets, and sausages.
“They’re just jealous because you’re so good at skiving,” I told her. “Babcia, you’re so good at what you do. You’re so smart.” But she shook her blue curls. She didn’t believe it.
Easter Sunday meant an egg hunt in Babcia’s yard, meant the bloom of pale yellow daffodils, the call of migrating larks returning home. Babcia spent the entire Holy Saturday, flour up to her arms, baking enough goodies for a small Polish army.
Breakfast was the Swiecone, where a basket is traditionally lined with a white linen and decorated with tiny sprigs of spring boxwood, filled with tasty treats, and carried to church for the priest to bless.
The buffet came next, a scrumptious spread of succulent cold meats such as ham, roast veal, and sausage, relishes, beets, horseradish, and the piece de resistance — a roast, suckling pig. Babcia met each guest at the door with a wedge of hard-cooked egg and wished him or her good health and happiness.
I learned to make Paczki — rich Polish donuts traditionally served during Easter season — when I was 8 years old and covered in poison ivy. Gramma painted calamine lotion on my wounds and let me lay down on her television couch and watch Lawrence Welk. Bubbles and dancers and beautiful wail of accordion-backed polka kept me from scratching, while Gramma cooked cabbage soup for dinner as the yeasty dough rose. I heard her grating horseradish, a rhythmic thump thump thump on the wooden cutting board, and then she danced into the den, in time to the music, and placed two cucumber slices on my eyes.
“Oh, Gramma that feels good. Will these make me beautiful?” I remembered seeing a rich lady on TV having a facial.
“Beauty my ass!” Gramma snorted and danced back into the kitchen. I heard a spoon against the pan and the sound of running water. Gramma’s voice mixed with the bubble music on the screen and the symphony of dinner surrounding her.
“Don’t be beautiful, Birdie. Be smart.”
1/4 cup warm water
1/3 cup butter
2/3 cup sugar
3 egg yolks
1 teasp. vanilla extract
3/4 teasp. salt
3 and 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
thick jam, such as raspberry or strawberry
Fat for deep-frying
Dissolve yeast in warm water. Cream butter and sugar until fluffy. Beat in egg, then egg yolks, one at a time. Add vanilla extract, dissolved yeast, and salt. Beat until well-mixed. Stir in flour gradually, adding enough to make a stiff dough. Turn dough onto lightly floured surface. Knead until smooth and elastic. Let rise until doubled in bulk.
Turn onto lightly floured surface. Pat or roll to 1/2-inch thickness. Cut out with circle cookie-cutter or drinking glass. Place a generous dollop of jam in the center of one circle, then press another circle of dough over it, sealing the edges. Cover. Let rise until doubled in bulk. Fry in hot fat 2 to 3 minutes; turn to brown all sides. Drain on paper towels and sprinkle with confectioner’s sugar.
Please enjoy in good health and happiness!