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It can be tempting to consider a nation’s traditional food as a product solely of that culture. Yet ...
2020-01-03 09:00:00

Tradition Invented
The Migration of Food

Drawing by Daniel Mróz. From the archives (no. 602/1956)
Tradition Invented
Tradition Invented

Among the foods that wandered over through Italy to Poland, we have the pork chop (via Austria) and tomatoes originating from South America. From the Arabs, we have pepper and other spices, while Jews left us gefilte fish and challah. Immigrants, novelties and exotic delicacies come from every corner of the globe.

Read in 9 minutes

If we were to set all the foods considered to be Polish on one table, we’d find out that most of them migrated here from various places in the world, from many different cultures and traditions. They took root here for a number of reasons. Our delusion that we have ‘purely Polish’ dishes or products supports a sense of identity built on myths and steadfast monuments. Yet cuisine is a journey, an eternal migration, with the bundles of wanderers carrying culinary secrets, seeds and the memory of ancestors.

Stolen water is sweet

There have been times when a plant was brought over artificially and kind of imposed on a country. Food On The Edge, an annual food symposium that takes place in Galway, Ireland, sent out a provocative message a few years ago – an image of a potato accompanied by the slogan: “I am an immigrant”. The potato (Solanum tuberosum) made its way to Europe during the 16th century. It was Francisco Pizarro who, while conquering the empire of the Incas at the beginning of the 16th century, brought the bulb back with him. That particular variety had a white colour when it bloomed. The indigenous peoples would eat it boiled or baked, and called it papas or patata. Potatoes first appeared in Europe in 1554. At the beginning of the 1570s, a hospital for the poor in Sevilla ordered the first large batch, although the Spaniards did not fall in love with the potato. But it was already recognized as an edible plant. When France was struck by a massive famine in 1769, the Paris Academy announced a contest for a scientific work that would focus on a plant which could be easily and efficiently cultivated, giving crops that would ultimately help to eliminate the calamity. Agronomist and pharmacist Antoine-Augustin Parmentier joined the ranks of other competitors with his thesis on the cultivation and economic properties of potatoes. He won. His reward: money and land to cultivate the crop. Fields planted with potatoes were protected by guards who were relieved at night. Here the knowledge of human frailty turned out to be quite useful indeed, as at night, villagers would steal the seedlings and start to cultivate them on their own fields.

Potatoes made it to Poland at approximately the same time, thanks to King John III Sobieski (during the Siege of Vienna, he was said to have sent a bag of them to Queen Marie). The bulbs were planted near the royal palace by the gardener Paweł Wienczarek. His son-in-law Jan Łuba planted potatoes in the gardens on Nowolipki Street in Warsaw during the reign of Augustus II the Strong, as the crop started to be adopted on a larger scale. As the historian H. Łuniewski writes: “When Adam Mickiewicz was writing his unfinished lyrical poem ‘Kartofla’ (‘Potato’) around 1820 – which, incidentally, is not necessarily the favourite work of Mickiewicz experts – potatoes had already become quite common throughout the territory of the former Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, with annual yields of over 80,000 tons in the Kingdom of Poland alone.” It is common knowledge that the popularity of the potato was also boosted by the fact that vodka could be made from it.

How to invent tradition

So, to put a long story short, the potato – the unsophisticated beloved Polish potato – is actually an immigrant. In that case, when does a product become a national good?

According to Maciej Nowicki – head chef at the Museum of King John III’s Palace in Wilanów and at the Villa Intrata in Warsaw, as well as a reconstructor of old recipes and founder of the Palace vegetable garden modelled on the Royal Garden with potatoes, melons, Jerusalem artichokes, rhubarb, asparagus and medicinal plants, such as elecampane – it is a matter of adopting a coherent vision in the promotion of a country, where the economic factor is key.

“Whoever has the funds needed to establish a specific image does so. Northern Italy is mix of Austrians, Germans and Italians. And money is invested in that very mix; Tyrol is promoted as a region with a specific touristic and culinary character.”

“How about Poland?” I ask.

“Poland was never homogeneous, contrary to the narrative imposed in the Polish People’s Republic. Jews, Tatars, Mennonites, Vistula Germans, Eastern Orthodox Christians and, of course, Poles; all of them created the culinary landscape in Poland. The city of Malbork has beautiful Gothic walls that are bordered by the assaulted landscape of a 1970s housing complex. Things look pretty much the same when it comes to cuisine,” the chef notes.

In their book, The Invention of Tradition, authors Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger explain the mechanisms involved in the creation of traditions in larger communities, concentrating on countries or nations. It seems that many traditions we believe to be ancient have been conceived quite recently. The book’s authors analyse examples of the phenomenon involving the creation of Welsh and Scottish ‘national culture’, the development of British Royal ceremonies in the 19th and 20th centuries, the beginnings of imperial rituals in India and Africa, and the attempts by radical social movements to build their own counter-traditions. This study of ritual and symbol shows the complicated mutual interaction between the past and present. This theory provided a base for the analysis of the phenomenon of Sarmatism, the dogma of Polish humanities in the 20th century. In his text, Sarmatyzm, czyli tradycja wynaleziona [Sarmatism, or Tradition Invented], Jakub Niedźwiedź writes: “So if Sarmatism forms the foundation for the modern discussion regarding the identity of Poles, other non-noble traditions are considered to be lesser, especially if they are not in line with the nobility ethos. Therefore 18th-century peasants, townspeople and Jews ended up on the margins of modern (19th-century) Polish national identity. It was possible to include them in the realm of the Polish nation, but only if one was able to prove that they recognized the traditions of Sarmatism and the landed gentry as the core of Polish identity.”

The pork chop from Milan or from Pułtusk?

What paradigm are we capable of accepting nowadays, taking into account the wave of veganism, the popularity of hummus and the spread of the Japanese culture of ramen or kombucha throughout the Western world? Or the mass migration of people and, at the same time, the enhanced awareness of ecological issues and the significance of seasonal and local nutrition?

There are currently over two million Ukrainians in Poland who are working, studying, learning or staying with their friends and families. That’s a lot. The Vietnamese community in Poland is anywhere between 25,000 and 60,000 people. Belarusians, Georgians, Indians and Nepalese are also living in this country. People from Afghanistan, Algeria, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Iraq, Iran, Qatar, Pakistan and the United Arab Emirates are showing up, too, and obtaining residency permits. Each one of these nations contributes something new to the culinary backdrop, be it kebab, pho, puri or pelmeni. Cuisine is a living organism that is never nationalist. Culinary culture does not have a fixed definition and is subject to dynamic changes over time. Look at how today Poles happily indulge in kebab, which was not so popular only a decade ago. Many dishes become incorporated and, with time, we forget that they are foreign foods and treat them as our own.

Ultimately, the pork chop is nothing more than a modest version of the Viennese veal schnitzel, which in turn is some version of a dish from Milan called la cotoletta alla milanese, which is fried in clarified butter. Statistics (such as the Polska na talerzu [Poland on a Plate] report, published annually by MAKRO) show that more than half of Poles consider Polish cuisine to be their favourite and indicate a pork chop with potatoes and cabbage as their preferred dish. Here, one immigrant stands side by side with another immigrant.

In most Polish homes and restaurants, pork chops are fried boneless (unlike the Italian version, for example). In addition, a definite Polish accent is the fact that the pork chop should be fried using lard and not oil, much like the wide range of other Polish pork-based dishes, since lard is animal fat and gives the meat its proper taste. We could therefore define the pork chop as Polish, though its popularity is attributed to Communist Poland’s centralized economy and the increased pig population.

Take a gallon of sweet milk

When does something gain the right to become an element of Polish cuisine? When does the immigrant become a member of the household? What needs to happen to make us accept something as our own? Does a food need to be continuously present in the culinary landscape or are interruptions permitted?

“Social awareness is key here,” Maciej Nowicki believes. “Polish sausage is recognized all over the world, and that’s a fact. What also counts though is how long something has been functioning in Poland,” he adds. But that period doesn’t necessarily have to span centuries. Beef tartar wasn’t very popular before World War II, yet it is recognized as a typical Polish dish.”

Recipes can also migrate in time. Nowicki quotes the example of the arkas dessert, which travelled 200 years. It first appeared in the earliest preserved Polish cookbook Compendium ferculorum, albo zebranie potraw  [Compendium Ferculorum, or a Collection of Foods] (published in Kraków in 1682), before ending up in a book by Maria Marciszewska Kucharka szlachecka [The Noble Cook] (published in 1893) as “King John’s arkas”.

Arkas is an old dairy-based Polish dessert served especially in the Podlasie region, as we find out today from the unparalleled Hanna Szymanderska’s book Kuchnia polska – potrawy regionalne [Polish Cuisine – Regional Foods]. Notwithstanding its presence in Podlasie, it was one of King John III Sobieski’s favourite treats. The original recipe for arkas is difficult to determine. According to Zygmunt Gloger, who makes reference to the knowledge of homemakers from Podlasie and to a recipe from the 18th century, arkas was made like this: “Briskly beat six eggs, whites and yolks together and pour into a quart of sweet milk, which is then boiled to make curds; drain the whey with a colander, squeeze out the curds, place them on a colander, press with a soup dish and leave to drain and cool; then cut into strips and top with unbeaten sour cream mixed with sugar and cinnamon.”

According to some recipes, the sweetened milk mixed with the eggs was soured with lemon; others claim that the dessert is a milk-based jelly, “milk and lemon in small baskets”, with rose water added.

Regardless of all that, I found a recipe for “Arkas dessert” in a brochure by Maciej Jan Mazurkiewicz published in 2015: Legumina z kasztanów i buraki w pasztecie. Książka kucharska Grodzińskich z Dębowej Góry [Chestnut Pudding and Beets in Pâté: The Cookbook of the Grodziński Family from Dębowa Góra] (around 1829–1830):

“Take a gallon of sweet milk, 12 whole eggs, half a lemon or half a glass of vinegar or a thimble of cream of tartar, beat well, drain through a colander and boil on low heat; mix with a spoon until curds form, then pour on a colander, leave to drain, fold together with a spoon and leave to slowly cool; only then place in a form of whatever kind you fancy; finally prepare the sauce, mix sour cream with sugar and lemon, add crushed cinnamon, mix it all together, pour over the curds and serve.”

Cream of tartar is potassium bitartrate. It is a natural by-product in wine appearing in the form of tiny crystals. On a daily basis, it is used as an ingredient of baking powder, where mixed with baking soda it serves as an acidity regulator.

Is arkas a traditional Polish dish? Yes. But do you serve it after dinner on Sunday? No.

Eintopf and rumpuć

I am talking with Maciej Barton, head chef at Ostoja Chobienice, about the Wielkopolska regional cuisine; he is a cook who studies old recipes and is even writing a PhD thesis about it (indeed, in Poland we already have a few PhD students specializing in historic cuisine).

“Historically, the Wielkopolska region was in the German, Russian and Prussian partitions; we had Czechs, Jews and Hauländers, a real mix of a variety of cultures,” Barton says. “It was chiefly the Gerrmans who left us the single-pot Eintopf, called ‘rumpuć’ here, but also pork knuckles, potatoes and Auflauf – an oven-baked omelette made with sugar and fruit.” The culinary landscape changes all the time, we borrow something, we adopt it, we incorporate it.­.. During the partitioning of Poland, a number of cook books were written that were geared at protecting patriotism and rescuing Polishness.

“On the other hand, products that we can consider to be ‘ours’, such as asparagus or artichokes, as well as goose meat – things that have been around in Poland for a long time – were neglected and abandoned for decades. Everything was exported to Germany, because Poles didn’t want to eat any of it.”

During Communist times, these were elite products, while we were supposed to eat potatoes and cabbage. The pressure of centralization was stronger than today’s globalization. After all, the production of regional foods was in the hands of private enterprise and that was not permitted. All the sausages had to taste the same. Things look different today. We recognize our culinary wealth, and an immigrant in the kitchen is added value; our cuisine becomes richer, fuller, and much more interesting. Change means evolution and development. My cooks from Ukraine are enhancing the Wielkopolska regional cuisine; they have a different take on it, they supplement it. They are not intruders, they are partners. That’s how I view community and development – both of cuisine and of myself.


Translated from the Polish by Mark Ordon

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Monika Kucia

is a journalist and culinary superintendent at Monika likes to bring words, flavours and people together. She helps foreigners learn about Poland from the tastiest side. She also creates culinary spectacles in which she encourages participants to eat leftovers, breathe in the smells of the basement, and sprinkle food with golden dust.