Tucked into Philadelphia’s northeastern section, the small neighborhood of Port Richmond is still asleep. It’s 5:30 on a cold December morning, and a fog has fallen over the narrow streets and row-homes. Abandoned factories and ornate churches, still illuminated by the moon, cast elongated shadows across the neighborhood. Most residents are still snug in the warmth of their beds, I am not one of them. For the past 17 years, my mom, Aunt Pat and I have embarked on the “Kielbasy Run.” Set during the week before Christmas, we put on layer after layer of clothing and take the 20-minute drive on an empty I-95 to my family’s old Polish neighborhood, Port Richmond. The ride is mostly silent; Aunt Pat tries to catch up on sleep after consecutive night shifts at Jefferson Hospital, and I stare out the window.
Our destination—Czerw’s Deli—is located on Tilton Street, which closer resembles a back alleyway than a usable road. After parallel parking a few blocks away (the closest we can get to the store), we venture into the below-zero temperatures and wait in line outside. The store won’t be open until 7 a.m., but the line already reaches the end of the block. We do all of this in search of one thing: authentic Polish food.
We wait in line with familiar faces from years past. There’s the businessman taking a day off from work, the father with his young children who drove in from New Jersey and the old woman (hair still in curlers) who lives around the block.
Thirty minutes later, we pass the screen door leading to the back of the deli—a source of warmth and a sign we are nearing the main entrance. Through the screen, I can make out the faint figure of an old woman, hunched over with her cane faithfully by her side. Her hands move slowly and steadily as she packs beef into cabbage leaves. Her measurements are by memory, the movements of her fingers automatic. After wrapping up the finished product, she hobbles to the back hallway, calls out for one of her sons and hands off the package.
Just then, a large man—his white apron covered in reddish-brown stains—flings open the screen door and steps into the cold air to check the smoker. As he removes the lid, warm smoke and the woodsy smell of meat diffuses through the line. He grumbles to himself as he dips a finger in the juice pooling under the meat and raises it to his mouth.
“Needs more onions,” he states with a smack of his lips. He disappears back into the kitchen.
After nearly an hour in the cold, we make it to the large, wooden door. Inside, the deli is long and narrow, with enough room for only 10 customers. The line stretches along the back wall next to shelves packed with everything from Jewish rye bread to kosher dill pickles. One shelf displays four kinds of babka—cheese, raspberry, poppy seed and sometimes chocolate. In the back corner of the deli is a freezer full of pierogis. A large barrel full of sauerkraut gives the store its distinctive sour delicious smell of onions and garlic.
When we finally reach the deli counter, one of the three blond brothers takes our order.
“What’ll it be ladies?” the oldest brother asks in a gruff voice.
Mom recites our order like clockwork:
“Four pounds kabanosa, one pound fresh kielbasy, a pound of fresh bacon—sliced thick—one cheese babka, and four dozen onion & cheese pierogis.”
The rounded glass case is filled with red meat ranging from slab bacon to smoked kielbasy. Yellowed newspaper clippings hang in frames behind the counter, and a photograph of Pope John Paul II dutifully overlooks the cash register. After making our purchases, our food is handed to us in a large brown paper bag—20 pounds of pure culinary heaven. Our parcels act as a source of heat as we make our way back outside. Customers in line outside eye the trophy in our arms as we walk past.
The rest of our day is spent driving to three or four Polish bakeries—most are easy to spot with the country’s red and white colors proudly displayed. As we drive from bakery to bakery, my mom and aunt point out familiar landmarks:
“This is the cemetery where Babci [Grandma] is buried.”
“There’s the corner store our cousin used to own.”
“Here is where I first learned to drive our orange station wagon.”
Our foggy car windows display family history like a photo album. With each street comes another memory, and with each memory comes another anecdote.
By now it’s nearly 1 p.m., and we make our way into the last bakery for our most valued item: paczkis. Paczkis (pronounced PUNCH-keys) are Polish doughnuts filled with fruit jelly or cream. Their airy dough makes them significantly better than traditional American doughnuts. We select a variety of paczkis in flavors such as plum, prune and apricot.
As I walk back to the car—paczki in hand—the chilling wind hardly bothers me. I remove my thick gloves and let the powdered sugar fall onto my skin. The purple jelly stains my lips and tongue. I gaze once more at the grandiose churches dotting the avenue. From where I stand I can see the churches where great-grandma Frances Rybicki, great-grandpa Mikolaj Czekaj and grandma Catherine Wojcik all lived out the major events of their lives. I smile as our car pulls away and these familiar landmarks disappear into the Philadelphia skyline.
Once back at Aunt Pat’s house, the crinkling of the brown paper bag acts as the dinner bell. My five cousins—Brook, Matt, Monica, Chris and Erica—come running down three flights of stairs. We gather around my aunt’s round table and immediately begin to unwrap food from its paper packaging. We laugh for hours as Mom and Aunt Pat continue to share stories while we feast. Once my belly is finally full and I can’t bear to eat another paczki, there’s one thought running through my mind: I can’t wait until next year.
Born & raised in northeast Philadelphia, Rachel Garman has always had a passion for telling stories. She recently graduated from Penn State with a degree in print journalism, and she is currently a Public Relations Specialist for Penn State IT Communications. When not busy writing, Rachel continues her quest for the perfect doughnut (paczkis are currently in her top five).