My home town in Metro Detroit was a hotspot for cultural diversity. Most likely it was the 1990s lure of the automotive industry; well-to-do automotive managers and executives gravitated toward the suburbs, and I grew up with African American and Indian and Chinese and Korean playmates. Last names ranged from Smith to Mital, from Bolterstein to Wu to Kurkiewicz.
The Polish community came to the forefront one day a year: Fat Tuesday, better known as Paczki Day (Poonch-key day, or Porn-schki day, as my colleagues at Covenant Eyes call it). As a Protestant who pays no attention to Lenten traditions, it would be years before I would connect it to the Catholic Calendar; to me, it was the one day a year that my ever health-conscious mother would break down and bring into our house the extreme rarity of a store-bought treat. Dinner first, of course: a rather plain salad, a glass of skim milk, chicken (Tuesdays were always chicken), a frozen veggie, possibly rice or some other starch-based item. Then, finally, dessert, the gift of a mother who made healthy things, who never bought Oreos or chocolate or fruit roll-ups. On Paczki Day and Paczki Day alone were we allowed to be unapologetically unhealthy.
Some have mistakenly compared paczkis to jelly donuts—an adequate comparison, perhaps, for the uninitiated, but one that falls flat. A jelly donut is cakey or flakey, not soft and light and airy yet remarkably sturdy; it lacks the puckers and bubbles of a fried pastry designed to empty the pantry of eggs and sugar and lard. A jelly donut is often doctored by frosting; a paczki by a light sparkling layer of sugar or glaze. Donuts do not resist, ever so slightly, as you sink your teeth into them, only to crackle delightfully as you break through to the surprisingly tart center of lemon or raspberry or custard or cream. No, a jelly donut is not a paczki. It may share some structural similarities to a paczki, but in the same way that a raisin compares to a fresh-plucked grape; they may be the same fruit, but they are not even remotely in the same league.
Today I made myself a deal: no paczkis until I’d drunk at least one 16 oz. glass of water (coffee excluded). It sat there, taunting me, my lemon paczki, until finally I finished my drink. In joy I finally cut into it, savoring it, bite by tiny bite. The taste still lingers on my tongue. No, it is no wonder that Christmas Eve and Paczki Day are among my favorite days of the year, for they are both in a sense sacred: both gentle reminders of the delights of the small things, of yearlong anticipations and longings fulfilled. Paczki Day will not come again for a year, but it is worth the wait.