Immigrants bring their foods and flavors with them wherever they go. Even as the next generation assimilates, when the kids and the grandkids want to celebrate, mourn or find comfort, they look to their grandmother’s cooking.
The Polish community in central Long Island finds their babcia’s cooking in Copiague and Lindenhurst.
Polishtown in Riverhead is better known, but the Lindenhurst “Polonia” dates back to a village formed by farmers and laborers from Silesia (present-day Slask) in the late 1890s, according to Gerald Kochan, director of the Polish American Museum in Port Washington. He adds, “There was a large influx of Poles to Long Island from Greenpoint and post–World War II immigration caused by the occupation of Poland by the Soviets in 1945. Many were survivors of an earlier deportation to the Soviet gulags.“
Fed also by the migration of Poles from post-Communist Eastern Europe in the early ’90s, Great Neck Road and Montauk Highway abound in pierogis, kielbasa, beer and real bread. Anchored by Our Lady of the Assumption Church on Molloy Street (Po Polsku Mass at 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. on Sundays), this is a deeply Polish neighborhood. Dudek Polish Bakery provides its daily bread.
Krystyna Dudkiewicz and her husband, Jan, started the bakery—now with two Great Neck Road locations—15 years ago. The couple met on the airplane that brought them to New York in 1990 after the breakup of the Soviet Union. She had worked in health in Poland, but he was a prize-winning baker. They were living in Brooklyn when they discovered Copiague, which was full of Polish delis but without a proper bakery; they decided to fill the gap.
With all the w’s, z’s and y’s in unfamiliar combinations, I am sort of lost, but it doesn’t matter. Just point and enjoy. Polish country breads have a deservedly good reputation for flavor and spring, with a pleasantly elastic chew and sturdy crust. Dudek re-creates the taste and texture admirably.
“Our sourdough starter is 16 years old,” says Krystyna proudly. “We got it from a Brooklyn bakery when we first opened.” She shows me the big kneaders and ovens at the second location where the real baking happens. “At 2 p.m. we start the sourdough; then they need to grow for three hours at a time. We do three risings per day.”
They use special flour to get the right blends. “Polish bread uses the dark ones: rolled oats, rye chips—coarse—that is the best flour for rye bread, urban special, white rye,” she says, blue-green eyes surveying the big kitchen in between accepting deliveries and taking orders on the phone.
Their countrymen—and other Slavs and Germans—clearly appreciate the results. On a Saturday the bakery buzzes with shoppers who pop in for a loaf or two and donuts, strudel, poppy seed (makowiec) rolls or a cheese babka (a brioche-like bread). They are not, says Krystyna, looking for a sugar high. “Not too sweet. Polish customers don’t like sweet-sweet. Just what you need. No sugar, no butter in the cream. Yes to whipped cream and pudding, but light, not too heavy.” While Polish businesses buzz on Great Neck Road and beyond—the Polish & Slavic Federal Credit Union, Krabal Liquor & Wine, Euro Deli and Zagloba Bar & Restaurant—you can also see change. Latin American businesses cater to newer immigrants from the south. The post-Communist rush from Poland is over.
Local businesses owners, however, don’t just rely on heritage customers. Bozena Restaurant, which started as a four-table lunch spot 25 years ago on Great Neck Road, is now a landmark on Montauk Highway in Lindenhurst. Serving hearty, homemade Eastern European comfort food, functions, weddings, communions, wakes, birthdays at the restaurant are usually booked by Polish customers, but lunch and dinner diners are decidedly non-Polish.
Owner Bozena Cortes, a tiny dynamo with spiky new-copper-penny hair and sparkling sea-blue eyes knows all about successful cross-cultural initiatives. She met her Puerto Rican husband, José Luis Cortes, when she arrived in the U.S. in 1981, intending to stay just long enough to earn the money to buy a nice car back home. They married in 1982 and have two children. Her first grandson toddles around the kitchen waiting for her to finish making his chicken meatballs while we speak.
She says Bozena’s appeal is in the old-world care.
“Everything is homemade,” she says. “We make the dough for the pierogis and make them by hand. We have so many: cheese and potatoes, sauerkraut and mushroom, spinach, chicken, chickpea, blueberry, strawberry. The dough is just flour and water and a bit of salt. The stuffed cabbage is rolled by hand.”
“I always loved the kitchen,” Bozena Cortes says. “The kitchen is my home.”
And for Long Islanders, Polish comfort food provides a taste of home, even if you are not Polish at all.