Only in the Upper Midwest, where long winters force residents to layer on calories to keep warm, can a festival that revolves around a rich, fat and sugar-laden pastry exist. Traditionally consumed in Poland on the Thursday before Ash Wednesday, paczki (pronounced pooonch-key in the plural) or paczek (PON-check in the singular) are pure indulgence in the form of an oversized jelly doughnut (though don’t call it a doughnut around loyalists). Loaded with lard, sugar, and eggs, and injected with a heavy, fruity jelly filling, paczki flavors range from traditional rose hip or stewed plum to strawberry, apple, lemon, chocolate, Bavarian cream, custard, and peanut butter.
While the ritual continues in the Eastern European country, it’s not quite the spectacle that it’s become in US cities with historically large Polish immigrant populations like metro Detroit, Chicago, and Cleveland. Perhaps the epicenter of American Paczki Day festivities is Hamtramck, Michigan, a small city of about 22,000 that’s surrounded by Detroit. The unofficial holiday—celebrated on the Tuesday before Lent—has been a source of pride in the city for more than a century, ever since thousands of Polish of immigrants began flocking to the area to work at the Dodge Brothers automotive plant. Though the demographics have shifted over the last few decades, it’s still very much considered a Polish neighborhood, with a number of kielbasa counters, restaurants that feature pierogi, and cathedrals that still hold mass in Polish.
And of course, there are the few Polish bakeries that make a majority of their income from paczki sales. Just as the Christmas rush passes, shops like New Palace, Martha Washington, and Bozek's Meat and Groceries start taking customer orders from all over the region and even across the country. The shops hire seasonal crews in the weeks before Paczki Day to work around the clock in anticipation of the flood of demand.
Over the years, Paczki Day has grown from a niche Polish-American tradition to one that’s been regionally commercialized, with supermarket chains like Kroger and Meijer, as well as Dunkin' Donuts, Krispy Kreme, and Tim Hortons getting in on the action. This year, Detroit-area Uber users can skip the lines and use the code PACZKI to have a dozen delivered from Dutch Girl Donuts.
The Hamtramck festivities actually gets started the Saturday before Fat Tuesday, with a Countdown to Paczki Day event, featuring a Paczki Run 5K, in which participants are treated to samples of the carb-and-sugar-laden pastry after their run. On the big day, hundreds of metro Detroiters take off work and line up in front of the bakeries–some as early as 3 a.m.–to score a fresh box. Others spend the day drinking in the city’s dive bars like Small’s and Whiskey in a Jar, which hold concerts and sell booze-injected paczki “shots.”
Over the past few decades, the Polish-American community in Hamtramck has migrated to suburban Macomb County and elsewhere, and with that, an influx of immigrants from the Balkan region, Yemen, and Bangladesh has moved in. In 2004, the city made national headlines when elected officials gave permission for the Al-Islah Center to broadcast its call to prayer from speakers on its rooftop. In 2015, national news organizations again descended on the city again when residents voted in its first Muslim-majority City Council.
If ever there was a concern that this shift would cause the loss of paczki culture, one need only look to the city’s locally run doughnut shops to see that the newer immigrant population has embraced all manner of the historically Polish American tradition.
Family Donut, for example, is owned by a Yemeni immigrant family, which took over the shop a few years ago from a Macedonian family. On top of the savory burek pastry it’s famous for, the spot continues its commitment to selling paczki, though they’re prepared in the Islamic halal tradition, meaning the pork lard is nixed in favor of beef fat. Folks looking to get their fix without the longer lines prefer Family Donut. While visiting reporters frequently ponder whether this change in demography has resulted in tension, the lasting popularity of Paczki Day proves that a great pastry can bridge cultures.