October 24, 2011

The Most Comforting of Comfort Food - Hartford, Conn.

My "Babcia," having a grand old time
at my wedding five years ago.
This past week, our family lost its matriarch - my grandmother, who emigrated in the late '60s from Poland to the United States, along with my grandfather, mother, and several of my aunts and uncles.

Known to me and my cousins (14 of us in total, not counting my grandmother's nine great-grandchildren) as "Babcia," my grandmother was a fixture at every holiday gathering, contentedly sipping her ever-present mug of Lipton tea and quietly observing our banter - a lively mix of Polish and English - from her seat at the head of the table.

At our family breakfasts each Easter, my cousins and I would try unsuccessfully to stifle our giggles as Babcia murmured what seemed like never-ending, unintelligible prayers in her native language. Every Christmas Eve at our traditional Polish feast, Babcia would watch our annual grab-bag antics with amusement, laughing heartily whenever she chose the gag gift, even if she never quite understood what was so funny.

Babcia and her six children.
But no matter what the event - anniversary parties, holidays, birthdays - our aunts and uncles would at some point inevitably insist that all the cousins surround Babcia to mark the occasion with a family photo. We'd roll our eyes and dutifully squeeze ourselves and our significant others in around Babcia to smile for the eight different cameras haphazardly snapping photos all at once.

For the first 14 years of my life, I was lucky enough to have Babcia living with us in our house as part of my immediate family. As a child, I remember following her and our dog around the backyard garden among the tomato plants and sitting with her on the porch while she snapped the ends off of freshly picked string beans, that cup of Lipton tea eternally at arm's reach.

As I grew older, she would welcome me home from school every day, never failing to offer me some kind of a snack, including what I still recall as the single most amazingly flaky, melt-in-your-mouth sugar cookies I have ever tasted. I truly don't remember a day she wasn't in the kitchen, experimenting with something. As time went on, her cooking and baking started to get a little wacky, her recipes increasingly more peculiar, but clearly it was an activity that remained absolutely essential to her being.
My mother and one of my uncles
at their childhood home
during a 2004 visit to Poland.

Babcia later moved in with an aunt who lives in the next town over, where she ended up spending the past 20 years, up until her passing this past week. In all those years I knew her, I can't recall a single time where she lost her temper or raised her voice to me, my brother or cousins, or anyone else. Without the presence of her peaceful smile, our Christmases, Easters, and family celebrations are probably going to feel a whole lot emptier from here on out.

Me and Babcia at a birthday party
several years ago.
I'm sure for many people, grandmothers and cooking often seem to go together. Same goes for me. It's no wonder that now, in my 30s, I love to cook up my own dishes in the kitchen. After all, I spent my formative years watching Babcia as she tried to show me (in Polish, of course, with much of it lost on me) how to make any number of things, including those impossibly delicious cookies that I'll likely never be able to recreate.

I guess it makes sense that after I learned that she had passed, I found myself unable to do anything other than go home and spend several hours immersed in a cooking and baking frenzy. I was on autopilot - baking cake and bread, simmering sauces and stews. It felt right. And it's probably was what she would have done to feel better, too.

In the end, of course, our family came together this week - to mourn, but also to remember Babcia and our roots as a family. We gathered to go through withered albums of black-and-white photos from Poland. We asked questions about her and what it was like growing up with her. Each of us cousins was able to go home with a trinket of hers - a hankerchief, rosary, or one of the dozens of crocheted blankets she'd completed over the past few years. And even in the face of such a loss, we collected ourselves after the funeral and met up for a traditional Polish meal around the corner from the church.

One of many family photos.
The Polish National Home on Charter Oak Avenue in Hartford, Conn., may not be the most inviting of buildings. It's certainly no-frills, but it's historic (having once stood in the midst of Hartford's Polish community), it's nostalgic, and our family has a special connection to it: One of my aunts worked there as a waitress when she first arrived in the States, while one of my uncles, a butcher by trade, was a cook in the back kitchen. Even after the most sorrowful of occasions, the Polish National Home remains a space where our family gathers for what is as close as we can possibly get to a home-cooked meal.

The unassuming entrance to the Polish National Home
on Charter Oak Avenue in Hartford, Conn.
Not to mention that the food is, for me and many others, the absolute definition of comfort food. Poles - as well as plenty of non-Poles - have been coming here for years to enjoy a beer, share a smoke, or consume some of the best Polish food around, from pierogis, potato pancakes, and borscht (beet soup), to golumbkies (aka, stuffed cabbage), bigos (kielbasa and sauerkraut stew), and soft, fresh rye bread. It's the food I grew up eating, and I can never get enough of it.

The helpings are huge, and as one of my uncles says: It looks like a lot of food, but it goes down easy.

So if you'd like to go, I recommend ... everything. And in mass quantities. There's no website to speak of, but you can check out the hours here or give them a call at 860.247.1784.

Maybe it sounds crazy, but even in losing this central member of our family, there seemed to be a silver lining - getting together to commemorate the life of a loved one around delicious, comforting food. I think Babcia would be happy to hear that.


  1. What a wonderful tribute. Thanks for sharing your memories of your Babcia. If it helps, you can cook for me whenever you like -- especially the sugar cookies if you can find the recipe.

  2. Stefanie, what a wonderful tribute to your grandmother.I had the honor of knowing her and living with her one summer when your mother and I were still in nursing school ( years before you were even born) and I remember the delicious foods she made. I even remember some hot toddy-like drink she made for me once when I was sick. YUMMY and very therapeutic not sure what was in it but I slept well that night and certainly felt better the next day.

  3. Girl, this is a lovely piece. I know exactly how you feel. Grandmas rule! Even after they're gone. For reals. Every time I make a cuppa tea, I think of mine (also never without a cup of Lipton tea. Pretty sure she never slept...) and I smile.

  4. Thank you, everyone, for all the happy comments! Really appreciate it. :D

  5. What a beautiful tribute to your Babcia. It's never easy to lose a loved one, but it helps to take comfort in the things they loved about life and what you remember about them, and carrying those traditions on. Many hugs to you and your family.