Poles, friends celebrate
Times — and congregants — may change, but parish celebrates ways from another era
LATHAM PolishFest is pretty much about the food.
The 11th annual PolishFest filled the Blessed Virgin Mary of Czestochowa Church parking lot with polka music, vendors, and a rock wall — but mainly there was food.
“The band can play all day,” said George Urciuoli, “and that’s great, but people come here for the ethnic food.”
Urciuoli organized the festival this year. As the event wound down Sunday afternoon, he looked pretty tired.
“It’s been a great weekend,” he said, “a busy weekend.”
Urciuoli isn’t actually Polish. He’s Italian, but said the food of both cultures originated in hardworking peasant kitchens. Italians had their pasta, he said. Poles had their golabki, borscht and kielbasa — all made with whatever was around.
“We have bigos here today,” he said. “It’s just a hunting stew. Anything they happened to get went in the pot. Now it’s fine dining.”
He enjoyed a large can of Tyskie, Poland’s answer to Budweiser, and pointed over at the circus-sized events tent set up in the church parking lot. Even on the thinnest of the festival’s three days, the food line was jammed with people.
‘a solid line’
“Saturday, we had a solid line from 11:15 to 8 at night,” he said.
For the Rev. Mark Gnidzinski, the yearly festival is sort of a strange experience. Leaning forward in a hardwood pew in the bright church sanctuary, he spoke in a light Polish accent.
“We want to give people a sense of the Polish culture,” he said.
But it’s not his own culture that the event’s food and music are meant to reflect. He grew up in Poland, leaving just after the first democratic election took place in 1990.
Most of the Polish community in the area, he said, left the old country a century before he did. It’s that old Polish culture his church displays each spring.
“This area’s Polish community is small and quite old,” he said. “The culture is frozen in time.”
A living example of his point sat a few pews up. Tom Zembrzuski’s father came from Poland in 1901.
“He was dodging the draft,” he said. “He didn’t want to serve Russia.”
His father was successful in America, owning his own coal business and driving a Cadillac, but he kept hold of the culture he remembered. He ate the food, played the music and spoke the language.
Over a century later, Zembrzuski still thought of Poland as the place his father left as a young man. While on a trip to the old country last year, he enjoyed the best borscht of his life but also noticed a total lack of polka music, and a countryside divided into modern squares of wheat.
Though many of the old traditions are gone from Poland itself, the church is set on preserving them in America through things like PolishFest.
“We’ll hold onto the culture,” Gnidzinski said, “but for how long?”
He pointed out the church holds Masses in English and has for more than 40 years. Most of the congregation, like Urciuoli, has no Polish heritage.
old ways alive and well
Walking around the festival, though, the old culture seemed alive and well. The threat of rain and a competing Greek festival in Troy thinned out Sunday’s crowd a bit, but the attendees really knew their food.
Kristen Zarzycki and Laurel Pietrykowski, two young friends from Troy, drove out for some golabki and kielbasa. Zarzycki described herself as very Polish.
“My grandfather is in a polka band,” she said. “We have polkas at every wedding.”
Pietrykowski’s family custom-orders their kielbasa from out of state to obtain the authentic Polish recipe.
“We’re very picky with kielbasa,” she said.
Both are a handful of generations removed from the first immigrants. Neither have been to Poland and neither seem inclined to let the old traditions die.