Bigos. Flaki. Czerwony barszcz, with or without uszka. Kapusniak. Pyzy, placek and kiszka.
I'm pretty good with languages, particularly on my favorite conversational topics of food, kitchens and cooks. My pronunciation might be embarrassingly bad, but I can say "please," ask after individual ingredients, order, appreciate and offer thanks with a modicum of confidence in German, Russian, French and Vietnamese. In Spanish, I can do a little more. At Indian restaurants, I confine myself solely to the words on the page, but at least I know the difference between my bhaji and my bhajia, my dum aloo and my aloo paratha, so I'm not going to accidentally order fried shoes or a back rub from the cook's grandmother.
But sitting in our booth in this quiet dining room, with the waiter standing over me and my eyes bouncing like pinballs all over the page, I am at a loss. Bitki, placek zbojnicki, schabowy and golonka? It's like I've fallen into some strange, expurgated chapter of Alice in Wonderland — the one where Alice finds herself, in dusty pinafore dress and polished little shoes, forced to sit down in a lost restaurant in the middle of nowhere, to order using words that don't even look like any known language. The Mad Hatter's tea party writ even weirder.
There was a table set in a corner by the door, and the March Hare and the Hatter and a Dormouse were having dinner at it, with plates of zeberka, platters of golonka, steaming golabki and little glasses of vodka that smelled of rubbing alcohol. The table was a large one, but the three were all crowded together at one corner of it: "No room! No room!" they cried out when they saw Alice coming. "There's plenty of room!" said Alice indignantly, and she sat down at one end of the table, opened the menu placed before her and tilted her head, concerned.
"Have some wine," the March Hare said in an encouraging tone.
"I thought you were having vodka," Laura said in an encouraging tone.
"I am," said me, then turned to the waiter, who hadn't budged an inch. "Two beers, two shots."
"I have to drive," Laura reminded me.
"Two beers, one shot. What do you have behind the bar?"
And then, again, a stream of unintelligible syllables, sharp vowels, far too many consonants. I nod at some random point in the list, trying to seem knowledgeable, agree wholeheartedly when the server asks if I would just like him to bring me a glass of vodka that he likes, and then sit back. We end up with two big bottles of Zywiec, a powerful pilsner decorated with pictures of dancing Poles in native dress with silly hats and crowns and trees, and a glass of something that smells like paint thinner from a foot away and drinks like a sip of rubbing alcohol. My eyes water and, for just a moment, the room goes all blurry.
"Have you guessed the riddle yet," the Hatter said, turning to Alice again.
"No, I give up," Alice replied: "What's the answer?"
"I haven't the slightest idea," said the Hatter.
"Nor I," said the March Hare.
When the waiter returns, I do my best. I mangle the pronunciation of the few dishes I recognize (pierogis, of course, and Polish schnitzel and herring with sour cream), do the rest with points and grunts. At least according to the menu descriptions, everything is made with potatoes in some form or other. Potato dumplings and potato pancakes and mashed potatoes and boiled potatoes. That which isn't made with potatoes is made out of pork. Many things are made with both. When I'm done, Laura and I have no idea how much we've ordered. We have very little idea of what we've ordered.
"Tell us a story!" said the March Hare, lifting his stained muzzle from his bowl of beetroot soup.
"Yes, please do!" pleaded Alice, her head still muzzy and her eyes still wet from her second shot of potato vodka.
"And be quick about it," added the Hatter, "or you'll be asleep again before it's done."
Once upon a time there was a man named Lester and a woman named Maria. They fell in love, married and frequented a hotel in Krakow called Cracovia. And then, a quarter-century later (last fall), Lester and Maria Rodzen opened a restaurant in Westminster — a fine-dining Polish restaurant with singing and dancing on the weekends, black linen tablecloths and crepe-paper streamers in the back room, a restaurant that would remind them of their time in Krakow, that would recall the flavors and the smells of the place, with pictures of the city on the walls and Polish music on the radio. They named it Cracovia, brought in their son and daughter to work the floor while Maria cooked, and filled the menu with critic-confounding dishes with names like vicious tongue-twisters.
On a dreary day, with dark clouds clotting in the sky and a thin, cold rain burying a false spring under a blanket of wetness, we find Cracovia in a dead strip mall with empty storefronts like missing teeth in a sad smile. But I've walked into stranger places. And it's good potato weather. Beet weather. Who wants to eat cold herring and hot gulasz and knock back thimbles of million-proof potato juice on an eighty-degree day?
The Dormouse, having told his story, had closed its eyes by this time, and was going off into a doze; but, on being pinched by the Hatter, it woke up again with a little shriek, and went on...
When the first course arrives, I am instantly put at ease. Bowls of soup: one chicken (made from scratch, built up from a good stock and gentle on a gray day) and one czerwony barszcz, which is nothing more than beet soup, crimson like a flawless ruby and warm and carefully set with a half-dozen tiny pierogis. One spoonful and I am in love. It's thin and deeply flavored and carries that strange, sweet vegetable savor unique to red beets fresh from the earth. It stains my lips, my shirt when it drips off the spoon.
"Try this," I say to Laura, and when she does, she smiles and closes her eyes.
The food comes in three removes; we have apparently ordered quite a lot. A very nearly heroic amount, certainly more than one table can hold. And save for the pierogis, every plate is something of a surprise. The placek are potato pancakes, the potatoes shredded fine and fried in the pan, tasting of butter and starch and onions and the sour cream with which they are served. We eat with our fingers, tearing off chunks and shoving them in our mouths while our waiter walks past the table with a platter of cabbage rolls, steaming and stuffed with pork and rice. For an instant, I want to tackle him — take him down at the knees, grab the golabki with my teeth and drink the tomato-mushroom gravy straight from his tureen — but I'm distracted by the timely arrival of a platter of pierogis, the handmade potato dumplings stuffed with more potato, with cheese and ground meat and cabbage and mushrooms and offered beneath a veil of melted butter and caramelized onions. Laura pulls the platter to her side of the table and hoards the pierogis, eating them whole whenever my attention is distracted by the black barley sausage and pickles, by the chicken roulade (devolaide in Polish, I think...) stuffed with cheese and more pickles, and the grilled, scratch-made kielbasa on its bed of cabbage.
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Plates are juggled, shifted, condensed and taken away. A trencher arrives filled with peas and carrots, boiled to mush and served in a glaze of butter and sugar one step shy of cake icing. We duel over the pyzy — small, round, steamed potato dumplings stuffed with ground pork, drizzled with butter and napped in a pork gravy that settles into all the little indentations. The schabowy (a pork cutlet, pounded and soaked and breaded and fried, served with mashed potatoes and sweet cabbage) sends us both off on a spiral of reminiscence, remembering breakfasts back in Pennsylvania made of veal cutlets, similarly handled, touched with lemon juice and eaten with our morning coffee when we were newly together and, like Lester and Maria, young-in-love. And then the Cracovia mielony shuts us right up again: It's a beautiful schnitzel (kinda...) of spiced ground pork, shaped into a patty, breaded and fried to a perfect golden brown — so peasant-simple, so traditional, so perfect. It is not a beautiful plate (two patties, mound of mash, bunch of pickles, natch), not the loveliest of presentations, but it is warm and filling, both physically and spiritually. If our mothers had been Polish, if they had spent their lives cooking the foods of the old country, working their schnitzels and pyzy and pierogi until their hands knew the work by thoughtless reflex, this would've been what we ate growing up. This tastes like home cooking in the best possible way, tastes of time and care and experience and love made manifest over dinner, with a side of pickles and potatoes.
Though we haven't noticed it, the room has filled up around us, the floor growing crowded with others looking for a hot meal on a gray day. And as Laura and I rise to leave — to pay the bill and step out into the rain and falling dark — we look around and see that same hunger for something beyond dinner in the eyes of many of the customers. This one Polish restaurant in the middle of nowhere is the closest they're likely to get to home any time soon.
And I've been happy to share it with them, even if just for one night.