In their effort to educate us on all things food and drink, the Museum of Food and Drink (MOFAD) in Williamsburg recently launched a new series of talks hoping to “preserve and promote” the culinary history and foodways surrounding specific New York City neighborhoods as a part of their MOFAD City project. Each panel takes place in that specific neighborhood with community leaders joining the discussion. After the first talk, which focused on Crown Heights, they came “back home” for “Tracing North Brooklyn’s Polish Food Heritage” Thursday May 19th in their MOFAD Lab exhibit design studio at 62 Bayard Street. The panel involved Gastropolis: Food and New York City author and Brooklyn Mompost founder, Annie Hauck-Lawson; Busy Bee Food Exchange owner, Andrew Konopka; and urban anthropologist, Filip Stabrowski.
First, to understand the changes that have taken place in the neighborhood, one must understand how North Brooklyn’s Polish community came together. There were a number of “waves” from Poland, particularly in the ’80s and ’90s as the Iron Curtain began to crumble. Those who immigrated before that time tended to keep more of their culinary traditions including smoking and curing their own meats in backyards and apartments. Later immigrants tended to send more money and goods back to Poland while living in gender-segregated apartments here, and congregating in the area’s restaurants and cafeterias where women would do the cooking and complete meals could be had for $4-6. In fact, it was at the café in the Polish-Slavic Center where a group created the Polish-Slavic Federal Credit Union in 1976.
Catholicism’s food-centric holidays present another litmus test for the changing face of Greenpoint. Ms. Hauck-Lawson has always been intrigued by Polish Easter tradition of Święconka—the blessing of the Easter baskets. Each basket can include a number of food items for blessing, but all must include bread, salt and an egg. Older immigrants would always use familiar-looking wooden baskets for the ceremony, but then a shift started to happen during the late ‘80s. For reasons unknown, she noticed men would bring the items, but instead of baskets, they were placed inside plastic grocery bags. Mr. Konopka added that now holidays are times when those who’ve left the neighborhood are most likely to return for traditional Polish meats, specialty foods, and groceries.
There is a “hidden food scene” rarely talked about in the media, where one can get a feel for old Greenpoint. Mr. Stabrowski has had the opportunity to study the area’s senior lunches, including the meals provided by Greenpoint Soup Kitchen. A network of older Polish women who have done outreach to our poor and elderly supports these services. One lady in particular has been serving our community in such ways since the 1980s despite health setbacks.
All on the panel can agree that North Brooklyn’s Polish food culture has changed significantly over the past decade. Mr. Konopka, a lifelong Greenpoint resident, explained that long-standing Polish butcher shops have been closing more frequently, and Busy Bee customers demand more organics, snacks and juices than before. Even simple aspects, like how to display their goods, have had to change to appeal to the neighborhood’s newcomers. “The new crowd wants things nicely organized, they want to peruse and look around,” he explained. But that isn’t to say everything has changed, as Busy Bee still makes their pierogi, kielbasa and other products by hand in the back of the store, and the “New York crowd” does shockingly go for exotic items like flaczki (tripe soup).
Thank you to MOFAD, Annie Hauck-Lawson, Filip Stabrowski and Andrew Konopka, especially for the kielbasa and pierogi Busy Bee provided after!
Be sure to check out MOFAD and their upcoming food events at the Lab and around the city. As a part of the series, small neighborhood food tour brochures with mapped stops are available at the MOFAD Lab.