The convoluted history of Paczki Day 

On Tuesday, Detroit-area residents will converge on the streets of Hamtramck for a daylong celebration involving music, drinks, and confections called “paczki.” The Hamtramck Paczki Day Festival is a fun tradition that precedes the Christian season of Lent, and celebrants listen to music, carouse from bar to bar, and stuff themselves silly. Basically, it’s about the closest thing we have to a Mardi Gras bash in metro Detroit.

So who thought something as simple as a day devoted to drinking and eating jelly doughnuts could be so … controversial? It is. Heed our important warnings, dearly learned through years of experience writing about Paczki Day. Read on and learn.

See, first of all, paczki is plural. So paczki (POON-shkee) purists will note that the singular is paczek (PON-check). It’s surprising that so few Polish-speakers are willing to cut a break on this matter, ready to shout corrections when some well-meaning reveler shouts an order for “six paczkis!” That said, you have been warned.

Also, every time we write about Paczki Day, we get an earful from lovers of the Polish treat, who take us to task for daring to compare them to jelly doughnuts. There’s some merit to this full-frontal assault: Real Polish paczki, they say, are made with extremely rich dough, literally made of everything rich in the pantry, since religious law forbade the consumption of lard, sugar, and eggs during the Lenten fasting season. The argument goes that the sweets that the Hamtramck throngs throw back are actually more akin to a jelly doughnut than the real thing.

And yet this alleged lack of authenticity doesn’t seem to stop people from lining up at local markets the night before to procure them by the dozen. Perhaps some bakeries serve more authentic versions than others. Hamtramck historian Greg Kowalski recommends the New Martha Washington Bakery as well as New Palace Bakery, which, he points out, has been there for more than 100 years and has lines around the block each year. (Chime in with suggestions and advice — if you dare opine on this volatile subject!)

Trying to pin down when Paczki Day “became a thing” in Hamtramck is also difficult. Some people believe it was established by Hamtramck’s mayor the year Dodge Main closed down. This is certainly not correct; they likely have confused Paczki Day with Hamtramck’s other big annual shindig: the Labor Day Festival.

You might also hear from those who say that the whole affair is a contrived bit of nonsense with the slimmest of true ethnic ties to the old country. There seems to be some truth to this. In Poland, it seems that paczki get eaten mostly on the Thursday before Ash Wednesday. But can’t two countries celebrate on different days? (Sort of like Canada and the United States have different Thanksgiving Days?) Apparently, not, because one of our readers blew a fuse over the discrepancy. Back in February 2009, we found a message on our voice mail that, among other complaints (including, “the paczek is not a jelly doughnut — it’s like the difference between Olive Oyl and Marilyn Monroe”), alleged that the holiday was a blatant fabrication. The caller blasted us for falling for it, declaring: “It is not Packzi Day … it’s Fat Tuesday! There is no such thing as Paczki Day. It is a creation of mindless marketing assholes just to fob off jelly doughnuts as paczki on unknowing fools. If I see this one more time, I am going to hunt down the offender and shoot them — full of jelly doughnut filling!”

We transcribed the call and printed it, and it prompted a writer named Claudia Richardson Tusset of Mount Clemens to write us the following week with what she believed was the festival’s true origin story. She wrote: “Paczki Day originated from a dedicated team of baking-industry personnel at the now-defunct Farmer Jack supermarkets who were looking for a way to create sales during the month of February, which is traditionally the slowest sales month of the year for corner bakeries of all sizes. What started as a sales promotion for a single grocery chain evolved, through years of hard work at the state, regional, and national level within the Allied Baking Industry to turn the sale of paczki into a ‘baker’s holiday.’ A 20-plus page how-to marketing guide was distributed to over 25,000 annually, to teach them how to market this product. Today, Paczki Day and Paczki Week generate more than $500 million annually… .”

Tusset went on to say: “For the mom-and-pop bakery, this promotion generates more sales in one day or week than many make the entire month of December or during summer wedding cake-graduation cake sales. No one can argue that some bakeries cut corners and sell a lesser-quality version of the traditional Polish recipe. But … you should be damn glad that … Paczki Day helps keep a lot of folks in jobs. That stupid jelly doughnut (which it isn’t) has helped keep a lot of people working at their desk or warehouse jobs at food brokers, trucking companies, bakeries, box manufacturers, and more. It’s not just another jelly doughnut!”

According to Joan Bittner, Hamtramck’s Paczki Day organizer and co-owner of the Polish Arts Center, this is almost entirely wrong. Bittner, who has lived in Hamtramck since 1973, says, “We have had Paczki Day here forever. Forever. She is only talking about when Farmer Jack’s jumped on board. One of the bakers from one of the bakeries went and gave the promotion at Farmer Jack’s. That’s when that started.” Bittner actually sees the baking industry’s paczki push as a bit of cultural appropriation — though not in those exact words.

“That is why, here in Hamtramck, I said, ‘You know, everybody else is getting on board, and they’re going to take what we’ve been doing all this time.’ This is where it started. We’ve been doing this for as long as we can remember. She only knows about it going national.” Far from starting Paczki Day, Bittner says the corporate push prompted Hamtramckans to promote Hamtramck’s Paczki Day as a city event distinct from this corporate “baker’s holiday.”

Bittner also has an interesting take on the difference between Polish and American paczki: The American ones are bigger. “Ours are packed with more. In the United States, bigger is better, right? When I went to Poland, I was lucky to be in Warsaw on Fat Thursday, and I went to the oldest pre-war bakery, and their paczki were very small, and with just a little bit of rose petal or prune jam inside. And there was a limit: You could only get three-dozen.”

More by Michael Jackman

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