Friday, August 8, 2014

Baltimore's Little Poland

Polish Flag with Coat of Arms. Photo by Orem

I never thought my family had any connection to Baltimore, Maryland. My dad's grandparents were born in Poland and settled in Michigan. My mom's grandparents also were born in Poland, but they settled in Pennsylvania. Even though I studied history in college, with a primary focus on 20th century United States History, I blindly assumed that all of my great-grandparents entered the United States through Ellis Island in New York.

Two years ago, I did some genealogical research about my great-grandparents, and I was lucky enough to find records from Poland about some of my great-great-grandparents. One of the discoveries that surprised me was that not all of my great-grandparents came to the United States through New York before settling in Michigan or Pennsylvania. My mom's paternal grandparents lived in Massachusetts, and were married there, before settling in Pennsylvania, and one of my dad's grandmothers and one of my mom's grandfathers entered the United States through Baltimore. 

I also learned that Baltimore has its own Polish neighborhood called Little Poland that Polish immigrants have called home since the 19th century. Little Poland has seen most of its second through fourth generation Polish-American families move to different neighborhoods and cities. They closed up their shops when they moved, leaving the neighborhood with a little less of a Polish feel than it probably had fifty to a hundred years ago.

Holy Rosary Church

Thanks to a recent Washington Post article about Little Poland, I knew where to find some of the Polish elements that remain. First, I visited Holy Rosary Church. I found a parking spot on the street about a block away. The church is beautiful. Like most old Roman Catholic churches, it is full of paintings and statues of saints. Despite its large interior, no columns support the ceilings towering above the pews, so views of the altar are unobstructed.

The parish conducts its 10:30 Sunday mass in Polish. Despite growing up in a Polish-American Roman Catholic family, I had never been to a Polish mass before. Despite not understanding a word of the mass, except for "Amen," hearing the priest and congregants speaking in Polish had a sweet and soothing familiarity, perhaps from hearing my grandparents speak the language. The mass itself was very traditional, with those receiving communion kneeling at a communion rail as Catholics did before the reforms of Vatican 2 in the 1960s.

I did not take pictures of the interior of the church out of respect for those who were worshipping inside. For some photos of the interior of the church, click here and here.

After mass, I walked the streets of the old Polish neighborhood and imagined my great-grandparents arriving in Baltimore Harbor more than 100 years ago. Did they walk these same streets? Did they live here briefly before moving on to Michigan?

Visiting on a Sunday allowed me to attend a Polish mass, but it unfortunately meant that a few of the traditional Polish businesses I wanted to visit were closed. Luckily, Ze Mean Bean Cafe was open. This wonderful little cafe has a fine mix of Slavic food, including some Polish favorites. My waiter talked me into trying the Slavic mimosa. I forget what was in it besides champagne, but it was refreshing. 

The Slavic Mimosa

I also ordered the pierogi plate, which includes four potato and cheese and sauerkraut pierogi. I still have not found pierogi that are as good as my grandma's, but these were excellent and not too filling. 

Pierogi from Ze Mean Bean Cafe

For my main course, I tried the Polish cowboy breakfast. It is a typical breakfast of eggs, pancakes, and melons, but the highlight is the grilled kielbasa. It brought back memories of summer parties back home when my dad or uncles would throw kielbasa on the grill. The restaurant does not make its sausages on site, but they purchase them from two traditional Polish markets, Ostrowski's, which is closed on Sundays, and Krakus Deli, which is next door to Ze Mean Bean.

After finishing my meal, I walked next door to Krakus. It's a small shop that carries meats and an assortment of Polish sweets. I did not buy any meat, since I had a long car ride home, but I was thrilled to find authentic paczki for sale. The delicious Polish pastries with a berry filling (real preserves, not that nasty jelly found at most doughnut shops) are a rare find, so I bought a half dozen.

My final stop in Little Poland was Polish Treasures, a gift shop across the street from the church. The shop is filled with items made in Poland. The man running the shop was friendly and answered any questions I had. I picked up a book of Polish folk tales and a small Polish flag for my daughters.

On my drive home to Northern Virginia, I was excited to share a little bit of my heritage with my children. One of the best ways to get a child interested about other cultures is through sweets, and I went out of my way to introduce my daughters to paczki earlier this year. 

My older daughter was so excited when I brought the paczki home. After I put paczki on each of our plates, we ate together in silent glee.

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