Fat Thursday is one of the most beloved (and probably the tastiest) traditions in Poland. In Polish called Tłusty Czwartek, it marks the last Thursday before Ash Wednesday, which is the traditional beginning of Lent. Fat Thursday means that the period of carnival and the joyful atmosphere of celebration is almost over, and the mournful and melancholic period of Lent (when the fun should be surpassed and the music should quiet down), is fast approaching. Poles seem to have found their unique way of celebrating the end of the period of fun, and it’s done by devouring crazy amounts of pączki, doughnuts filled with rose petal preserve, or faworki, fried pieces of shortcrust pastry sprinkled with icing sugar.
According to Barbara Ogrodowska, Polish ethnographer and specialist on Polish folklore, the tradition of Fat Thursday was more elaborate in the past, and feasting on Fat Thursday used to extend to more foodstuffs and dishes than just pączki and other fried pastries. A text from 17th century mentions one of such celebrations, describing tables hardly carrying the weight of the treats laid out on them, amongst them various meats (mostly game), hams, poultry – all served with thick and heavy sauces, raisins, almonds and other accompaniments. Peasant households also celebrated with style (but without all the game), preparing special meals for this occasion: kasha, cabbage with bacon, lard, and in more affluent households: garlicky sausages and meat cooked in a soup. There was a saying stating that one should eat fatty foods on this day (lard, bacon, kasha with lard, sausage, etc.) as often, as the cat moves its tail. Which (probably) meant a lot.
Apart from meats and lard, all sorts of fried pastries were a staple at many households. 17th and 18th-century patisseries of Warsaw were said to produce the best pączki in the country. They were even delivered to the king Stanisław August Poniatowski’s residence on Fat Thursday. I wonder if it was due to the king’s liking for the sweet doughnuts or to his belief in superstitions. Some secrets remain unsolved, I suppose.
Kurier Warszawski (Warsaw’s Courier), a local newspaper of the time, published an article on pączki in 1829, stating that Warsaw’s patisseries baked and sold 45 thousand pączki that year on Fat Thursday, and private households produced three times more than that for in-home consumption. Impressive much!
Fat Thursday is one of the traditions that survived almost unchanged to our times. Poland’s love for pączki seems to be unswerving: every year people queue up for pączki at bakeries and patisseries in town. Pączki are eaten on the street, at schools, in the offices, at home, on the bus, on the train. People forget about the dietary recommendations and indulge in the national devouring of this delicious, luscious treat. Refusing to eat at least one on Fat Thursday is considered not only rude but also unlucky, as eating a pączek on Tłusty Czwartek is supposed to guarantee prosperity and luck for the coming months. No wonder then, that statistically speaking, an average Polish person eats two and a half pączki, which adds up to a whopping 100 million pączki eaten by the entire nation on one day.
Not many people decide to make them at home though, due to their rather wayward character. Often, only seasoned and experienced cooks feel confident enough to prepare them. The pączki preparation is not only a time-consuming task (about 4h in total), but also a patience-trying one, as pączki pastry doesn’t like cold, drafty kitchens, and requires 20 minutes of hand kneading. It should count as a workout session, don’t you think?
Nowadays, many patisseries in Poland cater to all kinds of diets, creating gluten-free, vegan, dairy-free and other kinds of paczki, making it possible for everyone, regardless of their dietary habits or restrictions, to have a pączek for good luck on Fat Thursday. And don’t think it’s an easy thing to make a vegan or gluten-free pączek, as the traditional recipe calls for fresh yeast, wheat flour, butter, sugar, egg yolks – and if that wasn’t enough, it should be fried in lard. I truly admire those who try to transform the pączek into a more egalitarian treat.
Have you had your Fat Thursday pączek yet? If you’re curious of how they taste or grew somehow worried about being unlucky if you don’t, indeed, have one today, head for your local Polish shop. I’m sure there are stacks of boxes filled with pączki, waiting to be devoured. But hurry! Polish appetite on Fat Thursday seems to have no end.