The clock counts down as the crowd goes wild. A row of competitors push toward the finish line. It’s not a bike race or a 5k. It’s a pączki-eating contest. Every Mardi Gras, from Tappan, New York, to Hamtramck, Michigan, these fried, sugar-dusted fluffs of pastry have become an occasion for celebrating pre-Lent excess, Polish culture, and of course, gastronomic athleticism.
Golden-brown with a characteristic light ring around the middle, these yeast-risen doughnuts are deep fried and covered with powdered sugar or fried orange zest. They were first made by Polish people using up the last of the sugar, lard, and fruit in the house before the austerity of Lent. In Poland, they’re filled with rose petal, prune jam, and even fried rose buds, and are eaten on Fat Thursday (the Thursday before Lent) as part of the zapusty, or “carnival season.” These pre-Lent festivities continue to the present day, and bakeries making pączki are known to be the site of hours-long lines on Fat Thursday.
Pączki immigrated to the United States alongside their Polish creators and became ubiquitous in Polish communities on the Eastern seaboard and in the Midwest. In the United States, they’re eaten on Fat Tuesday (Mardi Gras), the day before Lent begins. While some pączki are filled with the traditional rose and prune, they’ve also become a vehicle for more inventive fillings, ranging from banana cream to charred rosemary.
They’ve also become a vehicle for some serious celebration. Fat Tuesday has officially been dubbed “Pączki Day” in Hamtramck and Chicago. Celebrations in Hamtramck include beer, music, dancing mascots in Pączki costumes, and of course, the annual pączki-eating contest. Meanwhile, Chicago bakers estimate that they sell tens of thousands of the fried treat each day between Fat Thursday and Fat Tuesday every year.
While your average Chicagoan has no problem eating a pączki or 12, they disagree on how exactly to pronounce the beguiling bread’s name. For the record, pączki is the plural form of the singular, pączek, and the proper pronunciation is “pownch-key,” though “delicious” works just fine.
Where to Try It
Old Poland Bakery & Restaurant190 Nassau Avenue, Brooklyn, 11222, United States of America
New Palace Bakery9833 Joseph Campau Street, Hamtramck, 48212, United States of America