If You Were Starving You’d Eat It

How Polish Food Became French Cuisine


“If you were starving you’d eat it,” my mother, the most adventurous eater and cook of all time, would say to me when I turned up my childish nose at just about everything she prepared. I would spend the meal picking out tiny pieces of onion from her meatloaf or trimming every speck of visible fat from a slice of ham. I did not particularly like my grandmother’s Polish cooking either, so she pampered me by serving what I asked for, such as dry tuna on white bread, or by giving me the filling in her stuffed cabbage and eating the cabbage herself.

Until I started trying to make up for my picky-eater childhood by preparing all the Polish dishes that Babcia, my Polish grandmother, used to make and I refused to eat, I did not realize that the French language was not the only thing Polish royalty adopted; there was also French food. Equally unknown to me were the French gourmands Henryk Babinski and Edouard de Pomiane (born Edward Pozerski), renowned culinary writers of Polish origin who introduced numerous Polish traditional dishes into French cookery.

At 51 rue Montorgueil in the second arrondissement, along the most exquisite food street in all of Paris, is a pastry shop called Stohrer. It is the oldest in Paris and the best of over a thousand pastry shops in the City of Lights, opened in 1730 by Nicolas Stohrer, pastry chef for Louis XV of France and his wife Marie Leszczyńska, daughter of King Stanislas I of Poland. Stohrer apprenticed in the kitchens of Stanislas, who was then in exile at Wissembourg in northeastern France. Stohrer became pastry maker for Marie and followed her in 1725 to Versailles after her marriage to King Louis XV of France. In Stohrer’s bakery, desserts were invented for the king’s court, and they are still prepared in the shop some three hundred years later.

A visit to Stohrer yields almost enough wonders to discourage me from cooking in Paris: perfect croissants, tarts and quiches, pâtés, and breads. One small tomato tart with just the right amount of just the right cheese on the perfect flaky crust was the best lunch I had on my last visit to Paris.

I remember when my mother and I took our tour guide Basia to dinner in food-deprived communist Poland. Basia was thrilled when we took her to the Forum hotel and urged her to order anything she wanted. For us, the menu prices were an eye-popping bargain. We all had chateaubriand, Basia’s idea of heaven. So was her appetizer of steak tartare, seasoned raw beef into which she whipped a raw egg. We watched her eat it, stunned, while she licked her chops.

A popular dish in Poland, Chateaubriand is made from a sirloin cut of beef and served with a reduced sauce prepared with white wine and shallots and flavored with butter, tarragon, and lemon juice. It was created by his personal chef for Vicomte François-René de Chateaubriand, a diplomat for Napoleon Bonaparte. The high quality of the cattle bred near Châteaubriant in the Loire-Atlantique in France, contributed to the dish’s fame. A writer as well as a statesman, Chateaubriand was a precursor of the romantic movement that drew many Polish artists and writers to France in the eighteenth century.

Sitting in Paris with friends at Relais de l’Entrecôte, the French version of a steak house, I am struck by the simplicity of the menu. They do steak, fries, and salad. That’s it. There’s a great sauce that goes on the beef cutlet, but that’s all they serve. Oh, and wine and dessert. This is in many ways a typical Polish meal, but substitute vodka for the wine: A pork or chicken cutlet, potatoes, and a vegetable.

Published in 1958, my oldest Polish cookbook, Polish Cookery by Marja Ochorowicz-Monatowa, has always been for me a place to check to see if I have all the right ingredients for the standard Polish dishes my grandmother taught me to make—stuffed cabbages, borsch, pierogi. I have always ignored ninety percent of the content because it seemed too weird—calf brains, stewed kidneys, carp in aspic—but lately I have begun to notice something strangely French in this old book.

For example: “Fillet Steak French-Style.” To make it, brush four one-inch thick tenderloin filets with olive oil, pile them on top of one another, and allow them to stand for two or three hours. Salt and pepper the filets and broil them under very high heat for five minutes more or less per side. Garnish them with “Maître d’Hôtel” sauce made with butter, parsley or dill, lemon juice and salt. Olive oil? Lemon juice? In Poland? And these recipes, says the author, “have been the favorites of generations of Poles.” Perhaps at court, but the peasant version would have to have been made with lard and vinegar.

Apple Charlotte (or Szarlotka) is my favorite Polish dessert and probably the most popular (after the Napoleon, the origins of which seem to have more to do with Naples than the emperor). The Charlotte, however, seems clearly of French origin. In fact, in season five of her television show The French Chef, Julia Child, demonstrated how to make this simple fruit delight. It is made with slices of bread in Julia’s books and in my old Polish cookbook as well; the recipes are similar. Nowadays, however, the Szarlotka you buy—whether in Hamtramck or Warsaw or Paris—tends to be a much-easier-to-make three-layer sheet pie with frosting on top.

One of the Polish foods that I’ve always found thoroughly unappetizing is cold meat or fish in aspic (or gelareta). When I was a child, my godmother was always trying to get this picky eater to try head cheese. The very sight of it nauseated me. Turns out this is another French culinary invention. Jellied foods were not entirely unknown in the Middle Ages, but it was not until the early 19th century that chaud froid got class in France. Chaud froid means “hot cold” in French, referring to foods that were prepared hot and served cold. Poultry or fish is captured in a hot sauce, then served cold in aspic. The sauce added moisture and flavor to the food. The gelatinous aspic holds meats together and prevents them from spoiling. It has also kept me away and prevented me from understanding why people still eat it.

My old Polish cookbook also features a “Chaud-Froid of Thrushes.” The recipe calls for eighteen thrushes (“or any small game birds will do”). It also calls for calf liver, veal, pork, salt pork or bacon fat, mushrooms, onions and seasoning of bay leaf, peppercorns, juniper berries, boullion, Madeira, olive oil, watercress, salt and pepper, and a casserole dish lined with bacon and vegetables. (Watercress? That’s what it says.) The hours of effort required to put this all together yield a pâté as exotic as any I’ve seen for sale on rue Montorgueil in Paris. The old cookbook also demonstrates that old Polish and French cooking once involved a great deal of game–boar, rabbit, deer–as well as horse.

Among the other delights in my old Polish cookbook are mayonnaise and Béchamel sauce, which is considered the mother of sauces in French cuisine and is used as the base for other sauces such as Mornay sauce, Béchamel with cheese. Mayonnaise, is used in many Polish salads, especially those made with cold cooked vegetables such as potatoes, celery root, peas, and beans. Polish soups are always delicious and served as a first course, a practice introduced by the French.

Most surprising to me is a large section on preparing food “in the French style,” from beans to dumplings to pastries, followed by recipes for hare, frog legs, and snails. When I lived in Poland for several months, one of my hosts, a marvelous cook and health food addict was working in the garden one day and I went out to help her. She had stopped hoeing to watch an enormous snail slithering slowly down a set of cement stairs. We both stared in fascination and disgust at the slimy critter’s determination. Finally Jadwiga said to me, “And to think, in France they eat those things.”

Whenever I am back in my Paris apartment, happily mixing newfound French ingredients with my basic Polish techniques, I like to serve dinner on the tulips-and-roses plates I found in the trash on rue Saint Sauveur and in the Polish soup bowls I bought at a flea market in Szczebrzeszyn, decorated with 18th-century romantic scenes in miniature. The ideal French-Polish table setting!

Harriet Welty Rochefort, author of French Toast and French Fried, talks about being an American expat trying to adjust to French sensibilities, a French husband, and, as it turned out, French children. She observes that adjusting to life in France has been a fascinating journey, especially learning that there is a huge difference between the American idea of “eating” and the French art of “dining.” For everyday Poles living in Paris today, it is the difference between eating to live and living to eat. Vive la différence!

At the Brasserie Metz, an hour and a half from Paris by train, I see for myself Harriet Rochefort’s theories at work. Waiters dressed in black-and-white scurry about the art nouveau palace attending to tablecloths and glasses and silverware and cups and glasses and clanking chrome wine coolers. Men and women in professional clothes munch and converse or read alone. An elaborate menu includes such offerings as a veal head and tongue concoction. The waiter arrives at my table and removes extraneous dishes and silverware that were placed there for show. Many minutes later, arrives the first piece of actual food: two plain, dry buns; fifteen minutes into the ceremony, a neighboring diner is presented with an elaborate plate of ice upon which rest six gargantuan oysters on the half shell.

My order turns out to be a modest slice of quiche with a slight salad decorated with a drizzle of balsamic vinegar swirled to the side of the plate. A small bottle of Vittel mineral water appears. No coffee yet, and surely no endless refills from a waitress calling me “hon.” There’s wood everywhere, on every wall, every booth, but the topper is a strange chandelier that must remember World War II.

This is all a prelude to visits to the municipal archives and the archives of Moselle, where I gain new tidbits of information about my search for my long-lost Polish uncles in France. At the municipal archives in Metz, the archivist struggles with my high school French in her high school English. The conversation is quite delightful, and we do rather well. She presents me with a fascinating set of documents related to the immigration of Poles to the coal mining regions of France, fragile meticulously recorded lists and details of origin. I am looking for Bryszkiewski, but just when I think I am getting close, the list moves from Brysz to Bublitz. Oddly enough, Monsieur Bublitz is from Thorn, which I recognize as the German name for Torun, where I spent many happy days in 2000 successfully tracking down my family in Poland.

The Moselle archive turns out to be equally disappointing, but it is also full of records of Polish immigration to France, mixed with Italians and Russians and Belgians, all of whom seem to have flocked to this region for economic opportunity. Complimented on his excellent English, the archivist replies, “That is beside the point,” and moves into his explanation of how the file retrieval system works. Which brings me to a lesson in Obsequiousness 101. Three strikes and I am out. Twice before I tried to compliment people in Metz by praising them, and three times it has been met with a complete thud, if not utter contempt. Time number one, to the hotel desk clerk: “This is a beautiful hotel.” Reply: “Why would you think it would not be a beautiful hotel?” Time number two, to the young man in the tourist information center: “Metz is a beautiful city.” Reply: “What made you think it would not be a beautiful city?”

In Pierogi Love: New Takes on an Old-World Comfort Food (and a new take on the Supremes song “Baby Love”), chef Casey Barber says, “I’m rescuing the pierogi from its purgatory in fluorescent-lit, wood-paneled community halls and church basements and bringing it into the modern world.” That world includes recipes for “Crab Cake Pierogies with Goat Cheese Remoulade” and “French Onion Soup Dumpling Pierogies,” with little regard for the grammatical fact that in Polish pierogi is the plural version of pierog. Barber has decided that pierogi is now an English word, the plural of which is pierogies.

A personal chronicle of exile from communist Poland, At Hanka’s Table by Hanka Sawka contains a chapter titled “Pompidou, Paris, and Poverty” wherein the author says, “King Stanislaw August Poniatowski took a great liking to the light French cuisine during his youth, when he frequented Paris and its intellectual circles…. The king tapped into the intellectual life of his country, while also setting an example for others by cultivating the salon tradition, offering a mixture of French and Polish food, and by not drinking any alcohol.” How he managed to exist in France without drinking French wine will forever remain a mystery to me.
Taken from a memoir in progress tentatively titled Napoleon’s Polish Son: Travels Without My Father.

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