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Wednesday, Oct. 24, 2007 11:34 am

Polish pleasures

Bobak’s is big in Chicago, but it’s just the tip of the iceberg

Untitled Document I’ve been in Chicago so often lately that I’ve left my travel satchel on our dining table. Reasons for the trips varied: music, theater, work, and even a day trip to O’Hare to collect my daughter’s cat, which had been flown in from New Zealand. In between there’ve been meals at wonderful restaurants — some old favorites, others new discoveries. Some of the best, as always, were small ethnic joints whose delicious food is as wonderful as their low prices.
All the trips were short and tightly scheduled, so there wasn’t time for leisurely shopping, but whenever I go to Chicago — or St. Louis or New York, for that matter — I usually have a food-shopping agenda: specialties I can’t find locally. I’d swung into the Super H Mart in Niles, a mind-boggling Korean megastore close to O’Hare, visited a Pastorale artisanal-cheese shop, and stopped by a wholesale fish market where retail customers pick out and bag their selections with plastic gloves, pay for them, and hand them to fishmongers who will debone and cut them if the buyer desires. Shoppers then scoop crushed ice from huge mounds into bags to keep their purchases fresh. It wasn’t until my last trip, though, that I was able to get to Bobak’s, nicknamed by my family “the Polish Superstore.” It was a priority: My husband had been imploring me to bring home some of their fantastic Maxwell Street Polish sausage. For years I’d driven past the Bobak’s billboard by the Cicero Avenue exit on I-55 but never been tempted. (Has there ever been a billboard depiction of meat that’s appealing?) After hearing about the Bobak Sausage Co. from several sources, though, I went and have been returning ever since. Bobak’s is located at 5275 Archer Ave., a stone’s throw from I-55 and Midway Airport. From the outside it looks like any other good-size American grocery. At first glance, the inside seems that way, too — shopping carts, checkout lanes with refrigerated beverages in front. Then the details hit: The newspapers are in Polish, as are the magazines and bulletin-board notices. Usually everyone is speaking Polish — the checkers, the customers, and the workers behind the deli counter. (It’s not intimidating, though; everyone also speaks English.) Ah, the deli counter. Stretching nearly the length of the store, it offers a jaw-dropping selection, and almost everything is made on site. There are hundreds — and I mean hundreds — of items: several different kinds of bacon, including deeply smoky and flavorful hunter bacon; four or five varieties of wieners; multiple kinds and cuts of hams; and a truly bewildering assortment of cold cuts and sausages. There are barrels of pickles and sauerkraut, as well as refrigerated cases holding salads, soups, and other prepared dishes, plus shelves bearing condiments; pickled mushrooms, beets, and other vegetables; and breads and pastries. Bobak’s opened in 1967. It’s been named the Best Deli by Chicago magazine and featured on the Best Of Food Network series. In 1998 a buffet restaurant was attached. I’ve never eaten in the restaurant, but I will eventually; it’s gotten excellent reviews in Time Out Chicago, and the ingredients come from next door, so it’s a sure bet that the food’s good. Bobak’s has a large presence in Chicago, but it’s only the tip of the Polish iceberg. The Maxwell Street Polish sausage, one of Chicago’s signature foods, is a legacy of Poles’ part — both Jewish and Gentile — in establishing the legendary Maxwell Street Market.  The “Polish Corridor” had long been a route of invasion for Germany and Russia, as well as Austria, all of whom have taken over parts of Poland in their quest for supremacy. Beginning in the 1850s, Poles fleeing the resultant chaos migrated to Chicago in massive waves. By the 1930s, the Poles were the largest ethnic group in Chicago, and the city remains home to the largest concentration of Poles outside Poland. Though originally concentrated in neighborhoods, eventually they spread into the suburbs and around the city, as did other ethnic Chicagoans. The Chicago Polish community, known as Polonia, retains its strong identity, though. Anyone who Googles “Polish Chicago” will find multiple Web sites covering Polish history, current events, restaurants (one site lists 48), schools, businesses (including many smaller butcher/sausage shops), doctors, and even job candidates. Here in Springfield, the Prairie State Polish Club was founded in 1986 by a group of Polish-Americans to celebrate their heritage and culture, says former president Anne Andrews. They’ve held events, published a cookbook, and made bus trips to Polish neighborhoods in Chicago. The group originally numbered about 100, though it’s smaller these days. Anne Andrews is Polish by marriage. The British-born nurse met her husband, Boleslaw Wietcnty Andrezejewski, at a dance in Manchester, England, after the end of World War II. Andrezejewski, who changed his name to Edward Andrews after emigrating to the U.S. with his wife and infant son in 1954, was one of many Poles caught in the crossfire during the 1939 Nazi invasion of Poland. Son of a Polish father and a German mother, he was 15 at the time of the invasion. His wartime experience is dramatic: Arrested and sent to the Mauthausen concentration camp, he escaped with two officers, one Russian and one Polish, and eventually joined the Polish Free Army in Italy, fighting with them at the legendary Allied victory at Monte Cassino. I’ve enjoyed Bobak’s Maxwell Street Polish sausage for a long time without thinking much about it, but I’ll savor my next one even more, remembering the history of Poles in Chicago and the courage of Ed Andrews.

Send questions and comments to Julianne Glatz at realcuisine@insightbb.com.
Kielbasa w Polskim Sosie
From Favorite Polish Recipes, compiled by the Prairie State Polish Club

Two onions, sliced 3 tablespoons butter 1 1/2 pounds Polish sausage 1 1/2 cups beef bouillon or meat broth 12 ounces beer 2 tablespoons flour 1 tablespoon vinegar 2 teaspoons brown sugar 3/4 teaspoon salt 1/4 teaspoon pepper Four to six boiled potatoes
SautО onion in 2 tablespoons butter until golden. Add sausage, bouillon, and beer. Simmer 20 minutes. Blend flour into remaining butter. Stir into broth. Add vinegar, brown sugar, salt, and pepper. Add potatoes. Cook over medium heat 10 to 15 minutes. Slice sausage into 2-inch chunks to serve four to six servings
Kolacky Anne Andrews makes these cookies every Christmas. 

1 cup butter, room temperature One package (8 ounces) cream cheese, room    temperature 1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract 2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour 1/2 teaspoon salt Thick jam or canned fruit filling such as apricot or prune
Cream butter and cream cheese until fluffy. Beat in vanilla extract. Combine flour and salt; add in fourths to butter mixture, blending well after each addition. Chill dough until easy to handle. Roll dough to 3/8-inch thickness on a floured surface. Cut out 2-inch circles or other shapes. Place on ungreased baking sheets. Make a “thumbprint” about 1/4 inch deep in each. Fill with jam. Bake at 350 degrees for 10 to 15 minutes or until delicately browned on the edges. Makes about three-and-a-half dozen.
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