Of Doughnuts & Democrats

While the city of South Bend, Indiana might be most famous for the Fighting Irish, it’s in fact Polish culture that continues to be the region’s strongest Old World link.

Following the Civil War, the US experienced an industrial boom, particularly in the Great Lakes region. Railroads moved through Chicago, oil was refined into kerosene in Ohio, and Pittsburgh was very much the Steel City. With all of these pieces in place, the Studebaker brothers began manufacturing wagon wheels (and eventually automobiles) in South Bend.

The Studebaker company and countless other factories faced an overwhelming demand from an emerging American consumer class, which brought about a workers shortage that happily was resolved via the influx of Polish, Hungarian, Irish, Belgian and Italian immigrants–all of whom put their stamp on the region with local traditions that thrive to this day.

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Although the Polish community in the South Bend area has its share of seasonal and religious traditions, it’s upon the approach of the Easter season when the community’s distinct character is on full display. As most Polish immigrants to northern Indiana during that period were Catholic,  uniform Catholic practices like the Holy Days of Obligation,Stations of the Cross, and fish sandwich Fridays have since been visible throughout the region.

But above all, what separates the Polish community (which includes my family) from other Catholic immigrant groups are paczkis on Dyngus Day.

Paczkis are simple enough to describe–they are the delicious jelly filledPolish doughnut made specifically for Fat Tuesday, i.e. the day before Ash Wednesday. These decadent pastries have served as a last hurrah of indulgence before a more disciplined time during Lent.

Yet for as simple as it is to explain the paczki, the concept of Dyngus Dayis not quite so. Known as “watering day” in several parts of Eastern Europe, it is a holiday when the women of the house are woken up with a bucket of water to the face and chased with pussy willow branches.

However, for the Polish community in northern Indiana it means more than doughnuts–it involves sausage, beer…and incidentally, the start of the political season. Anyone from the area will let you know the only two places for real Polish sausage this side of Krakow are Eby’s andJaworski’s, both locally owned butcher shops founded by families who imported the tradition from their villages back in the old country.

And as it happens, the epicenter of Dyngus Day activities in South Bend is the West Side Democratic Club. Dyngus Day’s proximity to Indiana’s May Democratic primary election and the Polish community’s traditional loyalty to the Democratic Party make its festivities an attractive campaign destination for many high profile candidates. Speakers have included Robert KennedyPresident Bill Clinton, President Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.

While the club welcomes all comers, only Democrats get the microphone. So if you need a reason to extend the Easter weekend and are interested in politics, beer, and sausage, this year Dyngus Day falls on Monday, April 6–and South Bend is the place to be.