It must be jelly, 'cause...

Pączki, pronounced "Poonch-key" is the name of the famous Polish jelly doughnuts. It's so good that it makes you want to go-nuts!

When I was a boy in high school being shaped up by the Jesuits my cousin Kenny moved from Harper Woods, Michigan to Orange County, California. He was henceforth known as the "California Kid;" so dubbed by our Uncle Phil. (Kenny currently lives near Orange County so the experience must have been formative.)

Uncle Phil was a baker; in fact, he owned and operated a few Polish bakeries in the Detroit area at one point in time. I was a rather shy kid and I remember his withering greeting. He was missing the first to joints on his right index finger. How this happened I never learned. When I came by his home to visit he would invariably shake my hand and rub the stump into my palm. It was a soul draining experience. I'm sure he meant nothing by it except to tease me. I'm glad he stopped there and didn't give me a goosing for good measure.

Uncle Phil had a wicked sense of humor. At our summer cottage a fly once found its way into my ear. Phil quipped, "it probably went out the other side." On another occasion, I had persuaded my folks to buy me a pop gun, the double barreled kind that shoots corks.  I went with my mother to the Dime Store to buy it. I was attempting to show her how it worked. The gun had to be cocked by breaking at the breach. The spring action was very tight; and, as I struggled to cock it, it slipped my grasp and caught me in my little private personal part. Ouch! The store was a few blocks away from Phil's Northtown Bakery and I was taken there first before going to the hospital. Uncle Phil grinningly speculated that it might have to be cut off. Tough love. Later, at the hospital, that prospect was all I could think about. Imagine this little innocent boy nervously asking the doctor if it was going to be cut off. Phil!!!

Years later as a young man I visited with him and we had some real conversations. He was a good, hardworking man. Phil spent most of his time working hard in his bakery, cigar butt clenched firmly in his teeth as he kneaded dough. He became quite well to do, living in a beautiful house on Lakeshore Drive in Grosse Pointe Farms, Michigan, just down the road from HFII (that's Henry Ford II, of automotive fame).

His wife Genevieve was my father's sister.  Aunt Gene was so beautiful in every way. Always most kind to me, kind in reverse proportion to Phil. She is the only human being who was allowed to call me Davey. (RIP Aunt Gene, 2014.) To all others, it's David, if you please. They had a badminton court in their back yard and I loved to go there to play. Also, to go across the street to the Farms Pier to swim in Lake St. Clair during the summer; to skate on the frozen lake in the cold Michigan winters.

I vividly remember one time I was invited for lunch. They had these trendy colorful anodized aluminum tumblers. I got a nice ice cold lemonade. Trouble was, it tasted like 50% dishwashing liquid. Big time. Tact and timidity prevented me from pointing that out. Years later I now surmise that dear cousin Marlene put that mickey in my drink. Marlene!!! A chip off the old block? Well, later I evened the score. Once we went to the beach for a swim and Marlene was going into the water just ahead of me. I was the first to notice that her one piece bathing suit was not zipped up. Wicked little Davey starts running after her, yelling at the top of his voice, "Marlene, Marlene, get into the water, quick!" Everyone on the beach was put on notice. Marlene was embarrassed, of course. (As planned.) She admonished me that I could have been a little more discreet to tell her. She never suspected that I did it on purpose. Hah! How's that for quick on the feet?

But, I also remember Marlene was the one who took me aside one day to teach me the gentlemanly art of opening a door for a lady and helping with a seat. Also, how to dance the au courant Chicken. Thank you, Marlene! But... gotchya!

When cousin Kenny left for California his job at the bakery came open and I stepped in. Every Friday afternoon after school I would go directly to the bakery, arriving at around 4:30 PM working through the night until 6:30 AM. I would take a half hour meal break at around midnight. My job was to assist the other bakers in preparing many of the baked goods for the big Saturday sales day. This schedule was particularly gruesome during the summer school recess period. I learned about the blues going on the bus to the bakery on those hot, humid summer Friday's.

After arriving and putting on an apron my first task was to peel a half dozen large Bermuda onions and chop them fine in an empty 5 gallon can (the kind that fruit fillings came packed in bulk) with a dull table scraper. I would season the chopped onions with salt and poppy seeds. This was the topping for the onion buns. They were great fresh; hard as rocks the next day. I was allowed to do this job pretty much unsupervised and was impressed that they would entrust the blending to me. They were keeping an eye on me though; once I put in too much salt and was admonished to ease up.

All this time the bakers were kneading dough into individual loaves. Uncle Iggy (he wasn't my uncle, he was Ken's; but I called him that anyway) was a stone serious tool of a man. He had a gray color about him. Austere. I assisted him in moving various rolls and loaves to the proofing trays (which Uncle John, Ken's father, had made special for the purpose — he was a carpenter by trade). Iggy was quite adept at making kaiser rolls and seemed to keep the knack of twisting the dough coil into the right shape a secret from me. He did, however, attempt to teach me how to cut the slashes in the french loaves. I seemed to always cut too deep and he would bluster and fume in his exasperation with my lack of skill. I don't know if I was a good student, but I know that you don't encourage learning by highlighting the student's ignorance. May he rest in peace.

Then I had to help my Uncle Zawodski (that was his last name and that's the name he was known by, "Zawodski") load the large oven with hundreds of loaves of bread. He was a short robust man, and bald. Think Mr. Clean. He had forearms the size of hams; very strong. He also lived in Grosse Pointe (there's money in bread) and took great pride in his lawn. It was manicured like a world class putting green. He had a special mower, the kind used to trim putting greens. It was very hard device to push, and he would trim all the edges by hand on his hands and knees. Polish folks are known as hard workers. All his bushes were trimmed in a simple geometric topiary style; just so. There were deer on the lawn and a gazing ball on a concrete pedestal. Wow!

When the bread was ready to come out of the oven my job was to stand to the side at a large wood top table. Zawodski would shovel about 8 loaves at a time from his peel onto the table. That peel must have had a 10 foot handle, long enough to reach to the back of the oven. You learned right away that you couldn't stand behind the baker when the bread was coming out of the oven. It went so fast that handle must have been moving at 80 mph. I had a few near misses. My job in assisting with the finished loaves was to brush some of the tops with a corn starch and water solution. This would glaze the crust and give it a little crispy, crackly texture. Then with thick heat proof gloves I would stack the loaves onto wire racks to cool.

It seemed that most of the bread was Rye. Plain and Seeded. The latter was called Russian Rye, loaded with caraway seeds. There were an assortment of White Breads: French style hand shaped, some baked in in pans with round tops, and some Pullman style baked with a heavy cover on top to make a square slice. There were also the Challahs. These were in one, two, and three pound loaves. This bread is braided from three dough coils. The dough itself was rich in egg yolks which were delivered to the bakery in 5 gallon tins. My job around this item was to open a tin of egg yolks, stir it up, and brush the proofed loaves gently (Iggy would flip if I pressed too hard.) The smell and sight of hundreds of fresh egg yolks at around midnight would make me woozy. It was stomach wrenching. Some loaves were also covered with a streusel topping. The bakers pronounced it "strizzle." Never knew the correct term until years later. It was also a mystery what it was made of— tasted mildly sweet, crumbly, with a buttery orange note. Music to your taste buds, anyway.

A vivid memory was when my brother's first child, Christopher, was born and my dad stopped by the bakery in the middle of the night to tell me. I was particularly impressed that he took the trouble to come over to tell me personally.

The other bread that I would be remiss to not mention is the behemoth, the Godzilla of all breads, the 5 pound Russian Black Bread. It was black, man. This was sold by the pound. My job was to smear some stuff that resembled cement on the top just before it went into the oven. It made a nice crust. I was the pinochle of the baker's art.

The very last thing that I did before the end of my shift was to assist with the Pączki. In the back of bakery, behind the great oven, there was a large vat of oil heated to fry the doughnuts. My mentor for this procedure was one Mitchell Mazur. He was a dead ringer for Ely Wallach, and quite the jokester. From him I learned the answer to that age old puzzle, "how many wrinkles in a bull ass?" Trust me, you don't want to know. (Or, bend over and let me count.)

One time, to impress me I'm sure, he spit into the hot oil to test if it was ready. I knew that the heat would kill any untoward bacteria. But people did seem to smile after taking a bite of Mitchell's doughnuts, so maybe some of his jovial essence remained. When the Pączki were done on both sides (he used a stick to flip them over) he would lift 2 dozen at a time out with a wire rack previously set into the bottom of the vat. We must've made some 12 dozen in all. After the doughnuts were fried I would prepare a large bowl of sugar glaze, a bowl of granulated sugar, and a bowl of powdered sugar. Then I would load the jelly dispensers with 1) raspberry jelly, 2) prune butter (that's "povidla," pronounced "povidwa" in Polish — or also known as "lekvar") — my personal fave, and 3) custard — a close second preference. These contraptions could hold around 4-5 quarts of filling each. They had a plunger attached to a handle and a spigot at the bottom.

I would take each still hot pączek, spike and load each one with the designated filling and toss them top side down into the appropriate sugar topping. This was a multiple challenge. First the doughnuts were still very hot. And, you had to handle them very delicately or they would scrunch up. Iggy had gone home by now but the mere thought of screwing up brought me eye to eye with wrathful Ignatz. The sugar glaze was also quite hot and it would cling to your fingers. Ow! Ooh! Ouch! Almost time to go home. My one satisfaction around this was that, since I myself like lots of filling in my Pączki, I gave every one of them an extra goose. There's an old Polish expression which reads best in the original; translated it goes, "making love is like making a Paczki." Think about it. (My personal cure for premature ejaculation was to conjure up an image of Uncle Iggy. "All night long," as the song goes.)

Now my uncle Phil was one to teach a kid the value of a dollar. This slave job of mine paid 75 cents an hour. Probably right for a kid in the year 1958. I worked diligently, and even felt a little guilty taking my meal break. After a while I asked for a raise. My next pay envelope had $11.90 instead of the usual $10.50. This increment was so small I approached Phil asking about my promised raise. His response, "I gave you one, 10 cents an hour." Well I didn't see how I was going to get my butt to Lake Shore Drive in Grosse Pointe at that rate. So I quit. Finally stood up for myself and to uncle Phil. Finger! I'll give you a finger!

(Soon after this parting of ways from the bakery my brother's friend Bob Orlowski graduated from law school and gave up his Saturday job at his Uncle Norb's butcher shop. I landed that spot and in a year was taking home $25 for a 12 hour day. But that's a whole nother story. Onward and upward, however.)

Not long ago I visited Detroit and looked up that old Northtown Bakery on East 7 Mile Road a few blocks west of Van Dyke. Still there, now owned by a Bulgarian gentleman. All the old fixtures were out in front. The Balkan style (I presume) merchandising of the new owner included cheap sneakers arranged in the glass cabinet — where they used to display cakes — soda pops, and a small assortment of what we shall leave described as "sundries." And an indescribable third world dinginess throughout. In back it was like a time capsule. Not much changed from when I walked out with my 85 cent an hour pay envelope. And that familiar dense greasy, buttery aroma of countless baked goods; the odor crammed over the years into every pore in the walls, floor, and ceiling.

I took one look around and exclaimed, "UNCLE!"

In 2013 we revisited the Nortown Bakery during a stay in Detroit. The same owner, only now very bitter about how the neighborhood had gone to hell. He wouldn't let us in the back for some pictures this time. He seemed to be wary that we would publish the scene of decrepitude in some newspaper. He did say the roof was falling in.

You can't go home again. Alas.

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