Let the Paczki Hunger Games begin!

(Note to readers: I wrote this a couple of weeks ago, just prior to the start of Lent, and posted it on my Facebook page. This technically should have prompted my return to the blog instead of the death of the dolphin, but it’s still worth a read, in my opinion.)

One of the big literary crazes of the 21st century is “The Hunger Games” a trilogy by Suzanne Collins, where a dozen poor districts would participate in a bloodsport sponsored by a lavishly rich capitol that put teenagers into a lottery where, if they were selected, had to fight each other to the death in a public arena. The survivor of the Hunger Games would win food and other supplies for his or her community.

For your review, I present to you an alternative to “The Hunger Games,” with a Wisconsin twist—a tale that sounds too wild to be true, but it is.

Somewhat.

My substitute yarn is “The Paczki Hunger Games.” What is a paczki, you ask? Sit through the story, and I’ll explain it to you, but first I must pause my writing and figure out why the spellcheck on my computer did not flag the word “paczki,” as I figured it would have treated it like it does my last name, as a foreign and alien word that cannot be real.

I digress. What was I talking about? Oh, yes! Paczkis!

Every year on Fat Tuesday, there is a village in Shawano County named Pulaski (Yes, it’s my name, too), where a little bakery puts out paczkis like a broken candy machine, with thousands of people ordering the Polish donuts to feast on before Lent arrives and they must abstain from sinful pleasures. I had never been down there when they had the big Paczki Day, so I figured I’d go and experience it myself, since other co-workers had, in previous years, brought paczkis in for the day.

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The winner’s spoils, delicious paczkis on Fat Tuesday. Read on to find out how the Paczki Hunger Games was won.

What those co-workers, hereafter referred to as soulless bastards, neglected to mention was that this day is so popular that there is a huge line of people waiting to order them. I finished up with work around one o’clock and made the leisurely twenty-minute drive out there. I step inside and see at least a hundred or more people standing in the tiny bakery.

As I scanned the room to see where the line began, people on both sides of me immediately pointed out that I would need to walk in the middle of the serpentine line, which I later bestowed the name Gauntlet of Broken Dreams, and position myself just past the register. At least a dozen people were facing the back wall, and that is where my journey began.

It was slow going at first, as I noticed there were three registers, at least five or six clerks rushing to and fro to fill orders, and the line did not seem to be moving. When it did move, though, it seemed to do so in spurts, like the bakery had expelled several customers at once from its walls, and you moved several paces ahead.

It was like a huge victory had been achieved once I made the first turn and was now facing the front of the bakery. Although it meant the journey was nowhere near over, at least I could see some freaking daylight.

A few more paces ahead, and I noticed to my left was a restroom. It was a single toilet and unisex. It was the only one in the building. I had to wonder if the person who built the building ever realized that one day it would be a bakery where, at least for one day a year, hordes of people would stand in line to taste sinfully delicious donuts. I don’t think he did, because he surely would have expanded the number of toilets in the place. Then again, not many people were using the facilities, probably for fear they’d permanently lose their place in line.

As I stood in line, I overheard a man several people back comment to his companions that this long line was tradition, hearkening back to the days when poor Polish families would wait in line, sometimes for days, to get a loaf of bread. While it was an interesting tale, it also prompted me to start chatting with those around me, as it would certainly pass the time more quickly than standing quietly and muttering, “Why the hell isn’t this line going anywhere? I could get Star Wars movie tickets faster than this!”

A few more paces along and I arrived at a table with other baked goods – puppy chow and cookies and other goodies. I questioned at the time how many of those other items were actually selling when everyone’s sights were set on paczkis? Later on, I saw a large man with a thick, red beard holding a basket with two loaves of bread and a number of other baked goods, so I guess some other things sold, after all.

Turning the next corner meant arriving at some booths in the foyer, which meant I could finally sit for a spell. By this time, I’d been in line for over an hour, and I was eager to take some of the pressure off my poor feet. I couldn’t imagine living like those poor Polish families of days gone by, standing for days for scraps of food. Come to think of it, this extended wait wasn’t so bad, and I was determined to see it through.

At one point in line, I glanced outside and noticed the electronic sign for the bakery reading “Get your paczkis now!” That seemed a little misleading. When I think “now,” I think of no waiting. Walk in, get your goodies, hand them the money and get out in under five minutes. That was not the case today.

A few more paces along, I heard a comedian performing his shtick on some guy’s phone. I couldn’t help but feel sorry for the guy, as he wasn’t talking with anybody else, preferring to be left in a numbing netherworld of entertainment. As for me, I was having a good time talking to other people in line. That was how I found out that it probably would not have done any good to pre-order paczkis anyway, because those were made the day before and would not be fresh.

After about another half-hour in line, I looked outside to the parking lot and saw an oversized pickup with demolition derby tires and a fleeting disregard for speed limits roar into the parking lot, almost running into another vehicle pulling out. The pickup driver made several attempts to pull into a teeny, tiny parking spot, like trying to thread a needle. Finally, success.

The pickup driver stepped out of his vehicle and waited for his friends to get out of the other side. His back was facing the bakery, and the lady behind me noticed his pants were sagging gangsta style, like maybe he’d spent all his money on his huge truck and didn’t have any left over to afford a belt.

I guess I didn’t laugh quickly enough to the lady’s remark, because she looked concerned that I didn’t find it funny. Then she proceeded to lift up my coat and check to see if my pants were in the same position as his. They weren’t, but I was slightly amused at the audacity of a woman whom I’d only been chatting with for a short time taking such liberties. I wondered what my boyfriend would think of what she did. Would that be considered cheating?

The gangsta driver with the truck that seemed to be compensating for a possible tiny sex organ walked in the bakery with his two friends, and a few minutes later walked back out again, apparently not willing to wait for delicious paczkis. I wondered how he planned to back out of his tight parking space without scraping paint off of neighboring vehicles, but as it turned out, he decided to drive forward, over the sidewalk and onto the street again before peeling out.

A few more paces ahead, I overheard a woman comment to her friends that she was halfway tempted to stop the next customer leaving the bakery with paczkis and offer one hundred dollars for the donuts just so she could get out of the line. I don’t think anyone would have taken her up on the offer, as the money probably would not compensate for having to get back in line again for hours and reorder.

Before long, my place in line reached the entrance to the bakery. I was now in the role of the hall monitor, pointing out to new customers where the line began. Many of them looked crestfallen, like they’d just entered the ninth circle of hell. I imagine that’s the look I had when I first arrived, and I couldn’t help but feel a little bit of satisfaction that I was spreading the misery around.

A few minutes later, the line had moved enough to put me on the other side of the entrance. The bakery counter was in sight once again, and it felt like there was only a little more patience needed to get my hands on some sweet treats.

By now, two hours had passed, and I, like others in line around me, were getting punch-drunk. We started joking about bizarre things we could say to the clerks once we finally made it to the counter. I suggested ordering five hundred paczkis and watching as a little pool of urine formed at the feet of the unfortunately clerk who would serve me. Another man suggested getting to the counter and acting like he’d forgotten what he was there to order. It was probably the nightmare of every person who ever worked in customer service to encounter people like us.

Another couple of paces yielded another table with baked goods covering it. This one had pies, but it also had pre-packaged paczkis in four-packs with different flavors. I couldn’t help but feel a little insulted. I’d been waiting in line longer than most people would be willing to, and damnit, I was going to get some fresh paczkis and make some clerk give me some good customer service!

Before I tell you about reaching the “finish line,” so to speak, I should probably tell you why paczkis are so desired in this neck of the woods. They’re similar to German Berliners or North American Bismarcks, but with some subtle nuances. A small amount of grain alcohol is added to the dough before cooking to help prevent the absorption of the oils deep into the dough. Ideally, paczkis are fluffy and at the same time a bit collapsed, with a bright stripe around – it is supposed to guarantee that the dough was fried in fresh oil.

The dough for paczkis is especially rich, made from eggs, fats, sugar, yeast and sometimes milk. They can be glazed or covered with powdered or granulated sugar. The paczkis I bought had granulated sugar covering them, and now that I’ve told you about how sweet my prizes were, it’s time to finish the tale of how I claimed them.

I finally made it to the front counter, and as I started to give the waifish looking young teenager my order, she started looking around frantically. She asked her fellow clerks where some paper was, and I couldn’t help wondering why she hadn’t looked for it prior to asking for the next customer (me) to come forward. After a couple of minutes searching, she finally found some and took care of my order.

Success! I had a half-dozen paczkis in my hot little hands, and half the people in the bakery could have offered themselves as tribute at that point, but they were not getting their paws on what I had waited two hours and fifteen minutes for. If you’ve ever had a paczki, you’d agree they’re worth standing in line for.

I quickly left the bakery and hopped into my car to head for home, having survived my first “Paczki Hunger Games.” I didn’t have to shoot anyone with an arrow, and although I wondered at some moments whether the Angel of Death might need to come in and claim a couple of elderly folks whose time had run out, nobody died in the pursuit of paczkis.

Suzanne Collins, eat your heart out, and then have a paczki for dessert.

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