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Stirring the Pot: The Ultimate Treyf Food

May 2, 2012

We’ve launched a new food column in the current issue of Jewish Currents magazine, “Stirring the Pot.” This first installment is by Alice Greenwood about the Polish hunter’s stew called “bigos.”

by Alice Greenwood

Every year, on New Year’s Day, Mr. Keene made bigos, a Polish national dish. My family and their New York friends — all Polish Jewish refugees from the Holocaust, like Mr. Keene — would come to his home in Forest Hills, Queens, to eat his bigos, a stew made of kielbasa and pork and sauerkraut and wine and many other ingredients. For weeks he would cook it in his backyard in a big kettle which I thought was a garbage can, but probably couldn’t have been. For me as a child, it was a magical holiday. We would arrive at the Keenes’ house. It would be crowded. The bigos would be bottomless. It was wonderful. It was weird. It was only once a year. And it was surrounded by laughter and pleasure.

My mother grew up in Warsaw as an upper middle-class, assimilated Pole. Her father was “high in the government.” They lived next door to the Prince’s summer palace. She attended the gymnasium. They put up Christmas decorations, like all their neighbors. My mother never wanted to be confused with the yidn, Jews who lived in shtetls, spoke Yiddish, and were observant and not assimilated. This attitude came to a violent end when the Nazis dragged her father out of their posh apartment and shot him in the street because he was a Jew. My mother was thus viciously reminded that, assimilated or not, she was above all else Jewish, and that being Polish was reserved for the “other kind” — gentiles.

Ever a snob, once in America she divided up the Polish Jewish community into those who came from relatively rich, urban backgrounds like herself, whom she considered la crème of Polish society in New York City, and those who didn’t. She and her friends, although nominally Jewish, retained their assimilated ways: They ate pork (I always had ham-and-cheese sandwiches in my lunchbox), they knew no Yiddish and had some disdain for its speakers, and they did not go to synagogue. Although this group had suffered unspeakably because they were Jewish, they did not embrace Jewish life and customs. Rejected by Poland and hating the Polish gentiles, they nevertheless remained Polish. It was as if they saw practicing Jews through the eyes of their persecutors, as vulgar, unsophisticated, uncultured — all qualities with which my mother did not want to be associated.

Although my parents and their friends were driven from their country, they nonetheless created a miniature Warsaw in New York, speaking only Polish among themselves, socializing solely with other Polish Jews like themselves, rejecting American culture as vulgar, being suspicious of outsiders (anyone not from the same background), and retaining the culture and eating the foods of their youth. They never talked about their lives in Europe, never talked about the war, wanted me to be thoroughly American. They didn’t want me to know about their sadness; they said nothing about what really happened to them as they fled Nazi Europe; they never spoke of their losses; they didn’t look back. They didn’t want me to learn Polish. They didn’t want me to be “too” Jewish, whatever that meant. Of course I knew what that meant without ever being told: Don’t draw attention to yourself, don’t behave differently from anyone else, smile when told anti-Semitic jokes, be a good sport. When people heard my mother’s heavy Polish accent and asked where she was from, she always said, coyly, “West 86th Street.” I got it: not anyone’s business who she was or where she was from, what they didn’t know couldn’t hurt us.

All of these complex contradictions seemed entirely natural to me. Wasn’t everyone’s family full of secrets and losses and yearnings? In fact, as a child, I romanticized their experience. For me, being Jewish was a badge of honor: people got killed for it! I bravely wore a tiny golden Jewish star. Would my classmates beat me up?

Let’s get back to the bigos. When at 21 I brought my boyfriend-soon-to-be-husband to share New Year’s among this Polish community for the first time, I was afraid that it would seem very peculiar to him. What if he thought all the foreign carryings-on were too . . . well, foreign? It seemed to me that eating bigos among fifty vodka-drinking strangers was a test that he, as an outsider, had to pass.

When Bob was handed his very first plate of bigos, brown and steaming, and smelling of the forest, there was an actual hush in the room. How would he react? Would he love it? Would he be appalled, this young man who had hardly been anywhere other than New Jersey and whose mother thought canned peas a delicacy and Romaine lettuce a foreign food? One bite, with all eyes skewed in his direction . . . He loved it! He wolfed it down. He had no idea what he was eating. It was delicious. He asked for more. He passed the test. Would he like some vodka? Would he come again next year? Yes! Yes!

With the passing of time, we stopped going to Mr. Keene’s on New Year’s Day. My parents died. Mr. Keene died. My children grew up without ever hearing the word “bigos.” I thought I had left all that Polish history, fear, and bigotry behind me. Another time, another country. The family that I created with Bob was thoroughly American and proudly, secularly Jewish. We were part of a similar Jewish community. We never smiled at anti-Semitic jokes.

One day in the middle of winter I woke up missing my mother. Maybe because it was winter, and maybe because she was so thoroughly Polish, I found I wanted to make bigos and to have people around me eating it, with whom I might share why it was important to me. I called Doris, my oldest friend, whose parents were Viennese and Czech, and who had known my parents well, and asked her to come and eat bigos. She would be delighted, and she would make her grandmother’s Salzburger Nockerl for dessert. My friend Barbara said she would bake real Russian rye bread, the perfect accompaniment. Rob, whose grandparents were Polish (the other kind, not Jewish), would bring Polish vodka. We would have a party. We would recreate a bygone world. Was that even possible? With bigos?

I had to figure out how to make it. Did bigos really involve days in the backyard with a garbage can and a fire? Unlikely, and probably not a good idea in our suburban New Jersey town. I called Mrs. Keene, who thought she remembered how her husband had made it, but her recipe was unspecific in the maddening way that so many of the best passed-down recipes can be. “Cook a lot of onions until they look nice. Add some wine. Cook a long time.” So out came the cookbooks and the computer, and the search was on.

If you research bigos on the Internet, you learn quickly that it is the Polish national dish and that there are many versions of it. Bigos is also called “Hunter’s Stew” because the hunters could go into the woods for weeks and keep eating it; it never spoils. Some recipes say it is peasant food, others that it was only eaten by the Polish aristocracy because they were the only ones who could hunt game and afford a dish made of so much meat.

I also learned that bigos was traditionally served as a good-luck New Year’s dish. One recipe said cook for two hours, another suggested three days in a crock pot. All the recipes agreed that bigos gets better as it ages.

Although I found many recipes for bigos, none of them seemed to be Mr. Keene’s. Some had apples, some not. Most had mushrooms, some not. Hungarian paprika, caraway seeds? Hard to know. I wanted to experience what I remembered. Eventually I found a recipe that I thought duplicated what I had eaten as a child (see below).

Since kielbasa is a crucial ingredient, I knew that supermarket kielbasa wouldn’t do. I traveled to a small town in New Jersey with a large Polish (the other kind) population. In Harrison, there was a strip of Polish food stores. I ended up in one that had many sausages hanging in the window, many women shopping in the small, crowded store, and no English spoken in the transactions taking place across the counter. Undaunted, I said “kielbasa” and I said “bigos,” and I mimed confusion as to which kind of the many sausages on display would be appropriate.

In an instant, the women took over. The distinction between our kind of Pole and their kind vanished, and there were only Poles who made, ate, and loved bigos. A vigorous discussion (in Polish) began about the best kielbasa to use, or which combination, and every one of those women wanted me to know that her version was the authentic one and not to listen to anyone else. I wonder if my mother would have enjoyed that afternoon arguing the merits of various kielbasas with women who represented a group she had avoided and mistrusted most of her adult life. Could the war have been over for her, or at least brought to a truce? I bought whatever it was these women determined would be the best for me to buy, and went home to see if I could manage this meal.

I made the bigos. I hadn’t realized how entirely a dish it was, but of course I should have — it is the Polish national dish. It did not really take days but it did take several hours. The house smelled, well, Polish. The dinner was what it was designed to be — a way to remember, honor, celebrate, be nostalgic, wonder about the past, be with friends (not one of whom spoke Polish), and enjoy the exoticness of this unusual (to Americans) dish. With the bigos, I found myself able to bring my past into my present, just as my parents had done in so many parts of their lives.

When Bob and I eventually visited Poland in 1997, we asked the hotel concierge to recommend a place for authentic bigos. I wanted the real thing, finally. He refused to give us a recommendation. In fact, he was horrified. We didn’t want to eat bigos; that was like requesting hot dogs and beans. Americans didn’t want that. Yes, we really did, I said. He tried to direct us to a fancy French restaurant. We left the hotel, walked to the student district and, saying “bigos” while gesturing as if eating, found our way into a cellar restaurant with family-style big tables. We ordered and ate bigos. Mr. Keene’s was better.


Mr. Keene’s Bigos

There is no one way to make bigos, which happily means there is no way to make a mistake or make it incorrectly. So relax, enjoy, pour yourself a glass of vodka.

Bigos is a slowly cooked stew that can be adapted to personal taste. The constants include sauerkraut, meat (usually pork), and kielbasa. Find the best (homemade) sauerkraut and sausage available to you. Each cook then puts her/his personal stamp on bigos. Some recipes add fruit; some are made with wine (red or white), some with broth; some with fresh mushrooms, others dried. Regardless, it is always delicious. It is universally agreed that the longer the bigos sits, the better it gets. It can be reheated on successive days, peaking in flavor at a week.

To serve 12:

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

4 large onions, chopped

3 lbs. sauerkraut, rinsed under cold water and


2 lbs. green cabbage, chopped like sauerkraut

4 apples, peeled, cored, cut into chunks

2 cups white wine

1 lb. bacon, cut into ½ inch cubes

2 lbs. pork rib roast, cut into 1 inch cubes

1 oz. dried wild mushrooms, reconstituted in

hot water, drained and chopped

1 lb fresh mushrooms, sliced

4 cloves garlic, minced

2 bay leaves

20 black peppercorns

1 cup pitted prunes, halved

5 cups beef broth

2 cups canned tomatoes, chopped, with juice

2 pounds Polish kielbasa cut into thick slices

Salt and pepper to taste

1. Heat oil in a large pot.

2. Brown onions in oil over medium heat until soft and fragrant, about 10 minutes.

3. Add sauerkraut, cabbage, apples and wine to onions. Cook covered over low heat for 11/2 hours.

4. Fry the bacon in a large Dutch oven.

5. When the fat is rendered, add pork and mushrooms and sauté until the meat is brown, about 10 minutes.

6. Add sauerkraut mixture to meat.

7. Add all other ingredients.

8. Cover and cook over low heat 3 hours. If bigos becomes dry, add more broth or wine.

Alice Greenwood holds a Ph.D. in linguistics and specializes in understanding the communication styles of different social groups. She has co-authored and edited books on health care, women’s health, and quality management, and has taught courses in women’s studies and gender and language. She lives with her husband Bob in Woodstock, New York, and their three children frequently come for dinner.