Hamtramck: The Paczki Capital of America

Entertainers include Polka Floyd which specializes in performing Pink Floyd hits to a polka beat.

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Although most Polish Americans associate paczkis with lent, the jelly filled donuts are enjoyed in Poland and in local Polish communities year-round

My hometown of Hamtramck, MI, is an enclave-suburb surrounded by the City of Detroit. It became a Polish boom town after the Dodge Brothers built their auto plant there in 1914, attracting successive generations of job-seeking Polish immigrants. Polish Americans still account for a significant share of the population but now share their two-square-mile town with newcomers mainly from the Balkans, Middle East and Asian subcontinent. 

Like Polish American communities everywhere, Hamtramck has celebrated the pre-Lenten custom of consuming yeast-raised, fruit-filled doughnuts known as pączki. Apparently under French Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday) influence, Shrove Tuesday became known as Pączki Day. In Poland, it is the preceding Thursday that is celebrated, with a follow-up on the pre-Lenten Tuesday known as Ostatki (the final fling). 

Originally, the Good Sisters in Hamtramck’s parochial schools would let schoolgirls off early on that day to help their mothers prepare pączki. In time, outsourcing became popular, and people would queue outside local bakeries for a few dozen of the Polish treats. They come in boxes correctly labeled “Pączki” with the ogonek (˛) firmly positioned beneath the letter “ą”. Without it, “paczki” is the Polish word for parcels or packages, whereas “pączki” (pronounced: paunch-key) are the filled doughnuts. 

Around the turn of the millennium, Pączki Day in Hamtramck really took off. Now there is a Pączki Day Parade and a Pączki Run, a five-kilometer (three-mile) foot race around the city where each finisher gets a pączek and a beer. (Incidentally, “pączek” is the singular of “pączki”.) A pączki-eating contest is also held. A dozen Hamtramck taverns lay out Polish food and free pączki to all customers and provide free live entertainment. One pub, Small’s Bar, actually features a Pączki Bomb, a booze-filled pączek.  

There is also a heated tent in the center of town with music and polka dancing. Entertainers include the Polka Floyd which specializes is performing Pink Floyd hits to a polka beat. Some people even take a day off from work to enjoy the daylong festivities that run into the night. Others head for Hamtramck at the end of their shift. Many come from outlying cities, neighboring states and even Canada. It’s no wonder then that Hamtramck can rightly claim the title of America’s Pączki Capital. 

If interested in launching similar festivities in your town, you would do well to first attend Hamtramck’s Pączki Day  to see for yourself. And maybe, rather than quibbling over whether the real Pączki Day is Fat Thursday or Shrove Tuesday, an ultra-long, six-day Pączki Weekend could be introduced. Such a Pączki Festival would provide loads of pre-Lenten merriment to a wider audience, popularize the Polish custom among fellow-Americans of diverse backgrounds and drum up much more business for the local economy.