A Lenten Primer



1. This is a paczki. It is a ball of fried dough with fruit filling or jam inside, sugared or glazed outside. You might recognize it as a jelly donut. It is a jelly donut. I mean, that’s all it is, really.

2. It is obviously so much more than that.

3. It’s not pronounced how you think it’s pronounced.

4. They’re very popular in the Midwest. Around the Great Lakes region, Fat Tuesday is often called Paczki Day.

5. Many people think paczki is the singular, as in I ate a pazcki. Paczki is actually plural. Why won’t people shut up about paczki. If you want the word in the singular, you use the word paczek, which is pronounced like this. Nobody actually says this unless they want to be deliberately pedantic. Sometimes I feel this way, but less so lately. I often say it the wrong way, just like everybody else.

6. By the time you read this, Paczki Day aka Mardi Gras aka Shrove Tuesday will be weeks in the past and we will be firmly into the forty days of Lent, also known as the shit end of February into March, also known as When Will This Winter End Already.

7. Paczki are one of the ways that Catholics – and anyone who eats donuts, which is pretty much everybody – celebrate the pre-Lenten period. Lent is a time of abstinence and fasting, so before Ash Wednesday kicks off the season, a good Catholic/committed repentant gets rid of the fat, sugar, and alcohol in the house. Paczki et al. are the way to use it all up before the fasting begins.

8. Exactly what your Lenten fasting looks like differs based on level of orthodoxy and exactly how much guilt you built up during the holiday’s worth of overeating and family in-fighting. Traditionally you might give up sweets, alcohol, and meat (except for fish, which accounts for the ubiquitous fish fry you’ll find all over Michigan). In contemporary practice you might choose just one thing to give up for forty days. You break the fast on Easter, day of marshmallow birds and inexplicable rabbitry.

9. Last fall I was diagnosed as a “highly allergic” person. Among the laundry list of things to avoid was yeast, which is in all things delicious: bread, cheese, beer, wine, barbecue-flavored potato chips. Indulgences that make your salivary glands tingle. I’ve noticed now that yeast is in more things than I’d expect, anything that needs extra savor on the back of the tongue.

The first few months after my diagnosis I would occasionally eat food with yeast in it. Knowing that my face would bloat and my ears would clog seemed, in the face of freshly buttered toast or homemade farmer’s cheese, like a decent trade. I regretted it every time.

10. You probably already guessed it: paczki are made with yeast.

11. I get my Polish blood from my mother’s side.

12. When I talk to my mother about eating paczki before Lent, she purses her lip (I can tell even if we’re on the phone; my mother’s pursed lip is powerful stuff) and says something like, “Aren’t those made with lard?” It’s true that we didn’t eat them growing up. Heritage gets retroactively granted. You are a little Polish and a little Catholic, two heritages you had nothing to do with, so you gravitate toward the cultural intersection of those identities. You want something that’s yours, something you feel called to do. Birthright in the literal sense.

13. In college I went on a semester abroad in Germany. The Catholic part of Germany, incidentally, where we had a week off for the Pentecost. I took a solo trip to Warsaw, and before I went, I asked my mother for the exact spelling of my great-Polish-grandfather’s last name. Kuropatwinski. I wrote it down on a piece of paper and kept it in my pocket. I didn’t do anything with the name – there was nothing to do – but I liked having it there. As totem, connection, reminder that I was in some small way back in my motherland.
I also ate a paczek. I ordered it using the right word. A chocolate one, because chocolate is one of those words pronounceable in almost every language. Rainbow sprinkles on top. The best paczek I have ever had. I crammed it in my mouth and strolled through Old Town and tried not to feel like a tourist.

14. Paczki fire off all the right synapses in your brain, neurons related to greed and sin and withholding and indulgence. But at the end of the day, they are just donuts, aren’t they? Donuts made with lard, no less, that most peasant of fats. The traditional filling? Stewed prunes. Hardly a bakery favorite.

15. In college I learned to rattle off my heritage at the drop of a hat. It’s one of those things that happens when you get a critical mass of smart young white people in one room. Someone will inevitably ask, “So what are you?” I can say that I am a quarter Italian, a quarter Polish, a quarter Slovakian, equal eighths Scots Irish and German. I used to hold these numbers close like they were important.

16. Vigilantly looking out for tiny shreds of identity is something the Midwest and twenty-somethings have in common.

17. A lot of religious rhetoric focuses around selflessness. You are not simply a collection of base desires and animal instincts; you can participate in something larger. You are the image of your deity on Earth. Give up the things you love – or the things you desire, which might not be the same thing – and find grace.

18. After college I moved to the eastern half of Washington, a place where there were no paczki. Instead of connecting me to my Eastern Bloc blood, paczki became a way for me to assert my Midwestern roots. I called bakeries in Spokane asking if they carried them. If they had even heard of them. I acted like I was very upset when they hadn’t. I was upset, at the very least because this was the first time geography presented an obstacle to my sense of self, no matter how newly adopted. I couldn’t be myself there. At the end of the day, to mark transition into my first Lent away from Michigan, I think I ate a donut, a standard chocolate eclair filled with cream. I cannot say that I was not satisfied.

19. I usually do Lent. I might not call myself Catholic for a billion reasons, but when asked about my religious preferences I usually say that I was raised Catholic, so close enough. In past years I have given up chocolate (perennial childhood favorite) and meat (my sister, who is more of a badass than I am in a lot of ways, does this most years). Lately I’ve been flagging. Two years ago, I made a vague commitment to “eat better” that didn’t really amount to much since during graduate school we mostly ate beans. One year ago, my winter was filled with panic attacks and sleepless nights, so I didn’t want to come within forty feet of “giving up” anything. Instead of abstinence I took a lot of things, mostly for sleep. Melatonin, magnesium, Tylenol PM, chamomile tea in near toxic amounts.

20. This year I sleep much better, for a lot of reasons.

21. This year I am not giving anything up for Lent and I didn’t eat a paczki, because I decided the face bloat and headache wasn’t worth it. Because I’m still getting used to my new food rituals and what they mean for me. Because trying to give up anything else on top of that is, at the moment, too much to bear. Because growing up seems to be moving beyond rituals for easy identities and getting a little more complex, a little closer to the truth. It’s the way I answer my religious preference how I do, or the fact that we moved back to the Midwest even though it often looks like a really stupid idea, and how I looked up my genealogy on ancestry.com but have to admit that I got a little bored.

22. Most animals sleep deeply this time of year. They bury themselves under the loam, layers of fat stored around their bones, cushioning their organs. They too fill themselves up before a great fast though one induced by nature, not glory. When they wake up in the spring time, they are hungrier than ever.


  • Casey Patrick says:

    Love this! Especially this line: “Vigilantly looking out for tiny shreds of identity is something the Midwest and twenty-somethings have in common.” So spot-on it hurts.

  • Sam Ligon says:

    Great lIst. I’m always looking for new forms of the doughnut, more sugar, more lard, more of somebody’s sweet doughnutty heritage.

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