Fat Tuesday faithful make annual paczki pilgrimage

Ariana Taylor Neal Rubin
The Detroit News

Hamtramck — A light drizzle fell early Tuesday morning, yet a throng of people waited outside on Jos. Campau Street, enduring 39-degree temperatures that felt far colder.  Anything for paczki. 

"Oh, you still have toes?" said 52-year-old Eric Gunderson of St. Clair Shores as he and his friend waited in line at New Palace Bakery

At Sisters Cakery in Detroit, the Paczki Day wait was more moderate in both duration and temperature — but a cool spell in the back room led to an early paczki shortage.

Fortunately, the problem was quickly resolved, and Sisters was back at full paczki power in what realistically has become Paczki Week, or even Paczki Fortnight.

What's known in Michigan as Paczki Day is celebrated on Fat Tuesday, the traditional day of indulgence before the annual sacrifice and fasting of Lent.

Gunderson and his friend, Ken Morgulec, woke up to play their part around 4 a.m. Gunderson had never waited in line for a deep-fried pastry, but he trusted Morgulec when he said it'd be fun. 

Moosey Moose, baker, prepares to rack a tray of raspberry paczkis at New Martha Washington Bakery.

"It's cold, but it's cool. The people are fun and you get to meet some new faces," Gunderson said. 

Morgulec, a paczki veteran, has been waiting in line for 32 years — annually, that is, not cumulatively. Sometimes he plans ahead and calls in his order, like the year he bought 22 dozen. This time, he didn't.

"It's stupid, I know," he said, but companionship helped.

Edie Chudnow, 58, is from Arizona but is in Michigan for work and decided to stop by New Palace Bakery in Hamtramck on Tuesday for Paczki Day.

The mid-morning line topped out at 10 people at Sisters Cakery, on Warren Avenue east of Southfield Road. In a fortuitously timed lull, Nancy Drain  of Canton explained that she never calls ahead because she enjoys catching up with what have become old friends behind the counter.

A nurse, Drain worked the overnight shift at University of Michigan Hospital in Ann Arbor, then drove directly to Warrendale for her annual unhealthy indulgence.  It's a different trip to a cherished destination she used to reach with her mother on the Greenfield bus.

"You cannot go to any other bakery but here," she proclaimed.

It was warm in the bakery's display area, and warming in the back room where the magic happens. Baker Pete Radovanovic, 45, said that before he dialed up the thermostat, the hand-rolled dough had been slow to rise, leading to a diminished selection by 8:30 a.m.

Sandy Bakic, baker, spread chocolate cream on a Boston paczki at New Martha Washington Bakery.

His mother, Susan, and aunt, Kata Zlatich, still run the business their father bought half a century ago when the neighborhood was Eastern European. Now many of the signs nearby are in Arabic, but at least one day a year, paczki is a universal language.

Dearborn attorney Hassan Bazzi, 35, arrived early and bought 26 half-dozens for distribution to relatives and friends. Someone else bought 10 dozen.

"It's not that we've had too many customers," Susan Radovanovic explained. "We've just had a lot of big orders."

Drain, 61, left with 2 ½ dozen paczki in custard, jelly and lemon, plus one other that Zlatich gently boxed by itself.

Every year since 1992, Drain said, she has taken a symbolic prune paczek to St. Hedwig Cemetery in Dearborn Heights and placed it between her parents' graves.

While Drain was sparking old memories, Gunderson and Morgulec spent two hours meeting new friends.

Ronald Wells of Detroit has come to New Palace Bakery in the early hours of Packzi Day since he was in the fourth grade. Not many people in Wells' house actually like paczki, and by the time he reached the door of the bakery, he couldn't feel his fingers and toes.

Clarissa Codrington, 36, of Hamtramck, enjoys a lemon paczek at New Palace Bakery.

But to Wells, 49, it was all worth it. 

"I didn't think twice about it," he said.  "When you stand in line and wait for something so good, you get cool with everyone."

The Polish dessert is a deep-fried doughnut filled with flavored jellies or cream. New Palace Bakery introduced two new flavors for the holiday — beer-and-pretzel, and banana cream cheesecake.

Susan and Mike Radovanovic encourage hand-rolled paczki to rise at Sisters Cakery in Detroit. Her late father built the wooden crates for the bakery he bought 51 years ago.

However, customers had their own ideas for paczki fillings.

Phyllis Swalwell of Oxford suggested a creme brulee-flavored paczki. This was Swalwell's first time waiting in line on Fat Tuesday, after her friend who usually picked up the paczki passed away. 

Dana Zielinski, 26, of Oak Park had another idea: cookie dough and brownie mix.

"Anything is possible ... we'll see how much more we'll expand on the flavors but we're always open to suggestions," said Suzy Ognanovich, one of the owners of New Palace Bakery. 

Nancy Drain of Canton used to ride the bus to Sisters Cakery on Fat Tuesday with her mother. She left Tuesday with 2 1/2 dozen — plus one custard paczek to eat on the spot, and one prune paczek that she always leaves by her parents’ graves.

Ognanovich said they started preparations for Paczki Day after Christmas by stocking up on ingredients, scheduling shifts and thinking of the new flavors they announce every year. 

They're nonstop in the bakery for three days straight, getting only a few hours of sleep each day, Ognanovich said. 

"It doesn't get that crazy but there's a lot of good energy going around and feeling of tradition and everybody just having a good time," she said. 

Some local grocery chains had been displaying mass-produced paczki since before Valentines Day.

The small, traditional bakeries that consider mixes to be heresy don't typically have as many left over, Susan Radovanovic said, but late shoppers can still count on Paczki Thursday or Paczki Friday. Her baker son said he'd even freeze some dough in case of late requests.

Ken Morgulec shows off a box of paczki as he poses with Ronald Wells and Eric Gunderson outside New Palace Bakery in Hamtramck after waiting over two hours.

Ron Kurkowski of Livonia can vouch for freezers.

Kurkowski, 88, and his wife Pat, 87, are like swallows returning to Capaczkistrano. He insists on stopping in every year, no matter how much she rolls her eyes.

"I married him for his money," she said. "I'm still looking for it, 57 years later. He blows it all on paczki."

Ron bought a dozen for now, a dozen for their son, and a dozen to tide him over for 12 months.

He said he packages them individually in foil and pops them into the freezer until the mood strikes.

Then he takes one out, wraps it in a wet paper towel, microwaves it for 30 seconds, lets it sit for a minute or two, and extends the bliss of Paczki Day that much further.