Tuesday, May 09, 2006


In our family the ambrosia, the nectar, the meal of celebration, or ultimate comfort was czarnina – duck soup, but so removed from anything as prosaic as a duck boiled with vegetables as to be other-worldly; and my grandmother, “Busia,” was the doyen of czarnina.

Not to harass the culinarily squeamish but, without blood – duck’s blood - there is no czarnina. Cheapskates would try to get by with pork blood, but that wouldn’t do in our house.

Busia would bring the victim from market, and spirit it into the basement. She’d shut the door behind her, and the slaughter would begin. Her technique was to hold the duck firmly under her left arm, and with her left hand bend its beak and neck forward to its breast, exposing a vein. She’d cut the vein and drain the blood into a bowl seasoned with a few drops of vinegar while the duck drifted off to wherever a duck might drift – and for giving it’s life for czarnina, duck heaven would be the only fair reward. The vinegar kept the blood from coagulating. Then she’d dunk the carcass in boiling water to loosen the feathers, and Aunt Florence would be recruited to pluck it to its peculiar duck nakedness. Before my time, when czarnina was a weekly meal, so many ducks would get plucked that pillows were made out of their downy feathers. After Busia moved to keep Fr. Louie’s home in DuBois we’d get both dead duck and blood from Urbaniak’s – the Polish butcher – but until then it was an in-house sacrifice.

Plucking complete, Florence would rise from the basement, duck in hand, and the kitchen would move into production.

The least interesting parts of the duck – feet, neck, back, wings, assorted bones – were placed in a pot with a pork shoulder, onions, prunes, sugar, a bouquet garni of bay leaf, cinnamon, allspice, and peppercorns, and simmered until the pork was tender. The better parts of the duck were routed to the oven to become a beautiful mahogany roast. Just before the pork was ready to fall apart, the stock was drained and skimmed. The pork and whatever was left of the prunes were reserved. A rich roux of blended blood, cream, and flour, was then added to the pot with just enough vinegar to mellow the sugar without curdling the milk – a delicate balance. While all the components were roasting, simmering, or thickening, Busia made the kluski – egg noodles. I’ve always been amazed that eggs, flour, and a little oil could produce anything as sumptuous as home made kluski. If there were ever leftovers I’d eat them by the handful, right out of the refrigerator, though frying them up with butter could really get me going.

At service the meats were plattered, the soup put into a tureen, and the kluski into a side bowl. In a soup bowl the ivory kluski set off the dark and rich color of the czarnina. The kluski also added a wonderful chewiness to the soup. Steamy portions of pork were submerged into individual bowls, and the duck gleamed on side plates. I could never decide whether I liked the duck best in the soup or on the side, so I did both. I also got the duck’s heart – a little appetizer, tucked away, that the family would make a big deal of finding for me. The one and only, but continual disappointment of the meal was there was never enough duck for seconds. Why we didn’t roast a second duck, I don’t know. It must have been some old-country frugality.

The family rejoiced with czarnina, and it was rarely served to outsiders. It would have been a breach of etiquette to serve something so obviously ethnic and odd, but many years after it lost its position as a regular item I asked Aunts Florence and Theresa to make it for my wife. Reggie told me she’d never eat it again, but she gave it her best, and that definitely raised her status a few notches within the family. What’s sad is we’ll probably never get a chance to eat it again, unless I carry on the tradition. Truth be told, though, it sounds much too daunting.

Czarnina’s flavor was the preference of a particular family, some liked it sweet, some sour – we liked it just as Busia made it, both sweet and sour. It was as close as we could get to the old country, and it felt like the wealth of generations and the depth of our culture. I remember the family as being at its best when czarnina was on the table. It made us happy.

*pronounced char-nina


Anonymous Matski said...


Really enjoyed your post. I was lucky enough to grow up with two Busias in a town small enough to have not yet succumbed entirely to the forces of homogenization (Bay City, MI). I never really liked czarnina, but I loved the ritual, and -- like you -- the kluski. I'm generally a supporter of globalization, but it's a shame that traditions like this are disappearing.

As for me, like I said, I was never much for czarnina, but I make a mean golabki. I've even updated the dish a bit and created a Polish-Mexican fusion cuisine, using chorizo instead of basic ground pork in my recipe.


1:54 PM  
Anonymous rwells said...

Hey Matski, thanks for the comment. Not sure of the spelling but we called it gwumki, and I just made it a few weeks ago for some friends. I like to make it once or twice a year just to keep in touch.

I was in Erie a few months ago and picked up some pretty good kieska. Everybody agrees it's not like the old days when the kieska was studded with liver, but it was close - and cheap. I brought some back for a British friend as it gets pretty close to Blood Pudding. We were in the same situation in that we cooked for ourselves while our familes held their collective noses.

I've moved the blog to www.bundleofhiss.com, and am posting some pages called "Pasta Files," along with the blog, and other stuff. Not Polish, but fun.

5:17 PM  
Blogger Mr.G said...

Your story brought a smile to my face as I read it and recalled my Polish Grandmother, Mother and Father teaching me to make czarnina, kluski, golabki, zemnie nogi, homemade kielbasa (fresh and smoked), kapusta, paczki, bigos, perogie, kolatchy and a variety of soups. I live in Cleveland, Ohio where there is still a large Polish community. Sadly, as you pointed out, few still make the authentic Polish dishes in part b/c the recipies are quite labor intensive. Back in the day, cooking was a true labor of love. This was also before a two person income was unheard of for the most part. My two daughters are just now learning to appreciate the art of cooking. Hopefully, my recipies will continue on with them.

11:46 AM  
Blogger Aubrey said...

Hello there!

I wanted you to know that I appreciate this so much as well. I remember as a young girl, I decided I wanted to become a chef. I'm still relatively young, I suppose, at 26, but my father told me when I was 12 that if I ever wanted to become a chef, I needed to get my Busia (great-grandma)'s recipe for Czarnina. I'd never tried it before, but my Dad grew up with it, and had so much love for the tradition and practice of it, which sounds *exactly* like the story above.

I did get the recipe from her, but she seemed hesitant to provide all the details. Perhaps she was hoping to keep a little something to herself, knowing that she would always be the BEST cook :D She certainly had spunk! She passed away 5 years later, but I still have that recipe I wrote down from her when I was 12 with my young handwriting, and that alone warms my heart!

I think it's funny that we all called our grandmothers 'Busia'. Do you know if this is a direct translation for anything in Polish, or if it's something that just evolved in Polish communities?

1:50 PM  
Blogger rwellsrwells said...

Aubrey, I think busia is from babushka - for the scarves the older ladies wore.

5:36 PM  
Anonymous Lori said...

Wonderful blog! It reminds me of growing up Polish in Detroit. How I long for a bowl of that home-made czarnina!

12:30 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Does anyone know, if there are any Polish stores in Erie or Cleveland, where you can still buy duck and blood?

1:18 PM  
Blogger rwellsrwells said...

@Anonymous, above. Try Uraniaks in Erie.

6:42 PM  

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