Paczki Day: The history behind the Fat Tuesday tradition in Metro Detroit

Polish-American tradition celebrated throughout Michigan, US


DETROIT – Each year on the day before Ash Wednesday, people across the nation (and elsewhere in the world) celebrate Fat Tuesday: A day of indulgence before the start of Lent.

But here in the richly diverse Metro Detroit area, we know this day as Paczki Day.

What was once just a tradition in Poland has become a Polish-American tradition celebrated in communities around the country -- especially here in Michigan, and especially right here in Metro Detroit. Polish immigrants who settled in the U.S. brought the annual tradition of Paczki Day, or Tłusty Czwartek, with them.

And, lucky for us Michiganders, a significant number of Polish immigrants settled in Hamtramck, Detroit, Saginaw and Grand Rapids, and have since shared their culture and treats with nearby communities.

How Paczki Day started

Each year, practicing Christians participate in a 40-day period of Lent leading up to Easter. During Lent, people of the Christian faith fast in one way or another to reflect on the events leading up to the death of Jesus Christ.

At the present, this could look like giving up sweets or certain foods for a few weeks. Each person of faith may practice Lent differently.

But in Poland in the 1700s, this traditionally looked like eating only one meal each day, and completely fasting on Friday. During Lent, rich foods were not allowed.

And thus, Paczki Day was born.

According to Michigan State University’s 4-H Global & Cultural Education Extension, Paczki Day began in Poland during the mid-1700s under the reign of Augustus III.

On the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday, which is the first day of Lent, Polish people would use up foods like eggs, butter, sugar and fruit so they would not be wasted during their weekslong fasting period. In many instances, those ingredients would be used to make paczki, a rich, fried doughnut filled with fruit jelly or cream, and covered in powdered sugar or icing.

Families would indulge on the fatty treats on Fat Tuesday as a temporary farewell to sweets.

Though, in Poland now, paczki are more commonly eaten on what is known as Fat Thursday, the last Thursday of Carnival.

People leave a popular pastry shop in Warsaw, Poland, Thursday, March 3, 2011, waiting to buy marmalade-stuffed fresh doughnuts "Paczki" on the annual "Fat Thursday," a much-enjoyed Catholic-related tradition that marks the end of carnival season and the arrival of Lent. (AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski) (AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski)

Paczki come to Michigan

Paczki Day is not necessarily celebrated everywhere in the U.S., but it is certainly popular in Polish-American communities around the country, particularly in some Midwest and Northeastern U.S. cities.

Growing up in Metro Detroit my whole life, I always knew Fat Tuesday as Paczki Day -- and I’m barely Polish. But that’s just a testament to the diversity of our area. Especially when you’re looking at Hamtramck, which is home to many Polish and Middle Eastern immigrants (which explains the great food).

Polish people began immigrating to Hamtramck in the early 1900s in hopes of working at the new Dodge Main factory. Poles only made up about 10% of the city’s population in 2017, according to NPR, but at their peak, about 75% of Hamtramck’s population was comprised of Polish people.

Since then, Polish bakeries have been opening early on Paczki Day to share their doughy treats with people in the Metro Detroit. In Hamtramck, some local favorites include New Martha Washington bakery, or New Palace Bakery, which opened at 3 a.m. on Feb. 21 to sell paczki. Metro Detroiters line up around these bakeries all throughout Fat Tuesday to score a dozen of the Polish doughnuts.

Though the freshly made paczki are the best around, paczki can be found in grocery stores, delis and bakeries about a month before Fat Tuesday even arrives.

Pleased customers are leaving a popular sweet shop in Warsaw, Poland with packets full of fresh jam-filled doughnuts, or Paczki, after having stood in line for some hours in sub-freezing temperatures to get the cakes traditionally eaten on the Thursday of Carnival, the Fat Thursday, in Warsaw, Poland, Thursday, Feb. 7, 2013. (AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski) (AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowsk)

Paczki: Worth the calories?

Fat Tuesday is called Fat Tuesday for a reason. No one has the right to calorie shame on a day meant for indulgence.

That being said ... the bigger version of paczki made in the U.S. for Paczki Day can contain several hundred calories, and dozens of grams of sugar, fat and carbs. I, personally, am partial to paczki, but still struggle to find any with a filling that I really love -- so I tend not to pick them up on Fat Tuesday.

Which has led me to wonder: Do most Metro Detroiters celebrate Fat Tuesday with paczki? If so, where are the best ones? If not, what do you treat yourself to instead?

Take our short poll below, just for fun! And feel free to share your thoughts in the comments -- I’m curious what you all think.

About the Author:

Cassidy Johncox is a senior digital news editor covering stories across the spectrum, with a special focus on politics and community issues.