Poland. Just the mention conjures chilly, bleak landscapes and bombed-out cities rebuilt by Communists in grim, no-nonsense style — a place you want to leave, not visit. Or so I thought until I went there.
Upon arrival you exit the airport and trudge down a dreary road flanked by barbed wire to a train station, a set of tracks and a small shelter, where a woman in a beige raincoat and a scarf waits with her suitcase. Perhaps these are the same tracks that once served the camps just an hour away.
Things start to look up in downtown Krakow. Unlike Warsaw, the city was unscathed by wartime bombs. The old Renaissance-era center, which has been restored in recent years, survives. Wawel Castle sits peacefully like a storybook picture atop its hill, surveying the scene. Restaurants, shops and bars line street after street of eclectic 18th- and 19th-century buildings. A music scene thrives in underground jazz clubs filled with tourists from all over the globe.
A market illuminates a culture
In a new town, the first thing I look for is the market. Seeing what people eat gives you an insight into their culture. I didn’t expect much from a Polish market, in fact I didn’t even expect there to be one. But there are indeed two large open markets in downtown Krakow. Entering the Stary Kleparz market is like stepping through Alice’s looking glass, into a vanished world — that of old New York.
When I grew up in Manhattan, old-style Jewish delicatessens flourished. Every neighborhood seemed to host one, magical places with a signature mix of scents — oily smoked fish, garlicky pickles, fresh baked bagels and caraway-dotted rye bread. Chickens twirled and roasted in the window. The glass case and counter afforded a spectacular view of bins of fresh gleaming coleslaw, potato salad, pickled and creamed herring, bright and muted olives, pickles, tangy cucumber salad, creamy rice pudding.
There were Katz’s and Ratner’s and of course, Zabar’s, the place Woody Allen made famous. Until the 1970s, this celebrated Upper West Side venue was a small and simple Jewish deli. Back then, the wait at the smoked fish counter, where pushy customers lined up six-deep, was interminable. Portly, gruff voiced patrons scolded equally rough countermen for slicing the nova too thin or too thick. “Com’on, Murray, you know how I like it!”
Now only a few old-time delis remain in Manhattan, and their style has changed. Zabar’s sells more balsamic vinegar and white lasagna than lox and cream cheese. The ‘new New Yorkers’ don’t know from matzo balls.
So entering the ‘old’ Kleparz market in Krakow is a mind-blowing experience. It becomes immediately apparent that tradition lives on here; it’s like a New York deli circa 1964. This is the source. There are few Jews now in Poland, Lithuania, Belarus or Russia, the countries from which many New York Jews had emigrated, and one might assume their food had disappeared with them. But here it is in all its appetizing glory.
From flowers and cheese to smoked venison
Despite the chilly weather, shoppers browsed the aisles of this vibrant traditional marketplace. An old-timer donning a jaunty cap sold perfumy bunches of lilacs for about $1, competing with a babushka-clad lady across the way. An ancient crone, nary a tooth in her head, proffered soft, white fresh cheeses, while her neighbor sold pretty molded smoked versions from a basket.
Vegetables were as limited as one might expect during springtime in Northern Europe, but those available were of fine quality. Bright green cucumbers looked off-the-vine fresh, as did leeks, parsley, lettuce, cabbage and the requisite dill; fruits looked imported. Some potatoes — yellow, white, reddish — were as big as grapefruits, others small as marbles.
Best of all: the deli food
But what stole the show was the elaborate deli food, proudly prepared, displayed and consumed. Rows of brilliantly colored salads are on display, some familiar, others more exotic: herring in tomato sauce, Greek style cod, Hawaiian herring. One whose label Google translated simply as ‘vegetable’ turned out to be archetypal New York coleslaw.
The preserved fish counter, whose smoky pungency was discernable from ten yards away, seemed a re-creation of Zabar’s, even though it’s the other way around. Smoked salmon, whole and in chunks, translucent white sturgeon, blue-striped oily mackerels — it was all there. At the end of this aquatic display a few familiar packages of pre-sliced lox were tossed along with a couple of jars of creamed herring. At the bread stand, hunks of exemplary rye with textbook perfect golden crusts were offered alongside dark pumpernickel and bagel-like rolls.
The charcuterie stand had more than 100 items, including a foot-long krakowska, the local specialty, a narrow, deep red, tightly pack hunk of pork redolent of garlic and hot pepper. And, of course, the paradigmatic Polish kielbasa, in multiple variations from pale white to deep crimson.
Thriving markets are the soul and essence of a great city, bringing a warm humanity to an otherwise alienating, detached environment. For one Jewish New Yorker nostalgic for the sights and sounds of his vanished youth, Krakow’s market was a homecoming.
Top photo: Kielbasa at Stary Kleparz in Krakow. Credit: Nicholas Gilman