It’s easy to make a token gesture and cover Metro Detroit’s Polish community by making a quick trip to the eateries and churches in Hamtramck, a suburb by definition but essentially an old Polish enclave located within Detroit. Today, however, Hamtramck is predominately Muslim and African-American in character, the last Polish residents nostalgic holdovers from the city’s industrial past. Most Polish families have long since moved to the suburbs, particularly to cities like Warren and Sterling Heights in working class Macomb County.
That’s where, you see, the sauerkraut has retaken its roots.
Infantile map showing the relative locations of Detroit, Hamtramck, Warren, and Sterling Heights, with 8 Mile representing the northern boundary of Detroit. Keep in mind that a more precise map would include dozens of additional municipalities.
The American Polish Cultural Center on 15 Mile and Dequindre in Troy – across the street from Polish Market and Sterling Heights – is a particularly notable example of modern Polish American culture. None other than George W. Bush made a pit stop there back in 2002, proving that not everything he did as president was a tragic mistake.
But of course, that’s not what I’m going to write about. Nope.
Instead, I’d rather draw your attention to the humble American-Polish Festival, a fair that takes place every July on the Sterling Heights/Warren border in the oversized parking lot of the American Polish Century Club. And if you feel I haven’t used the word “Polish” enough yet, don’t worry, because you’re about to feel like the Czechoslovakian Brady of the Polish Brady Bunch (or, in this case, the Bradkowski Bunch).
Polish, Polish, Polish!
Yes, sir, why they’ve got Polish sliders, Polish Muslims, Polish nachos, Polish t-shirts, and even Polish sex on the beach! All that and more at what’s more popularly referred to as the Polish Fest, where for one humid weekend the local Polish community pitches their vinyl tents and celebrates their connection the great motherland. Vodka shots in Jägermeister shot glasses? Why not? We’re Polish! Or part Polish, at least, the upstart great great grandkid of some illustrious -ski or -wicz! It’s our birthright.
And that’s what it’s truly about. Drinking alcohol, reveling in your presumed Polishness, and eating fried pierogies and grilled kielbasa with a passion, like a St. Patrick’s Day repurposed for wannabe Warsaw émigrés. Sure, dress the kids in peasant garb and have ’em do the polka for a hot minute. Then it’s on to the good stuff.
I know wasn’t about to rock the boat we’d all just departed from. Sure enough, when I went last weekend I headed straight to the so-called pub and immediately got brain-numbingly drunk off Polish “Okie Dokie”, otherwise known to less slurred, more culturally sensitive drinkers as Okocim. It’s a nice pale lager with a typical beer taste, and was served in Labatt pitchers, which went well with the giant inflatable Labatt bottle that dominated the fair’s meager skyline.
OK, maybe it wasn’t that tall.
My inhibitions shed like a bad habit, I found myself downing the Polish sex on the beach and cucumber vodka shots I’d sworn off earlier with reckless aplomb, my inner Polish self – a strange, disturbing mix of Pope John Paul II and Frederic Chopin – emerging with the oncoming darkness. When I wasn’t polka dancing, I was shouting “pierogi!” Hell, I think I even saw a guy wearing a pierogi-shaped hat.
Needless to say, it was time get some food in my bloated beer belly, and fast. I decided to skip the Polish nachos and order the Polish sliders. After all, what could be more authentic, more Made In Michigan than kielbasa and sauerkraut on a bun, straight down the gullet? All that grease, that spice – surely the ideal antidote for early onset alcohol poisoning. Judging by the generous waistlines of the festival-goers, I clearly wasn’t alone in my heartfelt appreciation of Polish cuisine, of sauerkraut that isn’t drowned in vinegar and kielbasa in wonderful American patty-like shapes.
The real climax of the night, though, was the Polish Muslims. At some point the polka band was unceremoniously ushered off stage, the two-step bass replaced by the welcomed roar of classic American rock, served with a satiric Polish American twist. It called to me like a siren song. Finally, the groups you’ve always loved, singing about what they always should’ve – the Beach Boys reimagined as bowling music pioneers, the Tone Lōc as a czernina connoisseur. The Polish Muslims have been at it for over 30 years, since my dad was my age, but the approach still felt fresh and fun. I even danced, my stiff joints creaking to the distorted strains of the music as middle-aged people whirled around me.
I guess the Polish Fest has some great crafts and rides and whatnot, too, but I think I did it right. I left sweaty, drunk, and happy, with a greater appreciation for my Polish heritage.