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Fat Tuesday is Also "Packzi Day"

Today is what's known in some circles as Paczki Day, in Milwaukee. Paczki are a Polish doughnut, and a popular Fat Tuesday treat in cities with a strong Polish heritage. Ann-Elise Henzl went to a bakery that's buzzing with activity, surrounding the tasty snack."Paczki" may be a tough word to get your mouth around. It's spelled p-a-c-z-k-i, and there's disagreement over how to pronounce it.

Woman at bakery: "I say 'poonch-kuh.'" Another woman at bakery: "It's 'poonch-kuh' for singular, 'poonch-key' for plural."

But everyone seems to agree that paczki are easy to savor. National Bakery and Deli will sell about 30,000 today. It makes the fried doughnuts throughout the year, stuffed with fillings like prune, raisin, and raspberry. But co-owner Jeff Callen says paczki are extra special this week.

"This time of the year we add some different kinds on, we add some variety, we add the butter-dough paczkis which are a little bit richer, a little bit chewier, and then we also add the different glazings on the top, the glazed, the sugar and the iced also," Callen says.

Callen says every year hundreds of people wait to buy paczki, in long lines at National Bakery's Milwaukee location. It's in a historic Polish neighborhood on the city's south side.

"It's the Fat Tuesday tradition first of all, and I also think because of the build-up that we have here, the reputation that we have, and people start lining up 3:00 to 4:00 in morning to come in here," Callen says.

Paczki were developed in Poland, to be served before Lent -- the period of abstinence some Christians observe from Ash Wednesday to Easter. Milwaukee resident Marlene Witas has been enjoying paczki her whole life at this time of year. In fact, I found her at the south side bakery yesterday, even though she's planning to return today.

Ann-Elise Henzl: "So what do you have in the box today?"

Marlene Witas: "Paczkis and paczkis. I bought them for some other people who aren't able to get here, and of course I'll buy my own to take with me."

Fans of paczki say they're similar to a traditional filled doughnut. But Witas they're richer and heavier.

"My favorite is the prune-filled powdered sugar, but when I'm with somebody else I buy the prune-filled glazed because they think the powdered sugar is too messy," Witas says.

The bakery did a brisk business yesterday, as customers like Witas picked up paczki early. Over the last few days, people called hundreds of times to place paczki orders, until the bakery couldn't handle any more.

Bakery worker on phone: "No we're not taking any more orders I'm sorry , but if you come in the store we have plenty of product. Yeah, we'll have paczkis, plenty for you."

The bakery has been getting ready for Paczki Day for weeks, ordering hundreds of pounds of fruit filling and shortening, and assembling thousands of boxes.

Fifteen bakers came in overnight last night to make the paczki being sold today, from scratch. Another 15 workers -- more than double the usual amount -- are crowded behind the bakery counter today, filling orders and ringing up sales. Manager Cathy Anderson says Paczki Day is fun and frantic, and...

Cathy Anderson: "Exhausting, but we're still going through a lot of doughnuts also on Wednesday, so, we're still busy."

Henzl: "So for some people they have not given up sweets for Lent?"

Anderson: "Some people will cheat."

Henzl: "So they've given them up, but yet they're back for a doughnut?"

Anderson: "Right, right."

If you head to National Bakery to try paczki today, be warned -- the line could extend all the way down the block. But co-owner Jeff Callen hopes to make it a fun wait. He's hired an accordion player to entertain with polka music, and there are raffles and free bakery samples given out throughout the day.

And despite the crowds, it will be easy to spot the staff, when you're ready to order. They're the ones wearing the t-shirts that say "Got Paczki?"

Ann-Elise is WUWM's news director.