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The History Behind Milwaukee's Favorite Donut Holiday, Paczki Day

Different flavors of paczki at National Bakery and Deli in Milwaukee.

While Fat Tuesday or Mardi Gras is celebrated around the world, some Milwaukeeans know today as a holiday by another name: Paczki Day.

A paczki is a yeast donut that is meant to combine everything unhealthy in the kitchen pantry as a way to clean out fatty and sweet ingredients before the fast of Lent — the 40-day period some Christians observe from Ash Wednesday to Easter.

“The paczki is take the milk, the eggs, the cream, the butter, the whatever is left over of sweets, of sugars, of fruits — put it into a donut. It’s gotta be a yeast donut, this is not a cake donut — ever," explains Lake Effect contributor and food historian Kyle Cherek. "Fry it all up, you’re using your oil and it’s this yummy, rich, delicious thing. You’re using up the last of the temptations before Lent comes."

The tradition began in 9th century Poland as pagan traditions were mixing with Christian holidays, but the current day paczki got its form when the Augustus III of Poland invited French bakers to come to the country and update the tradition.

“So the improved paczki, the lighter, fluffier ... glazed paczki that we now know is really, well, I mean ... the French, they do pastries really well,” says Cherek. "That was the trend at the time ... and the paczki have never been the same."

Now in the United States, communities with large Polish populations still celebrate the time before Lent with paczki. Cherek says that cities like Milwaukee, Detroit and Pittsburg have become the global capitals of the donut.

But the sweet treat is not without controversy, as the pronunciation of the paczki is often debated. According to Cherek the correct pronunciation is “pawn-shkey” but others may pronounce it “poonch-key.” Those are both plural, meaning the bakery should never give just one when ordering a paczki.

Kyle Cherek says paczki filling can range from strawberry to sweet cheese to prune but that the original filling was the hips of roses made into a marmalade.

Cherek notes that the most important part of Paczki Day is the fact that everyone is partaking in the tradition of eating the delicious donut together, "which is really one of the strongest forces of food in history." He also suggests pairing one with a cup of Milwaukee coffee for a magical combination.

Audrey is a WUWM host and producer for Lake Effect.
From 2020 to 2021, Jack was WUWM's digital intern and then digital producer.
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