Paczki Day 2021 is already different from any other due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Under regular circumstances, locals cram themselves into storefronts, eager to get their hands on the rich, hole-less Polish doughnuts that are traditionally deep-fried and coated in a snowy layer of powdered sugar or a glass-thin glaze. Fat Tuesday normally the busiest day of the year for European bakeries all around Chicago, but the merriment will be subdued this year.
Residents of all backgrounds find joy in these indulgent and calorie-laden treats that inevitably result in sticky fingers and crumbs clinging to shirt fronts, devouring them before they’re outside the bakery door. They’ve also learned to plan ahead if they want to get their hands on the goods, which tend to sell out before noon, waking up early or setting aside a few midday hours to seek out a box — or several — of a half or full dozen.
This year, Chicagoans need that gleeful sugar rush that paczki (pronounced POONCH-key) provide more than ever. The pandemic makes the usual chaos of Paczki Day a dangerous proposition, so bakeries from the northern suburbs to the south side, some in existence for nearly a century, have implemented new policies like online ordering and outdoor pickup.
Paczki were developed in Poland so Catholics could use up tasty ingredients like sugar, eggs, and butter before beginning the Lenten season in accordance with Fat Tuesday (or, in Poland, Fat Thursday) customs. Though they’re now almost always made with sweet flavorings, the doughnuts were once savory, as they were historically fried in lard and filled with pork fat. Contemporary bakers usually try to balance an assortment of traditional flavors, like prune and rosehip, with creative and modern spins featuring ingredients like shaved winter truffle and edible gold leaves. In Polish, paczki is plural. A solo doughnut is called a paczek (PON-chick or PUN-chick).