Swieconka (pronounced shvyen-tzon-kah) is the most beautiful of Poland's many folk traditions. On Holy Saturday (today!), Polish families prepare baskets filled with traditional food items and take them to church to be blessed. This food is shared on Easter morning in a ritual breaking of the fast. I had a chance to witness this magnificent custom in the Avondale neighborhood this afternoon. The whole section of Milwaukee from Diversey to Belmont was filled with Polish families (yuppie couples, blue-collar families, recent immigrants etc) dressed in their very best, parading up and down the street on their way to and from the service of the Blessing of Baskets at St. Hyacinth. Clearly, the walk up and down the street was part of the celebration: a chance to show off the elaborately-decorated baskets to the world. And what baskets! Some of these I saw today were obviously heirlooms, passed down from generation to generation and festooned with ribbons, with daffodils, with sprigs of boxwood, covered with intricate pieces of lace or beautifully embrodiered napkins. A google search on "swieconka" will yield several websites with additional information on this lovely tradition. The best one is probably the first that appears (the one at acweb.column.edu): it includes links to videos of the service as well as some excellent pictures. Towards the bottom of the home page, you will also find a link to a diagram of a typical arrangement of the basket and an explanation of the symbolism of the food items in the basket. Among the items on that diagram are egg, ham, sausage, bread, salt. In addition I also saw several baskets today with little jars of horseradish. I was told that horseradish is sometimes also included to represent "the bitter" and that vinegar (for "sour") might also at times be found.
Of course, all the delis and bakeries at Avondale were insanely packed. There were lines at Kurowska, at Andie's, at the bakery across the street from Andie's. My friend and I finally managed to snag a couple of chicken pasties (pasztecik, 2 of these = $1.32) at Staropolska. Thin, light, flaky crust + expertly-shredded chicken meat: an excellent snack!
Outside Animal Kingdom (pet shop) was a man dressed in a fuzzy pink bunny costume handing out cardboard bunny ears. Of course, we had to go in to say hello to their tiger and lion. Unfortunately, they are on tour at the moment, although they had a vicious coyote and a giant hornbill (neither of these for sale) on display. The parrots were making loud, raucous noises. The giant turtle ambled at its own regal pace down the aisles of the store (it's not shy at all and doesn't mind being petted and doesn't slink back into its shell). All kinds of kids (Mexican kids, Puerto-Rican families, Polish families with their Easter baskets in hand, big kids like me) ran around riotously marvelling at this cute animal or that.
It then occurred to me how wonderful a neighborhood this would be for hounding with kids. There was an inquiry a month or so back about doing fairly adventurous hounding with kids on hand. This Logan Square/Avondale section would have been a wonderful possibility. One could take the blue line (and emerge at Logan Square station) or take the Milwaukee bus from downtown (bonus here of being able to ride past other neighborhoods such as Wicker Park). The walk north to Diversey is filled with possibilities for Puerto-Rican, Cuban, Mexican hounding. One could perhaps stroll up to have lunch at Ixcapuzalco, continue on from there to explore Avondale (with its lovely art deco commercial buildings), and then at the end of the day head on for dinner at Thai Aree or the Keralan take-out place next to it. The more ambitious can even continue on (on the Milwaukee bus) past Portage Park neighborhood (with its superb antique stores, the time-warp diners, the huge costume store, the ancient time-warp billiard hall) to Lawrence, where the Lawrence bus can take them on past the wonders of Albany Park. (The brown line at Kimball can then bring them back to downtown). The kids would have fun watching tortillas being made at Ixcapuzalco, buying coconut ice from the ice cream man (more on this below), trying all kinds of meat pies or sweets at the Polish delis and of course, saying hello to all the animals at the pet shop.
My thanks by the way to the dashing, handsome, very gracious Luis Flores (one of Geno Bahena's lieutenants at Ixcapuzalco) who gave my friend Sharon (who had never been in there) a tour of the restaurant. Luis is from Teloloapan (like Geno) and I enjoyed chatting with him for a few minutes about my recent trip to the Taxco-Iguala and Chilpancingo-Chilapa areas of Guerrero.
Also from the Iguala-Teloloapan area are several of the coconut ice carts/vendors in Logan Square. I saw at least 6 of these carts on my walk up and down Milwaukee today. Seth Zurer was the first to mention these in a post from last year; I am beginning to think that coconut ice (helado de coco) might be one of the special products of the Logan Square nieghborhood. Other Mexican neighborhoods have their ice vendors of course, but in no other area in Chicago is the coconut ice such an exclusive specialty. And it seems to be one of the most popular street food forms as well: virtually every 5th person I ran into today was holding a coconut ice. Some vendors make their own ices at home, others buy from a specialist: I still do not have the whole picture but will continue probing for a story in the coming weeks.
One of the most special of the ice-makers is Senor Bruno, who pushes a cart called Coquito Helado and who "parks" in front of "that" outlet store (let's not honor that brand by naming it) at Milwaukee and Diversey (he's by the Milwaukee exit/door). He says that he is there every single day (next to his friend, the paletero). Senor Bruno is from the Balsas Nuevo area of Guerrero (not near Teloloapan, but close to it). His ice is made at home: coconut meat is ground, steeped in milk, drip-filtered off with some kind of cheesecloth material to produce the base liquid of the ice. The final ice is very dense and cannot be scooped. Instead, Senor Bruno has to shave thin layers off repeatedly with his scoop to fill a cup. The product is very "dry" (i.e. not wet and sloppy), has a lightly "sandy" quality in its texture and sits unmelted on the palate for a split-second before releasing its pure, delicate flavor. A truly truly marvellous thing!
(One of these days, we will have to discuss the different styles of ices in Mexico: the fabled Michoacan ice from the town of Tocumbo, the mole ice and shrimp ice I found at Dolores Hidalgo, the Oaxacan ices in front of La Soledad church...)
To be continued