Easter is a tasty time in Port Richmond's Polish diaspora
By late Friday morning, the line was nearly out the front door of Stan Swiacki Meats. That's nothing, said Ed Swiacki, 36, who still smokes kielbasa the same way his grandfather did in 1950. By Good Friday, lines will form before dawn, snaking past the counter stocked with rye bread, babka, and pierogi, down Salmon Street and onto Venango.
By late Friday morning, the line was nearly out the front door of Stan Swiacki Meats.
That's nothing, said Ed Swiacki, 36, who still smokes kielbasa the same way his grandfather did in 1950. By Good Friday, lines will form before dawn, snaking past the counter stocked with rye bread, babka, and pierogi, down Salmon Street and onto Venango.
"We used to have an order line," where people could come right in and pick up advance orders, he said. "We had to stop it, because there were almost fights in the line, people thought they were cutting. So many almost-fights broke out that we had to put an end to it."
Other than that, though, not much has changed at Swiacki's (3623 Salmon St., 215-634-0820), or the other neighborhood mainstays where, among Port Richmond residents and the neighborhood's Polish American diaspora, it's an Easter tradition to queue up for three hours. From across the region, they'll make the annual pilgrimage to stock the festival table with fresh kielbasa and pierogi from Czerw's (3370 Tilton St., 215-423-1707), with buttery pound cake from Stock's Bakery (2614 E. Lehigh Ave., 215- 634-7344) or a cheese babka from Marian's Bakery (2615 E. Allegheny Ave., 215-634-4579).
"We've got people who are the third generation coming in line to get their kielbasa from here," said John Czerw, 43, himself a third-generation kielbasa maker and the youngest of three brothers who run the business.
Take a walk back behind the counter and into the haze of the smoke house, and it's easy to see why: Loops of kielbasa cool on a rack fresh out of the same smoker their grandfather built 76 years ago.
"It's our pride and joy," said Czerw, who smokes the kielbasa over apple or cherry wood for four to five hours. "Seventy-six years worth of smoke in there keeps the heat in."
The kielbasa is a mix of fresh-ground pork butt, garlic, and spices wrapped in a natural casing. Asked if the recipe has ever been tweaked, Czerw looked horrified.
"Oh, God, no! No, no, no, no. It's top secret, too. There's quicker, easier ways, and probably cheaper ways, too. But we refuse to change my grandfather's way." Like an Easter morning breakfast of kielbasa and eggs, he said, "It's tradition."
Paige Setzer, 23, is part of that tradition.
"I've been coming every year since I was 3 years old," said Setzer, waiting in line cheese babka in hand. She lives in Hatfield, but her mother grew up in the neighborhood, and her family are still Czerw's loyalists.
"We've waited out there for hours. It gets pretty long, and sometimes it rains, sometimes it snows. But it's tradition to keep coming back. It wouldn't be a Christmas or Easter without Czerw's and Stock's."
Still, that doesn't mean nothing changes. Czerw's still makes its own pierogi, but the most popular variety these days is cheesesteak.
And at Swiacki, though the kielbasa hasn't changed (it's a 70 percent pork, 30 percent beef gluten-free product), they've added new varieties of the stackable kabanosy (Polish slim jims in hot, mild and, now, spicy Colby-cheese variations).
Still, in the run-up to Easter, Ed Swiacki said smoked kielbasa sells the best; some days, Swiacki's sells more than a ton of it. This week, Swiacki's workforce will swell from five to as high as 25 to keep up.
"My whole family comes in Easter week, anyone that's related to us," Ed's mother, Cathy, said. Ex-employees take vacation from their jobs to return.
Angeline Zamorski and her mother, Pat, had made the trip from Northeast Philly to stock up on kielbasa, pierogi, sauerkraut, and sweets. Pat cooks the fresh kielbasa with sauerkraut and bacon; the smoked stuff she slices, pan fries, and serves with rye bread and horseradish. They were expecting about a dozen guests for Easter - though when there's Port Richmond gold on hand, more guests tend to keep stopping by.
Of course, there's more to an Easter table than kielbasa - like pound cake, preferably from Stock's, where it is available in standard brick form or as a decorated half-egg for Easter. Kristine Stock-DeCarles, who started working at the bakery once she was tall enough to reach the counter, said the goods sometimes sell out for Easter. Sometimes Stock's has to limit the number of cakes per customer, just to be fair to those in line.
"A lot of things we'll stop making - our butter cake, and doughnuts and danishes - because we don't have enough oven time," she said.
Like Czerw, she was adamant that the pound cake recipe has not changed in decades. (Stock's fought the city in 2007 when a trans-fat ban endangered the dessert. It won.)
Likewise, at Marian's Bakery, Raymond Dabitz has stopped making almost everything else to focus on poppy seed cakes, babkas, and chrusciki, fried cookies slathered with powdered sugar. "It's an all-scratch bakery," he said. "I'm a dinosaur."
In Port Richmond at Easter time, though, that's a good thing. This week, Marian's babka, Czerw's and Swiacki's kielbasa, and Stock's cakes will be shipped all over the country in care packages.
Other parcels will be piled into baskets and brought to church to be blessed.
Gary Dydak, a Czerw's regular who was stocking up on smoked and fresh kielbasa, bacon, and kabanosy, takes it a step further: A priest will come by on Saturday to bless his family's table, butter lamb and all.
"It's been a tradition for years," he said. "Everyone comes over, and after the priest blesses the food, that's when we sit down and have a great feast."
And that's what makes the line worth it.
"It's the friendliest line in the world," said Czerw. "It's not like Walmart at Christmastime. It seems like some people gather just to meet out there once a year. And, of course, we hand out samples to keep them happy."