Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Pass the lard, please

While growing up, I never thought of myself as sheltered. It was the Midwest, but I went to a public high school that had plenty of black people. Later on, I patted myself on the back for choosing to attend such a "diverse" institution instead of the local Catholic high schools.

When I first saw the word "Polak" written in a musty, old joke book at a local book fair, I had absolutely no idea what it meant. (Now that I think about it, who was screening these books? I probably could've found Mein Kampf if I looked hard enough.) I could tell that it was some sort of slur and an ugly word, but could not even fathom who it might refer to. Were there people who lived at the South Pole I didn't know about? And if there were, weren't they living in igloos and calling themselves Eskimos?

(Keep in mind that I was 7-years-old. It doesn't change the fact that I was stupid, but I hope you'll feel worse making fun of a kid.)

The idea that there were other cultures outside of Western Europe that didn't involve a change in skin color or facial features was, well, entirely foreign to me.

Fast forward 19 years and I'm embracing different cultures in the whitest, most American way possible. I'm eating their food.

This is what lead me and 5 friends to Szalas (pronounced Shah-wah's), an authentic Polish restaurant in the Archer Heights neighborhood of Chicago.

I grabbed the nearest, and coincidentally my favorite Polish person, Karolina to take along as our guide through the world of beet soup and copious amounts of meat.

The atmosphere is definitely my favorite part about the place. It's a huge A-frame building with giant, vaulted ceilings and a big rope attached to a bell you have to pull to get inside.

Um, yes, that is a water wheel and a GIANT STUFFED BEAR you see behind me. I told you. Awesome.

Karolina was also able to explain a lot of the clothes and tools that decorated the walls. For instance, did you know that the typical Polish Highlander's walking cane doubled as an axe? Me neither, but now I know I'll run faster if being chased by an angry, cane-wielding Pole.

Shit just got better when they brought our bread basket which included a goat cheese spread and a scoop of lard with bacon bits mixed in.

It actually wasn't as completely gross as it sounds, but I did only have the one bite I forced myself to try. I think that if I hadn't been told it was lard, it might've had a better chance. Lard. Now there's a word that can kill an appetite.

We decided to split some dishes, but Nikki went with the special which is basically every type of Polish meat on a plate.

She's delighted if you can't tell.

As the only experienced one at the table, Karolina decided to flex her culinary gross out muscles and ordered sauerkraut and mushroom pierogies followed up with the nastiest thing I've ever seen someone eat outside of old Survivor episodes.

Mmm, herring.

Luckily our food came before I could blow chunks.

Everything was basically meat dressed up in different sauce/potato/dumpling packages. The highlander's special was the all-around favorite (potato pancake topped with goulash). Did you know that goulash was an actual food? I thought it was one of those things like "porridge" that poor kids are always eating in fairy tales and Dickens' novels.

There were also some traditional Polish Highlander musicians to entertain us and the other two tables there on Valentine's Day weekend.

Shh. Don't tell that guy that his cello only has three strings and it's not just a really big guitar.

The verdict?

I loved the atmosphere and the company, but I don't see myself craving a beef roll, pickle soup or beet salad anytime soon.

If I had the chance to go back with this crew though, I'd take it. Stick to the beer and the goulash and you can't go wrong.

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