“Nie dla psa kiełbasa,” is a sardonic thing you can say in Polish when something is (or should be) unattainable for someone who desires it. It means “the sausage is not for dogs.” Not speaking Polish, it’s precisely the way I feel when I get a craving for kielbasa and find myself in one of the city’s wondrous Polish delis, such as Rich’s, Dunajec, or Kurowski’s. These places all smell bewitchingly of smoke, pork, garlic, and spice, and all feature long rows of dangling meat, hung far out of reach behind the counter. Each individual expression of girth, length, and hue is labeled with its Polish name, and because these places are often thick with people who know exactly what they want and how to ask for it, there’s little chance for someone who grew up on the featureless Hillshire Farm casserole standby to figure out what’s what.
It turns out churchgoing, Polish-speaking Poles experience a similar longing—at least on Holy Saturday, aka the Harrowing of Hell, when Jesus descended into the underworld on the day after he was crucified to save history’s captive souls. This is the day—this Saturday, in fact—of Święconka, or when you bring your Easter basket to church to get blessed by the priest in advance of breaking your Lenten fast. It’s not filled with jelly beans and Peeps, but real food (ham, cheese, salt), symbolizing different things. Eggs are for new hope, new life. Bread is the staff of life. Butter molded into the shape of lambs signifies the end of Lent. Sausages mean abundance and, if you’re particularly hungry, they smell like it too.
“When you’re taking that thing to church and getting it ready in the morning, the smell is the first thing that hits you,” reports Sylvia Dziemian, who DJs under the name M. Sylvia, and who helped her grandparents make sausage when she was little. “When you’re in church waiting for the priest to get done, there’s also a very special kind of smell in the air, all coming from the sausage. Ideally, you’re fasting. You’ve been abstaining from meat on Fridays, and you certainly shouldn’t eat before you bring the basket home. However, as soon as you get in the car, you grab a piece of that sausage before you grab the steering wheel.”
You can put whatever kind of kielbasa you like in your Easter basket. They make about 20 cured and smoked sausages at Andy’s Deli & Mikolajczyk Sausage Shop, the reigning 101-year-old godfather of Polish sausage in Chicago, with its own dedicated Wisconsin slaughterhouse, Jefferson Park flagship deli, and Garfield Park processing plant. But most people use a special shortened ring of their standard Polish sausage (polska kielbasa), according to general manager Simon Kolasa, whose uncle Andy Kolasa bought the business back in the 80s. Andy’s also makes a special mini-ham that can fit snugly into an Easter basket, along with some 250 other meat products, which are stocked in every major Polish grocery and deli around Chicagoland, and shipped all over the country.
The end of Lent, when everybody’s anxious to satisfy their nagging meat tooth, is a particularly busy time of year for Empire Andy’s, but Kolasa still found time to walk me through the plant last week—a labyrinthine sausage forest—and give me a short course in Polish sausageology, which led, along with additional guidance from special correspondents Dziemian and Patryk Carwinski, to the following, not-comprehensive kielbasa cheat sheet, which you can refer to the next time you feel like you deserve some sausage.
1) Domowa (pronounced dome-of-ah, “homemade”): A dark, firm, relatively dry coarsely ground nitrite-nitrate free sausage, with a hint of marjoram. According to Kolasa, customers sometimes worry the sausage has spoiled due to the interior, untinted by nitrites and nitrates. It hasn’t.
Grillowa (grill-of-ah, “grill”): A plump, tender, fatty, juicy, not-too-spicy tube appropriate for grilling (not pictured).
Jalawcowa (yah-wah-vts-of-ah, “juniper”): A firm, semidry pork and beef sausage spiced with juniper berry, nutmeg, allspice, mustard, smoked sausage (not pictured).
Kiszka, aka kaszanka (kee-shhh-kah, beef blood and barley sausage): Good fried with eggs, though the encased version, kiszka krupnik, is durable enough to be grilled without falling apart.
2) Kabanos (cob-ah-no-sss): Long, thin, lean snack sticks with a hint of allspice, in a few varieties, such as the chewy smoked and dried kabanosy suszane and a chicken variety: kabanosy z kury.
Kielbaski pyszne (que-wi-bus-kee pish-neh, barbecue sausage): Thin, hot-dog-shaped smoked pork links, suitable for the grill. Same formula as the grillowa except in a collagen casing, which allows for precisely controlled uniform weight from sausage to sausage.
Krajana (croix-anna, “sliced,” Canadian-style): A long, girthy, heavily smoked sausage stuffed with bigger chunks of lean meat. Good for sandwiches. (not pictured)
Krakowska parzona (craw-k-of-ska posh-on-ah, “of Kraków steamed”): A long, coarsely ground, dry, lean sausage, with a peppery kick named for Poland’s second-largest city. People hang it at home and dry it out. Seasoned with allspice, pepper, coriander, and garlic, it’s first steamed, then smoked. Good for sandwiches with a pronounced hammy taste. (not pictured)
Lesna (lesh-nah, “Forest”): A darker caramel-colored casing jackets a cherry wood-smoked garlic and marjoram-seasoned grind.
Mysliwska (mi-shh-leave-ska, “Hunter”): Semidry, lean, dark and smoky, it’s named for the hunters who may have carried it as provisioning. It has a peppery kick that can stand up in bigos, or hunter’s stew. (pictured below)
3) Szyszkowa (shish-co-va, podhalanska): Hailing from the southern highland Podhale region, it’s molded in a distinctive flower-shaped casing. It has a coarse grind that holds together like a deli meat.
Slaska (shh-low-ska): A regional sausage with an 80/20 meat to fat ratio, this is a bit leaner than most and a bit more expensive. Ideal for grilling.
4) Surowo-wędzona (sur-o-v-o v-e-w-ds-oh-nah): A fresh, cold-smoked sausage with a raw, chorizo-like texture. Some people hang it to dry, others remove the casing and fry it up.
5) Swojska (swoy-ska, “pork polish sausage”): Another long, strongly smoked, nitrate-free old-style link.
6) Weselna (ve-sell-nah, “Wedding”): A double-smoked pork sausage ideal for sobering up drunk wedding guests.
7) Wiejska (v-yay-ska, “country”): Andy’s most garlicky pork sausage and its best online seller.
8) Zywiecka (zh-v-yets-kah): Hailing from the south central brewery town, this large sausage has a very hammy taste, and a thick artificial casing, with big chunks of lean meat in the grind. v