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Red Poppies: A Polish Pantry
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Red Poppies: A Polish Pantry
We are not surprised by the astonishment, and even occasional amusement, we often see (and can imagine) on people’s faces when they begin reading our narrative. These reactions grow out of the question: “Okay, Polish Pantry, I get it, but why the red poppies?” The explanation for this reaction is obvious: people associate poppies with their illicit uses, and the equally illicit opium drug trade, which - we might stress - has absolutely nothing to do with Poland. The other association with the color red is of course, "The Reds," and while Poland did suffer the Soviet occupation, in our case, this bears also not a relevant meaning.
Our fascination with red poppies, indeed, has nothing to do with communism, or with its medical or recreational use due to its sedative properties. It starts rather with its valuable, ornamental purposes as well as culinary ones. Poppy seeds (of Papaver Somniferum) are an important food item and the source of poppy seed oil, a healthful edible oil that has many uses. It is also very true that poppies are not only an agricultural crop, but also a sorry weed, detested by farmers who rely on weed-free crops to make a living. And yet, this apparently disgusting pest, that endangers healthy seeds, is also a fascinating artistic inspiration for many renowned artists. It was most beloved by the impressionist painter Claude Monet, and to be honest, given its beautiful colors, we are not surprised he chose to paint it repeatedly.
Claude Monet: Poppy Field at Argenteuil, 1873
Poles know and cherish poppy seeds mainly as a delicious food item, and use them often in their kitchen. Indeed, someone who has not tried, or perhaps even, heard of the Polish pastry, makowiec, or poppy seed roll, is in for a culinary treat, unless of course, he or she lacks a sweet tooth. And as far as sweet teeth go, Poles generally possess them, some of us, even a jaw-full! But Poles also treasure the traditional connotations of the poppy seed. In Polish national culture we find a telling term, “a bushel of poppy seeds;” its symbolic meaning relates to a wealthy and abundantly stocked home. Thus, every good Polish housekeeper tried to keep a bushel of poppy seeds in her pantry, since, as the divination goes, it would ensure her home stayed wealthy. This is also the origin of the Christmas vigil custom of serving dishes with poppy seeds, to ensure an abundant harvest and auspicious year.
There exists another, very important meaning of the poppy flower in Polish culture, this time completely symbolic. "Czerwone maki na Monte Cassino" ("The Red Poppies on Monte Cassino") is one of the best-known and most beloved Polish military songs of World War II. It was composed in May 1944 in Italy, during the Battle of Monte Cassino, on the eve of the Polish Army's (Polish Armed Forces in the West II Corps) capture of the German stronghold that had blocked the Allies' advance toward Rome. The forces of several Allied countries had attempted to capture the German fortress since mid-January. Polish troops were rotated in for the fourth major assault, which would begin on 11 May 1944. The Poles stormed and captured the precincts of the Monte Cassino monastery. The song "Red Poppies on Monte Cassino" tells the bloody story of their victory:
The red poppies on Monte Cassino
Drank Polish blood instead of dew
Over the poppies the soldiers did go
'Mid death, and to their anger stayed true!
Years will come and ages will go
Enshrining their strivings and their toil,
And the poppies on Monte Cassino
Will be redder for Poles's blood in their soil.
(translation from Wikipedia)
The Monastery of Monte Cassino (from: wierni-ojczyznie.pl)
"The Red Poppies on Monte Cassino" became popular with the troops and was soon published by a Polish-American newspaper in New York. It would later be published in Poland as well. However, it was banned during the Stalinist period in the People's Republic of Poland, when the pro-Soviet government sought to minimize the memory of the wartime accomplishment of the Allied and Polish Armed Forces in the West.
A Matthew Parker's literary account of the battle.
It is obvious that poppies are a plant that is known and grown on almost the entire globe. Yet, despite its beauty, it can also be associated with negative images – those of a drug and a weed. In Polish culture, however, it is known and cherished. In 2012 the Polish Olympic uniforms, for example, were decorated with a poppy motif. These poppies carry a symbolic meaning of effort and national sacrifice in the face of the invading Nazi army. From these other meanings, ones dear to the hearts of the Polish nation, we hope you will be able to see that the poppy is not only a beloved and recognizable symbol of the Polish experience, but that it echoes the positive contributions of the Polish American community. Starting with Kościuszko and Pułaski, and their efforts in the American Revolution, the tradition of cooperation between our two nations is continued to this day. Great numbers of, granted, a bit less famous, Polish Americans, who brought with them to America not only a basis for Polish jokes, but also a great deal of traditions, have given this country a cultural gift that is worth exploring. Of these traditions, we believe the culinary ones: the Easter basket, the poppy seed cake, pierogi, kiełbasa, barszcz, etc. have made and will continue to make the greatest splash in American culture. We hope that by working off of the success and popularity of Polish foods, Red Poppies: A Polish Pantry, a traditional Polish food store, will make a similarly positive, and hopefully long-lasting, contribution to the atmosphere and diversity of Albany.