#889: My Local Doughnut

February 14th, 2018

The line snaked the perimeter.

It crept along the bakery’s inner edge, past the street-facing glass cases trying to lure wanderers with wedding cakes, curling around the side room where pickup orders happen any other day of the year, almost reaching to the dining room off to the back where people eat sandwiches and drink coffee any other day of the year.

But it’s not any other day of the year.

“I should have pre-paid,” I said, eyeing a man in a tan greatcoat who hopped past it all, picked up his box of pączki and left.

“Every year I am saying to myself I should do that,” the woman behind me in line said, chuckling.

The old Polish woman with the bobbed gray hair had been getting her Pączki Day pączki (pronunciation: poonch-key, singular: pączek, best flavor: prune, but Dinkel’s doesn’t carry that) at Dinkel’s Bakery on Lincoln Avenue for 15 years. The line this year wasn’t bad, she said.

“One year, it is so bad I am saying ‘Forget it!’ and turning right back around,” she said.

I have a confession. I have never done Pączki Day, Chicago’s Polish-inspired doughnut fest. At least never done it right. Past local news jobs had me cover the massive lines at local bakeries, but I’ve never been in them. I’d planned to, but then ended up grabbing a box at Jewel while late to work, or been too broke to make a thing of it and Margaret at the old job said “weird Chicago holidays” didn’t justify breaking into the petty cash fund, or I mixed up when Fat Tuesday was or had been hexed by a warlock. Various excuses.

But on Tuesday, I got up bright and early and, in a scene aped at local bakeries throughout the region, stood in a massive line at Dinkel’s to pick up my box of pre-ordered but not pre-paid delicious doughnuts.

The clock ticked toward work’s starting time. The line grew, even as the pastries flew out. Apron-clad workers rushed from the kitchen with replacement trays. People kept coming in the door, stepping in line and then goggling when told where the line really starts. The line grew. It was hectic. And it was wonderful.

The world hasn’t gotten smaller. If anything, the last few years have shown the true breadth of our divides. But the world has gotten same-er. I can order the same coffee and eat the same cheeseburger in every town on the planet, pull out the same phone and make the same jokes about the same movie we all saw.

“There’s no there there,” Gertrude Stein wrote about Oakland, Calif., a town that felt like nothing. But that’s not the trouble. Now it’s the same there everywhere, our culture and commerce so stultifyingly universal it can take a moment to recall where you are when the food, drink, music, TV, movies and online in-jokes are the same same same.

Except for weird shit. Except for odd local quirks that drag our rears to locally owned stores to spend money in the community on things that remind us we are a community. A Chicago pączek. A New Orleans king cake. A Pennsylvania fasnacht. Just little riffs on the concept of “Eat fat pastry before Lent,” but they’re our little riffs.

When a friend and I met for coffee later that day, each hoisting the gift pączki we had intended to surprise each other with, we didn’t talk about Polish heritages (we don’t have them) or Lent (we don’t fast). We talked about which locally owned store we spent money at. Dinkel’s for me, Orland Park Bakery for her.

Aside from the woman behind me with the accent and the “am saying” sentence construction, I doubt there was a single Pole in line at the German bakery.

“I’ve done Pączki Day since I was 2!” an Asian woman announced in perfect Polish pronunciation to the black woman behind the counter, who shared her Pączki Day memories in turn.

It’s a silly little tradition that snuck out of the Polish community into the region, but isn’t yet ubiquitous enough to become part of the uniculture of McDonald’s, Starbucks and Marvel movies. But I love it because it is silly. Because it is a meaningless little quirk that serves no purpose but to say that there’s a here here, to remind yourself you are in a particular place with a particular identity and particular traditions you have to explain to others while trying to convince them prune-filled doughnuts are actually a good idea.

They are. They really are. If you don’t believe me, you can find out for yourself.

You’ll just have to wait another year.

Read another story of Dinkel’s

Read how the pączki-hoisting friend keeps not dying

And just for fun, Jolanda, the slowest fucking turtle in the world

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