Christmas Eve 1996. I’m six-years old living in High Park, Toronto with my nine-year old sister and my mother in a tiny run-down apartment.
Like many children, Christmas was my favorite time of the year. Besides Santa, snowmen, sledge bells, and singing, it was a time when my mother, with the little money she had pooled for the year, made our kitchen become a steady production line of handmade pierogi, spiced borsht, Olivier salad (salatka jarzynowa), cabbage roles, wild mushroom sauce covered meats, and most importantly to six-year old me, desserts.
With an apartment glowing with Christmas tree light, and resonating with Polish carols, not only did my mother make sure that everything she cooked and baked was to absolute perfection, but she also remained vigilante; keeping a watchful eye for any dirty and mischievous little hands that might be tempted to snatch a bite from her cakes before the guests arrived for Christmas day dinner.
Heartbroken as only a six year-old boy could be about having to wait until Christmas to eat all the delicious goodies, my mother would sate my monstrous sweet tooth with what I can recall as my first Polish treat; pączki from Granowska’s.
Granowska’s Bakery opened its doors at Roncesvalles and Fern on Thursday, June 13th, 1972. Named after a family bakery back in Poland, the mother/daughter duo of Elizabeth and Maria (later Elizabeth and her daughter Kathy Klodas), began a family business that for forty years would provide the city with very palatable Polish pastries, like rurka z kremem, sernik, pączki, and makowiec, to name a few.
A staple of the Polish-Canadian community, Granowska’s, in addition to having such famous customers as Pope John Paul II, would come to provide the so-called ‘official cake’ of the annual Roncesvalles Polish Festival; a festival that continues even today (taking place this year, on Sept. 14-16, 2012).
Unfortunately, facing the rising costs of high quality ingredients and seeking retirement, the owner of Granowska’s closed its doors on December 31st 2011.
As odd as it might sound, I feel that Granowska’s played a small but important role in my life for the simple fact that Polish food has always been the most significant cultural connection I have to my heritage.
Overall, I possess few of the cultural signifiers that would identify me as Polish. I’m not a practicing Catholic (I’m not even a believer), I don’t have many Polish friends, and most embarrassingly, I lack the ability to communicate in Polish.
If anything, my Polish is rudimentary at best, and rather telling, the vast majority of my vocabulary is food-related. The only time I’m remotely confident to converse in Polish is when ordering at Café Polonaise (a Toronto Polish restaurant) or simply telling my Babcia or Ciocia how delicious their cooking is.
Although the food itself is good and will hopefully be something that I can one day pass on, what I’ve come to appreciate in terms of learned Polish cultural values is what the food entails on a more macro level.
Be it the pride one takes in preparing the food, the communal activity of each family member contributing to its construction, or the simple act of a shared home-cooked meal, the end result is a sense of closeness that Poles can extend to any family member, friend, or stranger.
All of these small interactions that are confined to the kitchen and dinner table instills an important lesson. It teaches the value of spending time with one’s family and with those we love. No entertainment is needed. All that is required is good food and a person sitting next to you.
Granted, the tradition of a communal meal and the values associated with it is a shared global phenomenon, but regardless of my biased upbringing, I truly believe that Poles have a unique way of making people feel welcome around the dinner table.
And while I may never truly learn the language, and might never truly feel completely ‘Polish’, what I am confident in passing on is a deep appreciation for the joys of a shared family meal, and the sense that at the end of the breakfast, lunch, or dinner, those we have fed walk away with something more than just a full stomach.
Today, what is left of the brink-and-mortared remains of Granowska’s is a rather featureless Chinese flower and fruit corner store, and that genuinely saddens me. As melodramatic as this seems, its closing means that a part of what helped me feel Polish in Canada no longer exists.
If there is one beacon of hope it resides in the rumour that Kathy Klodas, after writing a family cookbook, is considering taking Granowska’s online, or even reopening it at another location. But until that unlikely day comes I must believe this to be my final farewell to a little corner bakery that brought some joy into my childhood.
~ Jake Marchel
NOTE: A special ‘thank you’ and credit to Mary Luz Mejia, from Toronto Life, whose article entitled “Roncesvalles staple Granowska’s Bakery to serve its last paczki at the end of the month” is my primary source for Granowksa’s history.