*Image above features mini’s great-grandmother’s pierogi recipe — written in her own hand and framed as a reminder of good roots. And ICYMI: I also published a holiday gift guide for men today.
For several years, Mr. Magpie and I owned a home in Ukrainian Village on the West side of Chicago. The neighborhood was startlingly authentic in the sense that you could buy the best kielbasa sandwich you’ve ever had for $5 from a rundown little Polish deli around the corner from us, many homes prominently hung Ukrainian flags out front, Masses at the local Catholic Church were often said in Eastern European languages, and, in the small West Town branch of the public library, entire shelves of the diminutive toddler board book section were devoted to titles in Ukrainian and Polish. It was a vibrant area with a strong sense of cultural identity, and it thrilled my mother-in-law, whose Polish roots shone proudly on each visit to see us. On what would be my parents-in-law’s final trip to Chicago (we would move to New York six months later), mini had just been born, so we spent much of our time at home or on brief walks around the neighborhood. One evening, paying homage to my mother-in-law’s heritage, we ventured out to Podhalanka, which The Lonely Planet travel guide correctly describes as “a hole-in-the-wall holdover, a true mom-and-pop joint (with owner Helena up front and husband Jerry in the kitchen).” TimeOut Chicago also astutely captures its no-frills, old-timey vibe as follows: “When we say Podhalanka has an ‘old world’ feel, we mean old world in that ‘premodern comforts’ kind of way. Not that this dive doesn’t have electricity, but it is dark.” This spot is a throwback. It almost feels like you’re eating in your distant great-aunt-once-removed’s basement in Eastern Europe twenty or thirty years ago, especially given the oddly placed couch flanking one wall. The menu is, of course, in Polish, with only the barest of English translations beneath: “rolled stuffed beef” and “pork stew” suffice. The food is, of course, excellent. We feasted on pierogi, golabki, nalesniki, stewed meat, and a cabbage soup the proprietress insisted would be good for me in my postpartum condition. She also made an enormous fuss over one-month-old mini, who snoozed through the majority of our visit in her infant carseat. The owner could not stop exclaiming over her in Polish, placing her hand over her heart, looking up at the ceiling in wonderment. And we beamed back. My mother-in-law was positively in heaven, eager to tell the owner about her Polish roots and reminiscing about the pierogi her own grandmother used to make.
As we, full and happy, prepared to leave, the owner came back over to our table and wordlessly tucked a ten dollar bill under mini’s carseat strap. We thanked her while attempting to press the bill back into her palm, but she shooed us away. “May God bless her,” she said simply. “May God bless her.”
When I looked over at my mother-in-law as we departed the restaurant, she was crying. We didn’t speak about it, only squeezing hands in the tacit way you show affection and understanding to a loved one farklempt with emotion. But I could see the contours of something enormous in her tears, and it looked a lot like heritage, neighborliness, and the ties that bind. How is it that a stranger could express such profound glee at the good fortune of our daughter’s birth? How is it that she could show such unexpected generosity, likely ceding the entirety of the tip we had left her? Her gesture represented the inaugural deposit we would make in mini’s savings account, and isn’t it astounding to think that a kind neighbor was the first person to invest in our daughter?
In the face of the many uncertainties of 2020, it has been reassuring to think back on Helena at Podhalanka, and to remind myself to dial in on the local. I am sure many of you have similar stories of the unexpected kindness of a neighbor, too. If you have a minute today, please share your own Helena story in the comments.
P.S. Finds I am obsessing over here.