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Preparing for Easter in the Polish tradition at the Riverhead’s Polka Deli, where it’s all in the family

It’s Wednesday of Holy Week and a queue of eager customers quickly forms at the counter of the Polka Deli on West Main Street in Riverhead almost as soon as the doors open.

Customers come from near and far year-round to purchase Polish specialties and fresh-baked goods at the iconic Riverhead delicatessen. But the days leading up to Easter are a special time in the Polish tradition — and a time that draws more customers than any other time of year. 

“Last year, we had a line up to the traffic lights,” says Polka Deli owner Anna Tarnowska, referring to the intersection of West Main Street and Peconic Avenue, a block-and-a-half east of her shop.

Customers come for kielbasa, smoked hams, horseradish, babka, the ornately decorated Polish eggs and more — the first foods of Easter Sunday, and the foods that fill the Polish Easter basket brought to the church for blessing on Holy Saturday.

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Basia Proferes of Mount Sinai shopping for traditional Polish Easter foods at Polka Deli in Riverhead during Holy Week. Photo: Denise Civiletti

Basia Proferes of Mount Sinai was at the deli this morning, stocking up on Easter basket foods for herself and others. She is a longtime customer. 

“I used to come here with my mother,” she said, “and she’s been gone 25 years or so.”

Proferes brings her Easter basket to her parish church, Infant Jesus, in Port Jefferson each year for the blessing. 

“You go on Holy Saturday. It’s a tradition and I can say people come from all over. And I can hear the Polish language,” she said. “I mean, I don’t practice any more, since my parents are gone. My husband is Irish and Greek. And he doesn’t speak Polish.”  

The Easter basket tradition is a mainstay of the holiday, Tarnowska said.

“The Święconka (shvyen-son-kah)  — the Easter basket blessing— is one of the most beautiful Polish customs of Easter and an annual tradition at St. Isidore’s Church in Riverhead,” Tarnowska said. The church, founded by Polish immigrants in the late 19th century, offers food blessings at 9 and 11 a.m. and 1 and 3 p.m. on Holy Saturday. 

easter basket blessing AdobeStock
Photo: Adobe Stock

“It is a beloved Catholic ritual in the Polish community of Riverhead,” said Tarnowska, a Riverhead resident, a member of St. Isidore’s parish and vice president of the Polish Town Civic Association.

“The custom  arose from the strict Lenten fasting of the past, when meat and other foods were forbidden during Lent. Easter was thus greeted with great joy as the day Christ arose and when fasts were ended,” she said.

Each of the foods in the Polish Easter basket taken to the church for blessing carries an  important symbolism, Tarnowska said. She explained:

  • Bread is a symbol of the life and the body of Christ. 
  • Lamb, the centerpiece of any traditional Polish Easter basket symbolizes the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. Typically, Easter lambs are made of sugar, bread or a sweet cake. 
  • Salt is  a symbol of purification and durability. It protects against deterioration.
  • Ham or sausage is a symbol of the overabundance of God’s mercy on us. 
  • Horseradish is a symbol of strength and vigor
  • Easter cake, typically a babka (or mazurek) is a symbol of excellence and life abilities.
  • Eggs are a symbol of fertility, birth and resurrection. 

“Most often a Polish Easter basket is filled with the colorful Polish pisanki, the beautiful art of decorating Polish Easter eggs,” Tarnowska said. The ornately decorated eggs represent hope, joy, and renewal — the essence of spring and the spirit of Easter, she said.

“This beautiful tradition of Święconka unites families and communities. It is a great way to teach new generations of Polish-Americans about our common heritage,” Tarnowska said.

Tarnowska, herself a Polish immigrant, is passionate about preserving Polish traditions and teaching the Polish heritage to younger generations. Age 41, she is the mother of two young daughters.

“I want my daughters to experience the same,” she said. 

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Anna Tarnowska, right, owner of the Polka Deli, with her aunt Daniela Babel, who founded the business more than 30 years ago, in the kitchen at the deli March 27, 2024. Photo: Denise Civiletti

Tarnowska bought the business from her aunt and uncle, her mother’s siblings, three years ago. Her aunt and godmother, Daniela Bobel, founded the deli more than 30 years ago. Though she’s 85 years old, Bobel still works in the kitchen at the deli when she’s in Riverhead. She spends half the year in Poland and six months in Riverhead, living with Tarnowska and her family— and working side by side at the deli with her niece and a kitchen staff of seven or eight.

She worked at the deli from a young age — starting out peeling potatoes in the kitchen before she was old enough to work the cash register. She traveled between Poland and Riverhead, finishing her education at university in Poland before settling permanently in the U.S. 

Bobel was in the kitchen Wednesday morning, where by 11 o’clock. she’d already made more than 400 stuffed cabbages and was busy grinding cooked pork and onions to fill croquettes, another Polish specialty. 

Her personal favorites? 

“White borscht, stuffed cabbage… I like everything — but not too much,” the trim, white-haired woman says, laughing.  

Polka Deli, located at  125 West Main St. in Riverhead, is open Tuesday through Saturday, from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Sunday from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.  It will be closed on Easter Sunday. 

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Inside the Polka Deli on West Main Street in Riverhead. Photo: Denise Civiletti

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