After eating canned beans, pasta, and broccoli for the week we spent in Norway, we finally forked up $20 each for a paper-plate Asian takeout lunch at a little cafeteria in Oslo that would cost just $7 in the United States. Yikes – we needed to get the heck outta Norway.

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The lunch at the Loving Hut in Oslo was super delicious and priced averagely for the city, but we sure cringed at $20 a plate. Norway is amazing, but expensive for us humble Americans!

Fortunately, as soon as we arrived in Warsaw, we were promptly whisked to a hokey pierogi restaurant. “It’s the TGI Fridays of pierogis,” said Steven, the son of our hosts, who are very good family friends enjoying their American retirement dollars in Poland.

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The first of many, many pierogis I eat in Poland.

Ah, fatty, fried pierogi – I got mushroom and cabbage with chives, Aaron got potato and cheese with fried bacon and onion. And so we began our task of gaining weight to please my plump clan as we bask in the hospitality of family I haven’t seen in over 10 years.

In Warsaw, Steven’s parents Asia and Ziggy had no idea what to do with me. I told them last month I’ve gone vegan, and Steven reminded them just before we arrived. “What the hell is that?” they said. We were on our own, and I was cool with that – I scoured HappyCow.net and found two vegan restaurants to drag Aaron and Steven to as we toured the Old City and the Warsaw Uprising Museum (a must see).

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The vegan version of traditional cutlets at Vege Bistro.

So we went to Vege Bistro for lunch, where we gorged on vegan versions of traditional Polish dishes: bean cutlets, chickpea and potato pancakes with almond sauce, and risotto (not so traditional) with wild forest mushrooms and rice paper bacon. Then we got blueberry pierogi with coconut cream for dessert, with coffee. That would not be our last dish of blueberry pierogi. For three people with juice, dessert and coffee, we paid $28.

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Blueberry pierogis with coconut cream at Vege Bistro.

Wandering around Old City on a “hot” August day, we couldn’t help but notice that everyone in the city was eating ice cream, so we popped into one of hundreds of ice cream shops. Hallelujah, they even had vegan ice cream!

Poland has changed, I’ll tell ya.

Dinner was a heaping, messy, delicious veggie burger at the fast-yet-healthy food place, Krowarzywa – highly recommended, 10/10, sloppy burger delight.

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Krowarzywa has a selection of veggie burgers and a special weekly burger, with choose-your-own-sauces.

On to the countryside, which has changed pretty much not at all. We arrived at my aunt’s house to mushroom and cabbage pierogis, beet soup, salad, bread, hummus, all for me – and for the others, chicken cutlets battered with cheese and fried, meat-filled pierogis, chicken soup. Boiled potatoes we all shared. For dessert, my aunt served me blueberry pierogis with sprinkled sugar. I let Aaron have some, but he had cake and cookies to enjoy.

I don’t think we’ve felt hungry at all since that bus ride from Warsaw.

I’ve been lying to my relatives about the why of being vegan. Weight concerns explain away questions about meat eating, which they find peculiar but have at least heard of. But milk products? I fib and say I’m lactose intolerant – that I had skin problems and digestive issues with cheese and yogurt. Lying is easier than explaining the truth.

It’s hard to explain why I wouldn’t smother my bread with butter. Why I wouldn’t put sweetened sour cream on my fruit pierogis, or drink fresh milk with my fried potato pancakes? Only the youngest of my cousin’s kids caught on – he asked, “Is it that you don’t eat meat because you don’t want to hurt animals?” Yes, I said, and he nodded.

That kid’s really smart – Bartek – he has an encyclopedic knowledge of aircraft and commercial air traffic routes in his head. I told him we flew a 787 to Europe and his eyes widened – “Dreamliner?” Sure was, I said. “What airline?” Norwegian, I said. “To Oslo?”

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Breakfast table, half laden. Dishes tended to appear midway through meals after we were already full – but how can you say know to an aunt offering a plate full of steaming pierogis?

Anyway, breakfast the next morning after a delightful meal with my aunt, my cousin and his wife and their three adorable children was another smorgasbord – two types of bread and rolls, hummus and butter, scrambled eggs for Aaron from the backyard chickens, yogurts and salads and fruit and garden tomatoes and onions and cucumbers and my aunt made me two kinds of porridge – oat and rice. Bartek noted that children eat rice porridge.

I can’t continue to enumerate the endless traffic of food that passed through that table, except that evening my aunt’s other son and his wife and two children arrived and my cousin’s wives prepared especially for me, roasted peppers stuffed with rice and wild mushrooms, and for the rest, roasted duck with stewed apples. This time, plum pierogis. A lavender cheesecake topped with a jello layer encrusted with grapes. Even young Ola baked chocolate chip muffins for us. We’d later have peach pierogis at some point.

We visited my mother’s old village, which hasn’t changed in decades – still the same single dusty road, the same old buildings, tidier gardens. Corn fields have replaced a lot of the wheat and hay. We visited my mother’s other sister, who was in the midst of grinding a pig she’d slaughtered that day into sausages. Aaron drank her homemade wine.

Coming to Poland I taught him the most important words he should know – “Good day, yes, thank you,” and “Please, I can’t eat anymore.” We’d already had a huge breakfast and now my other aunt brought out the blood sausage and cookies. I sipped coffee, safely the weird vegetarian, and my aunt brought out another pale link of sausage. I said to Aaron, “Don’t worry, you don’t have to try it,” when he looked at the coil in despair.

Later, as we left, she said, “I see he didn’t try the other sausage.” Two days later when we visited her and she plied us with a table loaded with food (including two salads for me, thank Mother Mary), I warned Aaron that to avoid getting too drunk on the vodka her husband kept pouring, he should drink just half the shot. My uncle, seeing it as he poured said, “You drink like a woman.” I gave Aaron bad advice, but it’s the only way I’m going to get him back alive and not looking like this obese Uncle Stewart I keep hearing about.

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The ubiquitous plate of cold cuts, and pork-stuffed potato balls, all my aunt’s pig. Salad for me. My husband’s half-filled vodka glass. My uncle said he drinks like a woman.

Anyway, the climax of the food tour came when we had breakfast, our last meal with one aunt; lunch, our only meal with another aunt; and dinner, our first meal with a third aunt. This third aunt, my father’s sister, made for me a bean and strawberry salad, with a savory bean pate loaf, and since then we’ve been eating potato pancakes, potato and zucchini casserole (babka, a distinctive dish in northeast Poland), and roasted garden veggies.

Can’t forget sautéed chanterelle mushrooms that my uncle gathered in the woods.

In vain, I’ve been trying to squeeze in runs and high intensity interval training, but it’s useless. Until we leave my family, I’ll just content myself to gaining some weight.

Usually, I gain weight if I so much as look at a bag of potato chips. That’s primarily why I went vegan – to eat as much quantity of food as I desire while maintaining a healthy weight. Because of my healthy appetite, to eat as much as I please I exercise regularly, and I stick to whole foods, lots and lots of fruit, and no added oil in my cooking, with just the indulgent burger or cookie or Aaron’s mom’s delicious vegan baking every so often.

For these two weeks, those rules can waft out the window with the steam of hot pierogis.

But I’m so grateful that my family has been so accommodating and curious and gracious about their American niece’s strange eating habits – they’re trying new recipes and experimenting and emptying all the fruit pierogis from their freezers for me. They may question my sanity, but everyone needs a weird cousin in the family.

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Written by Ada Kase (Kulesza)

Ada Kase is a freelance journalist and photographer from Philadelphia. AJKTravels is her personal travel blog documenting her adventures with her husband, journalist Aaron Kase.

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