We all know Greenpoint is home to many Polish families. Maybe you don’t, but if you have ever walked down Manhattan Ave. north of Greenpoint Ave it takes but a block to realize. Three butcher shops and 2 bakeries in the first block all with too many consonants in their name is a good tip off. I’ve lived on this stretch of Manhattan Ave. for three years now. There are weekend mornings I wake up and on the walk for coffee I hear not a word of english. It’s a bit eerie and a a bit comfortable at the same time. The comfortable far out weights the eerie, at least for me. Not only does it make me feel like I am traveling, which I love, but it excites my sense of discovery. The effect is intensified once you step into one of the shops. Be it a stop for Kielbasa or bobka the first words spoken to you are usually not those you understand. This may make these places intimidating. It may even make them a hassle to shop in.
I writing to debunk that theory. To do that I went straight to the heart of this matter. I went to Polam. Polam is the butcher shop that sits one store in from the corner of Manhattan Ave and Java St. One of my all time joys when traveling is to visit a butcher shop or food store in a country that I do not speak the language. There are only so many ways to cut up a pig. Once you know the cuts the language barrier has little ramifications. Some pointing, nodding and smiling usually gets the job done. Entering Polam is not much different.
It’s been 3 years since I first crossed this fabricated border into the heart of Warsaw. Since that first visit I have learned my proszę and dziękuję’s but you don’t need them to revel in the delicious smoked pork that is stacked, much of it still warm, five slabs high inside. In fact, you’ll have more difficulty fitting inside the chronically packed, tiny shop then you will communicating with the butcher. The picture at the top of this post is a still warm, slab of smoked bacon I bought last weekend to construct the base for a mac and cheese. I think that experience perfectly captures the point I am attempting to explain. Let me walk you through.
It was mid-day on a Friday. (Note: A much better time to go than a weekend or weekday post work) The line inside was slim. Maybe 6 deep. The temperature was below 50 degrees. Meat was stacked inside the glass cold-case which stretched the length of the store. Across the top of the case more meat four or five slabs deep. I made my way to the rear of the shop and stood next to the chicken case looking lengthwise down the long thin walkway towards the front door. Inside the case were half butchered and whole chickens. Heads, feet, necks, it was all in there. On top was the over flow of bacon that could not fit on the counter ahead of me. As I moved up through the line I entered the pork area. Hanging kielbasa’s of 13 variations dangled in my face. Ten other types of sausage sat inside the case in front of me including a giant blood sausage. Behind me was a case of dairy. Yogurt, five types of framer’s cheese and some fresh pierogies overflow from it. Abruptly a butcher interrupted me as I stared and gaped at the two cases to my right. Both were filled with cold cuts. Hot, smoked chicken quarters were piled up across the top of it. I snapped from my trance and acknowledge the butchers “Witam. Jak mogę pomóc?” with a simple but direct response, “smoked bacon”. He pointed to several slabs and explained, in half polish half english, the difference. One was smoked and uncooked. One was uncooked and unsmoked. Another was cooked but not smoked. For some reason all were hot. I paused and tried to sort my options for a second. Inside of that second the butcher grabed a slab, held it high in the air and hacked off a chunk with his 9 inch, razor sharp, semi-permanent hand extension. He handed me the piece of pork belly and moved on to cut pieces from the other slabs. After a mini pork fest I decided to go with the 4 pound smoked and cooked slab pictured at top. He wrapped it and stamped it without dropping his knife. “What else?’ he then asked. When I told him nothing he refused my answer. He proceeded to entice me with other hot smokey meats that were just pulled from the smoker or that had been hanging in the shop so long the taste was deliciously intense. Hacking piece after piece he continued feeding me until I caved in and bought an aged kielbasa. I put my hands up and signaled “enough”. He smiled and moved on to the next patron. I stepped back and into the register line. Not a word of english had been spoken the entire 15 minutes I was in the shop except for the few that I had with the butcher yet, I had my prize and some snacks to boot. Stepping out of Polam I re-entered the US without a passport, a duty free shop or even a glimpse of a customs agent. A half a block later I was in my kitchen sorting my spoils. The bacon sliced beautifully releasing an amazing smoked but fresh aroma. It was not greasy or slimy. The bacon bottomed mac and cheese was a tasty success and my kielbasa snack was the perfect cooking fuel.
I hope my point came across. My goal was to provide a window into these shops for those who usually just walk by them. The new and tragically hip business’ that are popping up all over are awesome but they are only half of the neighborhood. This contrast of new and old is what makes Greenpoint and many other ‘hoods in Brooklyn special. The gentrification of Manhattan has mad it sterile. No surprise there. But remember, that is why you moved to Brooklyn. Or, at the very least, that is why you hoped an L train to a G (or shuttle bus) and came to the neighborhood. You seek that neighborhood feel. Indulge in every piece of it.