There's a lament I hear so often, that I sometimes think I should carry an audio system for the sad violin soundtrack that goes along with it. You've probably heard it, too.
"[This particular food] is dying! It's gone! When I was a child it was everywhere! You'll never find anything like it now!"
I will grant you that nothing that exists in the present can compare with your fond memories. I myself have joyful, tearful, recollections of those army surplus chocolate bars that camping stores sold forty years ago; it's just that declaring something lost forever allows you to indulge in a good cry. And a good cry is easier than a tough search any day of the week.
So it was when I was at the Ocean County Bookfest in Toms River last Saturday. There, thirty or so food writers sat at a long tables where we signed copies of our books and listened to the gripes of our fellow authors. I was placed next to a guy who seems to be building a second career based on lamenting the death of Polish bakeries. Of course, he was from Manhattan and gained huge support from other city folk. But when it came to us Jersey-ites, we were mystified. In the Garden State, Polish bakeries thrive! They're as current-day as micro-blogging, and as much a part of the community as anything.
But before I get carried away, I'd better tell you about Banas Bakery in Wallington. They're about as classic a Polish baker as you can find. What I found most interesting about them is that they bridge the different waves of Polish immigration. They've been there baking Polish breads, cakes, and other sweets since the thirties, yet they're run by—and serve—a community of recent Polish immigrants. It's tough to find a place with more tradition (or better rye bread!) than this.
The current owner, a guy named Zen, has had the place in his family since the eighties. On his regular visits to Poland, he's noticed the way the cuisine has improved. From the empty shelves of twenty years ago to the culinary sophistication of today, Poland has moved forward so fast that it's tough for him to keep up. But he does a great job trying.
Although the bright, rectangular cakes will catch your eye here, the main reason for coming is the bread. Using a stone oven imported from Spain twenty years ago, they bake eight different kinds—including classic Polish rye, multigrain and pumpernickel, and a bunch of different rolls, too.
Suspicious eyes might detect some Italian and German-looking items, but Zen assures me that they're there because they're popular in Poland. My eyes detected something even more menacing; jelly doughnuts. In Polish, they're known as pączki, and as they're made at banas, they're the archetypical jelly doughnut.
Banas is one of several bakers that most New Jersey Polish delis carry. You don't have to go to Wallington to get their products, but for bread lovers, the trip is worth it. One loaf will tell you resoundingly that rye bread lives!
84 Wallington Ave, Wallington NJ 07057 (map)