Cultural understanding is on the menu with platters of pancakes and piles of pierogi

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MAYBE THE BATTER for the pancakes served during the monthly Sunday breakfasts at Seattle’s Swedish Cultural Center is the perfect metaphor for what’s happening at two of the city’s longest-lived, old-country-based community centers.

The batter is made, as it always is, the day before. Tradition.

And . . . “you have to let the gluten do what gluten does,” says Danielle Butz, who’s flipping the thin pancakes on a griddle in a closet, where she’s been since about 5:30 in the morning on this particular Sunday. It’s now just past 7 a.m. — only about 200 pancakes to go, her share of the mounds that will come.

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OK, so it’s not exactly a closet, but it looks like one. It’s been pressed into service as one of three kitchens — the two others being massive and more commercial — that club volunteers use to prepare pancakes for what could easily be more than 1,000 eager eaters who flock to the center on the east side of Queen Anne Hill the first Sunday of each month.

But now there’s a difference. While volunteers used to make the batter, these days it’s made on contract. Nouveau.

It’s not hard to see why the change: The pancake breakfast, begun in the 1990s, has become a staple in the diets of so many people around here (4,000 to 5,000 Swedish pancakes served on any given Sunday), there just isn’t time. And there just aren’t that many volunteers.

Mind you, volunteers still cook the cakes. The Swedish center, like so many others of its ilk, couldn’t survive without an army of people who do things for the joy of doing.

Ah, but the proof is in the silky, non-lumpy batter. The army these pancakes feed is no longer a Swedish army. Not entirely, anyway. As a matter of fact, the vast majority of the breakfast troops come from backgrounds that span the planet.


So much of the city’s past still lives in bastions of culture and heritage like the Swedish center, which turns 120 next year. Name the country of origin, there is (or there was) a club or a hall for its newly landed people to gather. Nearly all of the organizations were formed to help immigrants find their way in a strange, new land and to celebrate and hang onto their customs. A safe place to go, the smells of home, the dances and songs of home, a language everybody understood.

But change has come. A goodly share has to do with food and the urge to introduce (or reintroduce in some cases) the members and their mission to the broader community. A specific aim: the younger generations — and not just those who have some connection to the motherland.

Does the purpose not stand to reason? Think of all those old sayings.

While the pot boils, friendship endures . . .

A man must eat a peck of salt with his friend before he knows him . . .

For sure that is why, on another hill (Capitol), on another day, at another old-country hall, the kitchen is being readied to crank out its own feast for its own adoring crowd in what has to be one of the most extraordinarily well-kept secrets (unless you’re Polish or live in the neighborhood): Friday-night dinners at the 112-year-old Seattle Polish Home.

Starting at 6 p.m. and for nearly five hours thereafter, the main-floor hall can be filled to its 116-seat capacity, not counting the seats at the bar in the corner. For all the world, the space looks like church halls everywhere (well, sans bar) with a stage at one end, double doors thrown open at the other end, old photos on the walls, banners, the ever-present upright piano, and the pungent fragrance of pickles, cabbage and kraut drifting over the crowd.

In the kitchen is Barbara (Basia) Patrick, who came to the United States some nine years ago from Wadowice, Poland (Pope John Paul II’s hometown), to lend her cooking skills to the hall. She had her own catering business there; she has her own catering business here. On Fridays and again on Sundays at brunch, she cooks. A lot.

Unlike the volunteers at the Swedish center, this tiny staff is paid. It’s understandable when you see the menu — and realize the operation is nothing short of a church-hall banquet gone restaurant berserk: pierogi, Polish sausage, pickle soup, stuffed cabbage, pork chops, potatoes, beets, beef tripe, beef tartar, sauerkraut, hunter stew. Oh, and a couple of specials. Cooked to order.

Tradition. (Nouveau? Well, these are modern times and this is, after all, America: mozzarella sticks, hot Buffalo wings and chicken with fries are also on the menu.)

Patrick has help — Sophie and Emil Paterek, also from Poland, although how these three crank out the volume of food they do is nothing short of a Polish miracle.

Sometimes things get a little sticky when it’s crowded. There’s a wait. In fact, Julia Olejniczak (a Polish native who came to the United States five years ago after her father won a green-card lottery) and her cohort waiting tables, Konrad Palubicki, whose parents emigrated from Poland, were only slightly nervous that they were missing their third regular co-server, Lidia Jozefowicz, and would be splitting the room between the two of them.

But this is a machine in action. With about an hour to go before the doors open, and while Patrick smoothly completes her prep work, Olejniczak and Palubicki move around the room, rapidly shoving tables and chairs into place, adjusting tablecloths, setting out menus and flowers, rolling silverware inside paper napkins. They slip on traditional Polish vests to go with their waitstaff black-and-whites and trade last-minute words with Barbara and glance toward the hall doors.

Marion Ossowski, who immigrated to the U.S. some 30 years ago and now is camped right inside the doors, opens what has to be one of the fanciest hand-painted cash boxes around. He and other members of the home’s board of trustees rotate door duty, collecting the $1 member-for-a-night fee (a state requirement if you’re going to serve guests alcohol at a private club). Dinner’s ordered off the menu; a patron can easily stuff himself for around $13.

The bar is set; the red Christmas lights outlining its overhang are turned on. At 6 p.m., in they come.

Something like 70 to 80 percent of diners are very-happy-to-be-here nonmembers.

Same at the Swedish center.

A dilution of the clubs’ missions? Not in the least, they say. Just the opposite, they hope.

The Polish Home’s Patrick speaks little English but says through an interpreter just what she’d like all these visitors to take away:

“Everything. I want the community to have a glimpse of Polish culture.”

Scour the members forking pork chops and pierogi with the rest of the crowd and they’ll all say it: They want you to know who they are.

That’s also true at the Swedish center, where Ellen Duernberger — who’s part Swedish, part Polish and belongs to both clubs — echoes the sentiment. She points out where regulars sit: friends, members and nonmembers alike have gathered over there for years; across the room, another table that will soon host a gaggle of Swedes, Norwegians and Icelanders around a table sporting a centerpiece featuring all three national flags.

Does this pay off in memberships and attendance? It can. Kristin Leander, executive director of the Swedish center, says membership has climbed from about 550 to more than 1,000 in the past few years. To be sure, it all can’t be attributed to the food. She points to myriad new programs and a spiffed-up center as big draws. But the food certainly doesn’t hurt.

Likewise at the Polish Home, where Paul Griffin, a large man with a large appetite and a large voice, is making short work of the meal he’s having with fellow club officers and board members.

Though he wears a T-shirt marking Poland’s solidarity movement of the 1980s, Griffin doesn’t have a lick of Pole in him. He joined anyway, having fallen in love with the country, then the Polish Home; he’s now its treasurer. His compatriots have even blessed him with a Polish name.

“We call him Pawel Griffinski,” say Basia (Koczarski) McNair, Carol Forté and Lucyna Blonska, all at once, smiling.

SOME OF this cross-pollination occurs on a far grander scale at the Seattle Center, where 22 times each year various community groups (the Italians and Thais, the Chinese, Japanese, Hmong and on and on) gather to party and introduce themselves to Seattle.

Some of them have club houses or centers, most of them don’t. Practically none of them has big, regular, public’s-invited feeds, nothing approaching what the Swedes and Poles have been building for years. But their ardor for preservation, their communities and for telling their stories is just the same.

Steve Sneed is the Center’s managing artistic director for cultural programs. He’s been guiding this throng of cultures since 2000 when something like 10 groups held celebrations on the Center grounds. Now the grounds are maxed out, and there’s even a name for the umbrella of weekend festivities: Festàl. “We can’t handle any more,” says Sneed. And more want to get in.

Sneed will give you two reasons these groups want to hold their celebrations at the Center, reasons that also apply to a degree to organizations like the Swedish Cultural Center and the Polish Home that have let the general public in, albeit not to have the run of the club — nearly all of the city’s cultural clubs save most of the activities and services for their members, but at least to say “hi” and “have something to eat.”

“When I came here, I kept asking (the participants), ‘Why do you have these festivals?’ The Vietnamese group, they said, ‘Well, we want to get our people together once a year to celebrate the new year.’

“OK, but I was thinking there has to be more than that.”

So Sneed kept asking. And he got his answer, first from the Vietnamese.

“They said we want people to really understand that we are not boat people. We want to produce an event here to show the world who we are.

“The Arab community gave me the same answer: ‘We’re not terrorists.’

“This is really about stereotypes. It’s about helping people understand the bigger, broader image.”

The Swedes and the Poles would certainly agree. Aren’t we beyond the Swedish Chef, “everybody has blond hair” and bad jokes?

Sneed has seen something else. The Japanese call it hoppa, a term for people of mixed race, usually Japanese and Caucasian. He sees mixed-race couples and their children at many of the festivals.

“Now they’re having discussion groups at festivals about what that means (for a culture). Ten years ago it was all about having the world’s largest sushi. Today, they’re asking each other questions: How do groups deal with tradition vs. contemporary culture and arts?”

More than likely that’s a conversation Swedish Director Leander would love to have with Sneed.

She’s been part of a strategic new wave of niche programs with niche followings at the Swedish center — movies, language classes, lectures, etc. — and loves the results. Patrons also seem to love one strategy in particular: “The first thing we did when they hired me was refurbish the bar; very strategic.”

To be sure, the effort has been building in recent years. Leander points to performance groups from Sweden, even “having contemporary Swedish furniture instead of old-fashioned.”

“When I’m talking to groups about how to revitalize these days, it’s about making connections with contemporary Scandinavia.”

Among the hoped-for new connections, the center is keen on attracting what it calls the Microsoft Swedes — the new breed of immigrant, the high-tech of today vs. the blue collar of yesteryear. “We’re trying to get them to become board members, to figure out what programs they want, what would they come here for.”

IN THE MEANTIME, you can’t blame them if they linger over a pancake here or some pickle soup there, just to think about things.

After all, this particular weekend was a very busy weekend at both halls.

In addition to the always jammed Sunday pancake fest, the Swedes were coming off a pea soup contest on Friday night. It was won by a real Swede and his yellow pea soup; he beat out an Irishman (try Gustatory Glasnost 2011) and his chili. Chili?

Outside the door to the feed stood Bengt Hag. Every regular who’s any kind of regular at the pancake breakfast knows Hag. Dressed in traditional Swedish finery, this former tailor for Frederick & Nelson in Seattle greets everyone in his role as doorman. He’s been doing this since just about the first time somebody flipped the first pancake.

Over at the Polish Home, the regular Friday dinner was packed, and there already was talk of the following weekend’s all-you-can-eat pierogi fest. Jammed in the middle, the beatification in Rome of Pope John Paul II. Conversation buzzed, in Polish and English, about the 8-foot-tall statue of John Paul that would be dedicated here in Seattle, at St. Margaret of Scotland Catholic Church on Queen Anne Hill, a church the Polish community has adopted as its own.

Dinner was well under way. The kitchen looked impossibly efficient. The servers glided rapidly on individual missions.

On his usual seat at the bar was John Swan, who craves the Polish pork chop, and who drives up from Tukwila nearly every Friday to have dinner, drink Polish beer and chat. “I’m really not Polish, but I’m a regular.”

He’s with John Golubiec, son of Ron, in his fifth year as president of the home. Golubiec understands the lure of the Friday nights. “You show up on a night when we’re dark (it happens sporadically and at least one month in summer), you look in the windows, you go home and cry yourself to sleep.” They both laugh.

Across the room sit young friends Carrine Fisher, Chris Abbas, Matt Pinski, Carlos Lopez, again nonmembers, studying the menu, the regulars coaching their first-timer friends. That happens a lot — somebody comes for the first time, turns around and brings friends (“You’re gonna love this!”). Fisher doesn’t need to look. “I’m getting the pork chop.”

Palubicki takes aim at a nearby table, brandishing freshly made orders, a Polish platter and two huge pork chops. Near the doors, longtime member Marian Strutynski is exclaiming about John Paul. Through the door comes his grandson, Michael, who towers over him. The two exchange kisses. In comes Adam, Strutynski’s son and Michael’s father. A little family gathering at the home, in a room full of strangers. Although you’d never know it.

Tradition and nouveau.

Terry Tazioli is a former Seattle Times editor and writer. Alan Berner is a Seattle Times staff photographer.

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