What will the Easter Bunny bring you this year?
Whether you are young or young at heart, you may envision a colorful basket stuffed to the brim with decorated eggs, marshmallow chicks, chocolates and pastel stuffed toys.
But if you’re of Polish descent, your basket may look at little different. It may also smell a bit like garlic and horseradish.
“Święconka” (pronounced Shfen-tsonka), or “the blessing of the Easter baskets,” is one of the most beloved Polish traditions of Easter. Polish Catholics around the world — including many here in Houston — bring their baskets to church to be blessed on Holy Saturday.
The basket is traditionally lined with a white linen or lace napkin, decorated with sprigs of greenery and then filled with a sampling of traditional Polish Easter foods — from eggs to bread to Polska kielbasa (Polish sausage). Any chocolates or candies take a backseat to butter, salt and horseradish, each with a special meaning.
Located in the Spring Branch District at 1780 Blalock Rd., the Polish Food Store is the ideal place to build your own Polish Easter basket. Perhaps it’s an old family tradition, or maybe it’s just something new to try this year. Either way, you’ll find everything you need in the aisles of the store, which has special hours for this Holy Week.
Conveniently located just down the street is Our Lady of Częstochowa Roman Catholic Parish, at 1712 Oak Tree Dr., where you have four chances to pop in and have your Easter basket blessed this Holy Saturday — at 10 a.m., 11 a.m., 11:30 a.m. and noon.
In past years, attendees have brought their beautifully adorned and fragrant baskets and laid them on the steps of the altar. While each basket is unique to the family or individual — and scoping out each basket for special items is a fun activity — you will find common foods and themes represented:
- Maslo (butter) – Often shaped into a lamb (baranek) or a cross representing Jesus.
- Chleb (bread) – At the Polish Food Store, we picked up a freshly baked rye bread, symbolic of Jesus, the Bread of Life.
- Chrzan (horseradish) – Symbolic of the Passion of Christ, the root vegetable known for its pungent taste and odor is served as a condiment on Easter, often mixed with shredded beets. There are several varieties available at the Spring Branch store.
- Jajka (eggs) and Pisanki (decorated eggs) – Symbolizing new life. For a couple of dollars, you can purchase some decorative wooden ones to slip into your basket.
- Kielbasa (sausage) – Symbolic of God’s favor and generosity.
- Szynka (ham) and/or Slonina (smoked bacon) — More symbols of abundance and God’s mercy and also available at the deli.
- Sol (salt) – To remind us that people are the flavor of the earth.
- Ser (cheese) – To remind us of moderation.
- Candle – Representing Christ as the “Light of the World.”
- Colorful ribbons and sprigs of greenery – Signs of joy and new life in the season and in celebration of the Resurrection.
Once blessed, the food from the basket is meant to be set aside and enjoyed on Easter Sunday with family and, of course, more delicious Polish foods.
It’s this food of his home country that led owner Andrzej Szpak (pronounced “Shpock”) to open the Polish Food Store, and later Polonia restaurant, said his wife and business partner, Sharon Szpak.
“He missed his food,” said Szpak of her husband. Before opening their Polish Food Store in 2003, the Szpaks took a trip to Chicago, where there is an extensive Polish immigrant population, as well as stores and restaurants offering up authentic Polish food.
After a few failed attempts to locate the Polish neighborhood in Chicago, they finally found their way into a Polish deli, and the smells brought Andrzej (Polish for “Andrew”) back home. He immediately wanted to bring those foods back to his new home, Houston.
So, after buying up items in Chicago and contacting the distributors listed on the packages, the Polish Food Store opened in a 1,200-square-foot space near Our Lady of Częstochowa.
Even with the Polish church nearby, Sharon Szpak wasn’t sure how the business would do. But “within two months, we outgrew the space,” she said, and soon Andrzej set his sights on a former Mexican restaurant space a few doors down for a Polish restaurant.
At first, Szpak said, she wasn’t so sure about opening a restaurant in addition to the store. “The restaurant business is tough,” she said. A decade later, though, they moved the store and restaurant to a 5,000-square-foot space at 1780 Blalock Rd., which they completely renovated and where they remain today.
The restaurant is temporarily closed due to the pandemic, but the Polish Food Store remains stocked with traditional and authentic Polish cuisine, including fresh and smoked meats, sausage and ham as well as herring, cheeses, frozen pierogi, soup mixes, pickles, sauerkraut, beets, mustard, condiments, seasonings, fruits and juices, candies and other sweets.
Need a gift? The store has a large selection of Polish-themed t-shirts, mugs, home goods and more. You can find that candle for your basket there, as well as greetings cards to send to family and friends for the holiday.
The Polish Food Store is open from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. this week through Friday for your Easter needs, as well as Saturday from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. It will be closed on Easter Sunday and the next day.
For more information and to view a slideshow of the store’s products, visit http://polishfoodstorehouston.
Polish Food Store
1780 Blalock Rd.
Houston, TX 77080
— by Dorothy Puch Lillig