SHENANDOAH, Pa. — Two old friends in camouflage ball caps met under the veil of early morning darkness in Roxborough. They gassed up the pickup truck, got coffee for the road, then drove northwest about 96 miles with a long list of names.
Hank needed four pounds. Josslyn wanted two. Mom wanted six pounds. Joe Kaputa, 57, brought a cooler, the kind you could stuff a tuna into, to haul all it back. He was getting 14 pounds himself.
“So I’ll cook up some fresh kielbasa, some smoked kielbasa, and for a side, I’ll have the kielbasa mac and cheese,” he said, arteries be damned.
The kielbasa run to Shenandoah, Schuylkill County, home to several stores that make it fresh, is an Easter tradition, mostly for the Polish and somewhat Polish, in Philadelphia and elsewhere in Northeast Pennsylvania. While the distinctly flavored sausage has roots in Poland and Eastern European countries, it has an entrenched just-because vibe here that doesn’t need much explanation. You stand in line for kielbasa because your half-Polish father did, and he stood in line because his beloved babcia did, too.
Jean Joka, of the Polish American Cultural Center on Walnut Street in Philadelphia, said Polish families traditionally brought a basket of food including kielbasa, butter sculpted into a lamb, and rye bread to church to be blessed on Holy Saturday.
“On Holy Saturday, there are still certain churches you can bring your food to to get it blessed,” she said. “Sometimes, the priest used to come around the house to do it.”
Loyalties to a specific kielbasa shop are fierce in Pennsylvania. That’s why Kaputa, whose family hails from coal country, woke up early on a Saturday to drive to Kowalonek’s Kielbasy Shop in Shenandoah instead of driving 14 miles to Port Richmond, home to several beloved Polish markets.
“Nah,” he said, being polite. “This is the absolute best you’re ever going to get. I’ll be up again for Memorial Day, then Labor Day, and then again for Christmas."
Kowalonek’s, a small shop on a hilly street in this anthracite coal town, opened at 8 a.m., but a few dozen people milled about in the parking lot at 7:30. Long before any of them had woken up, a team of men with sharp knives were trimming fat, bone, and gristle from a mountain of pork butt in the kitchen. That’s one of the keys to great kielbasa, owner Mark Kowalonek said — plus garlic and, of course, other secrets the former Villanova football player guards with a smile.
“Can’t tell you everything,” Kowalonek said.
Kowalonek, who studied business at Villanova, searches far and wide for other tasty kielbasa in America. He’s found surprisingly few places that serve decent kielbasa in Chicago, he said. Pittsburgh is a good destination. There’s no good kielbasa, he said, in Miami.
“I’ve been to them all," he said. “Sometimes I tell them who I am. Sometimes I just sit back and observe.”
No town, it seems, has claimed the title of “Kielbasa Capital of America,” but “Shen-do,” as some locals call it, hosts an annual Kielbasy Festival each May and is home to Mrs. T’s Pierogies, a traditional dumpling-like, potato-filled food that Mary Twardzik, the Mrs. T, used to make for church festivals, block parties, and other special occasions.
Mrs. T’s produces 600 million pierogies per year in Shenandoah, bringing a unique, ethnic food into the mainstream. Owner Thomas Twardzik said his father, Ted Twardzik, pounded the linoleum in supermarkets decades ago, trying to explain what pierogies are.
“Yes," he laughed, “people wanted to know what a pierogie was and what they were supposed to do with it. Ultimately, he knew that if he could get people to try to them, they would like them.”
Tom joked that the “Polish ravioli” comparison gives Italians too much credit. He prefers the Polish dumpling reference, noting that it was a simple, peasant food, a dough stuffed with leftover potatoes, cabbage, and even prunes.
The Easter season, he said, also brings a big pierogie push.
“One of our biggest traditions is meatless Fridays during Lent,” he said.
Kowalonek’s opened in 1911 in Shenandoah and moved around town a few times before settling on Main Street. The shop is one of the “kielbasy kings" of the town, a draw from many of the Polish who remain in coal country and those who moved away. The store uses a unique spelling — kielbasy — the way it was written down in family recipes. Spell it however you want, Kowalonek’s says, and they’ll focus on making it, even singing about it.
“If you’re from the city or the sticks, get your butt down to Kowalonek’s,” singer Tomosius K, who appears to specialize in kielbasa songs, croons only on the store’s website.
On this Saturday morning, two weeks before Easter, the people gathered outside the store said you certainly can’t wait until Holy Saturday to buy your kielbasa. This weekend, the crowd agreed, would be the true spectacle, a line some estimated could grow to a quarter-mile long.
“This right here? This is nothing,” said Ted Walker, who drove from Bensalem to wait. “Next week, there will be people up the block, waiting in a bar, to get in.”
Sidewalks will be jammed in Port Richmond, too, this weekend, said Ed Swiacki, owner of Swiacki’s meats. The store has been open since 1953, and Swiacki said the traditions haven’t died off as the generations have aged.
“It’s interesting to see people I saw in line here 30 years, back when I was a kid, who are coming back with their kids,” he said.
The kielbasa line, Swiacki said, is also a chance for people to catch up, for the folks who moved to the suburbs to reconnect with the old neighborhood. You see who’s still hanging on in the kielbasa line or whose grandkid got accepted to college, and you leave with a meal that tastes like the past.
“Some people see each other twice a year, at Christmas and Easter, in the kielbasa line,” Swiacki, 42, said. “It’s a strange thing, but it’s part of the tradition I guess.”