The Case for Kielbasa: New Haven’s PolMag Deli

Under the shadow of the stately, red-brick St. Stanislaus Polish Catholic Church stands PolMag Deli—New Haven’s authentic Polish deli, founded in and family-owned since 2016. Located in the quiet East Rock neighborhood, PolMag Deli occupies the ground floor corner of an unassuming four-story brick building. Its patriotic facade, painted in Polish red and white, invites in any pedestrian that happens to be walking down State or Pearl Street.

As my friend—a first-generation Polish-American—and I entered the deli, we immediately overheard a conversation in a language foreign to me. I deduced that it must have been Polish. The owner, behind the counter, was chatting with a blond, middle-aged lady who was delivering a bulky order of bread to the deli. The wall behind the counter was covered in the owners’ personal keepsakes. Among them, the Polish flag, a soccer ball with the Polish national team emblem, a jersey signed by the Polish national soccer team, photos of the 1982 Polish national soccer team, an illustrated map of Poland, a picture of Pope Francis and, of course, John Paul II, the Polish Pope.

Below the counter, an extensive collection of Polish kielbasa (sausages), hams, and other deli meats were on display, begging to be eaten. Opposite the store were two metal racks, filled to the brim with imported food products in containers, jars, packets, and boxes—underneath yet another Polish flag. As an American with no Polish blood, the products meant nothing to me. My friend, however, was immediately brought back home to Norridge, Illinois, the majority-Polish enclave in Chicago where she grew up.

 “I used to eat these things all the time,” she remembered, pointing to a bag of chrupki, or corn puffs. She recognized pretty much every brand of snack, condiment, spread, grain, sauce, or candy sold by the deli. Holding a clear jar of dill pickles seeped in a translucent, green, she jokingly asked me if I wanted one. “We like to pickle things,” she remarked. “One of the most popular dishes is kapusta, stewed or pickled cabbage. We eat it frequently—as a side dish, main dish, or just as a snack.” Every item displayed on the shelves had a Polish label on it, and, if it weren’t for the 1980s American rock music playing through the speakers, one might think they had actually found themselves in the motherland.

“Every item on the shelves is imported from Poland,” the owner pointed out from behind the counter with a hint of pride. We approached the counter to learn more. 

Magdalena Stradowski moved to the U.S. with her family in 1996 from the Polish city of Nowy Sącz, which—by pure coincidence—is located in the same province as where my friend’s parents grew up. She opened PolMag Deli in 2016 with her husband and three sons—though she mostly runs it by herself, these days. She was “missing Polish traditional food,” and there hadn’t been a Polish store in the area since Wozniak’s Meat Products closed half a decade ago. The store’s closing left a vacuum in New Haven. “Where will I get my kielbasa now?” one distraught customer commented on an online food forum when the outlet closed. The answer: Magdelena Stradowski.

Besides selling meats, cheese, and the packaged imported foods on the racks, Stradowski makes pierogies—fried dumpling-like pockets typically stuffed with cheese and potato—stuffed cabbage, cabbage soup, sandwiches, and desserts, among other traditional dishes.

“None of the sandwiches I sell are pre-cut,” Stradowski told me. “Customers ask me to make them a sandwich and I make it in front of them.” Some of the meats are even smoked, and have less salt than most American deli meats. The bread that had just been delivered, according to Stradowski, came from a bakery in Connecticut. “The breads are all natural,” Stradowski explained, excitedly. “The dough is blended for three days using an old recipe, until it is baked—with nothing added.” 

Pointing to another refrigerated display, Stradowski showed us the dessert selection—rich cakes, glazed buns, and fruity stuffed tarts. “I get my cakes fresh from a bakery in New York,” Stradowski told us, “and the milk cartons I sell are actually imported from Poland.” She explained that “Milk is preserved differently in Poland, leading to a longer shelf life.” When I asked what the most popular selections were, Stradowski remarked, “People love our pierogi and sandwiches. Polish people in New Haven, and Americans, too!” 

New Haven is currently home to a tight-knit Polish population. “While the Polish community in the area was much bigger fifteen or twenty years ago, there are still events that take place here in New Haven to bring the different Polish families together,” Stradowski told us. State Street is lined with a number of Polish establishments. A block away is the St. Stanislaus Polish Catholic Church, opened in 1913. Next door to the church stands an early twentieth-century brick building still bearing the name “St. Stanislaus School” above its front entrance, though the school has since been repurposed. One block further down State Street is a public parking lot with a sign saying, “State-Pulaski Parking Lot,” appropriately named after Polish noble military general Kazimierz Pułaski, who crossed the Atlantic in order to help the cause of the American Revolution. According to Stradowski, the Polish residents—mostly Catholic, as suggested by her photos of Popes John Paul II and Francis—in the area gather mostly in church on Sunday. In addition, Polish children attend Polish School at the parish on Saturday. At the end of September, Stradowski tells us, there is a big Polish community picnic at St. Stanislaus, and her deli, of course, is the signature food supplier of the event.

However, Stradowski’s deli serves more than the Polish community of New Haven. The Knights of Columbus, a Catholic fraternal organization which has its headquarters and museum in New Haven, frequently orders from PolMag Deli. Other major clients, according to Stradowski, include the East Rock Brewery and even Yale University. “Sometimes I make orders of 600 to 700 pierogi and many plates of sweets—all really big orders,” Stradowski explained, as she reached for a whole pair of kielbasa, wrapping them up in white butcher paper for my friend and I. “Try some smoked kielbasa, it’s very good! And some chocolate-covered fruit candy, too!” Stradowski told us, insisting that we didn’t pay for the generous amount of food she gave us. Our attempts to pay proved futile, and we accepted her gift. We thanked her and said goodbye. Afterward, my friend remarked, “That was very kind of her—Polish hospitality in a nutshell.” Though I was thoroughly stuffed with kielbasa and chocolate-covered figs, I was left with a craving for more of Stradowski’s—and Poland’s—delicacies.

 

Editors’ Note (1/31/20): This article was corrected to reflect a more accurate definition of kielbasa.

Leave a Reply