Monday, January 11, 2010

Feeding Detroit - St. Josaphat Oplatek Dinner

Coming into the office on Monday morning typically prompts the following question: "How was the weekend?"

And, on one, or even sometimes, two Mondays a month, my answer is usually, "I had a church dinner."

Yesterday was the first church dinner of the year. My family has been cooking dinners at St. Josaphat Church for years. It's something that started a long time ago when the parish was trying to come up with some fundraising ideas and decided to have regular dinners in the church hall, which was once the parish convent. (pictured left: folks making their way through the buffet line)

When asked if my family would consider sponsoring a dinner (that means that we buy all the food, paper goods, raffle prizes, etc. so that the money from all the tickets sold goes 100% to the church) I went home and talked it over with my mom. "Maybe people would like to have a city chicken dinner," she suggested. She was right. They went crazy for that dinner, and all these years later, it's still the biggest dinner we do all year (it's every September). We lost mom in 2007, and how appropriate that the lunch following her funeral was in that hall - where she had spent so much time cooking and feeding family, friends and guests. I feel her presence every time I step into that kitchen, and always think about how she would do something - from chopping an onion to peppering the kapusta, I still take all my cues from mom and the precious memories I have of being at her side in the kitchen. She is, and will always be, with us. (pictured left: the potatoes and peas & carrots)

So yesterday's dinner was the "Oplatek" dinner, which we have in January. It's a hybrid of Polish and parish tradition. Before the meal begins, Fr. Mark Borkowski says a prayer, talks about the birth of Christ, and shares the rules of ritual when it comes to the oplatek, which is a thin rectangular wafer, made in the same manner as a Communion host, but much larger. These oplatek are blessed, and then each person has one and shares it with someone else by breaking off a small piece of the other person's, and letting them break off a small piece of theirs. Then it is eaten and wishes of good health, prosperity, love or anything else are exchanged. It's really a beautiful thing. (pictured left: preparing the meatballs and smoked and fresh kielbasa for the buffet)

So, we had about 120 people in attendance, which is about as much as the first floor will seat (we can squeeze another 20 in, but it's too much togetherness!). We can get another 100 downstairs in the basement, which we open up for big dinners like the city chicken event.

The first few courses of the Oplatek dinner are served at the table. We had 15 tables to serve and the first course of rye bread and butter and herring and cream went out. The herring you either love or hate. For the record, most of the bowls came back empty - so there were plenty of takers!

(pictured left: pots of beet soup, potatoes and peas & carrots to feed 120 people help make the kitchen the hot spot!)

After the bread and herring, beet soup was served with ushki ("ears") noodles. On such a cold day, the hot soup was a welcome addition to the table. There are two first-floor dining rooms in the hall, so cauldrons of soup go on carts and we serve it table by table.
The soup is then followed by pierogi. For each table, a platter of potato & cheese pierogi was delivered along with a bowl of sour cream (to me, pierogi are just a "sour cream delivery system"). Now there are countless variety of pierogi, but with a dinner like this, it works best when everyone gets the same thing. The pierogi were made at our sister parish, Sweetest Heart of Mary, which is on Russell and Canfield, just three blocks east of St. Josaphat. (pictured left: the dessert platter that went to each table)

There's a long, interesting history about the Polish Catholic churches on Canfield Avenue (the other being St. Albertus). I'll have to talk more about that later, but for now, our sister church (we share the same priest) Sweetest Heart of Mary, has a dedicated corps of folks who make pierogi every week. They sell them after Mass and by the thousands during their annual Pierogi Festival in August! We got 20 dozen from them for this dinner. These are fairly large, as pierogi go, and a couple of these will go a long way to filling you up! (pictured left: my wonderful dad, Walt- 82 years young, who helps with every dinner in so many ways - at the grill frying up 20 dozen pierogi - what a job!)

After the pierogi are eaten and the plates are cleared off the table, then people get up and get more food from the buffet! Here's what the spread consisted of: polish meatballs in mushroom gravy, fresh and smoked kielbasa, kapusta (sauerkraut cooked for 10+ hours with onions, seasoning, pork neck bones), boiled potatoes with fried onions, butter and dill, peas and carrots, pickled beets, olives, dill pickles and tossed salad. This buffet represents a "typical" St. Josaphat parish dinner - if anyone leaves hungry it's their own fault! (pictured left: I have the best kitchen helpers - among them are Ken and "Busia" who are cutting up 50 lbs of potatoes)

While everyone filled their plates and returned to their tables, Ed the accordionist serenaded us with traditional English and Polish Christmas carols. Good food and music are just a natural fit - I can't think of two better things to share and celebrate with others. The whole eating process at this dinner takes at least an hour and a half. But who's in a hurry? The monthly fundraising dinners at St. Josaphat make a big difference in the parish being able to continue the great amount of maintenance and restoration work needed for our 110 year old church building. Not to mention the winter heating bills! (pictured left: bowls of herring and cream are ready to take out to the tables for the first course)

Generally, dinner tickets are $10 and include a full meal, with coffee and dessert. Each dinner is sponsored, so there is no expense on the church's part. This dinner was sponsored by our own Fr. Mark. This dinner, because of the multiple courses, was $25. Even with the price, we managed to sell all the tickets. Beyond the food, each dinner has a great prize raffle with lots of wonderful gifts and 50/50 drawings. It is a fundraiser, after all, and it helps keep an icon of Detroit faith going strong. When people ask me about St. Josaphat, they often don't know where it is. When I tell them it's right on the corner of Canfield and I-75, they often realize it is a building they have passed many times. Going south on I-75, the three steeples of St. Josaphat come into direct alignment with the towers of the Renaissance Center when you get to about Ferry St. It always reminds me that Detroit is a great city founded by great people of faith - many different faiths - and the steeples mixed with the smoke stacks symbolized much of 20th century Detroit. (pictured left: Ed at the accordion)

So, another dinner down, nine more to go for 2010 (we take July and August off!). The next dinner is the Golabki (stuffed cabbage) and Paczki dinner, which is Feb. 14, right before the start of Lent. In March we'll have Corned Beef and Cabbage (not every meal is Polish!) - not sure the menu yet for April, May brings Polish Pork Chops, June is steak. September is the City Chicken Spectacular, October hasn't been decided. November is a big dinner - we serve turkey with all the trimmings and celebrate the Feast Day of our patron, St. Josaphat. Then we have a dinner in December a couple weeks before Christmas.
There's a lot of work putting these dinners on, but it's good work. Between my dad, sister Marianne, helpers Ken, Shirley, Busia and Delphine, we get the job done and have a lot of fun in the process. I wouldn't want it any other way. (pictured left: kapusta, cooked for 10+ hours, is ready for the buffet)

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