My great-grandparents, the Andrejewskis, left Poznan sometime before 1908 and settled in Back-of-the-Yards, a Chicago neighborhood named for its proximity to the Union Stockyards (the setting, of course, for Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle). They came over in two groups: first my great-grandfather, Stanislas, his two sons, Waclav and Stefan, and the two older daughters, Ruzia and Apollonia. My great-grandmother Teofilia, came over later with my grandmother, Helena. By the time they arrived the house that my great-grandfather, a carpenter, had been building to be shared with Polish Stockyards workers was ready for them — the same house that my mother, my adopted sister and I, and my sister’s son would all grow up in.
I don’t have to tell you how turn-of-the-century immigrants transformed the neighborhoods they came to into little versions of where they came from. There were agencies in Back-of-the-Yards that helped Poles come over, settle in and secure housing and work. (I found, among the immigrant papers my grandmother always kept in a strongbox between her pillow and the wall — in case the Germans might decide to someday invade America, round up all the Poles and ship them back to the camps — the arrangements made by one of those agencies for her passage on a White Star Line ship, along with a baggage claim ticket from Allen Lines of Liverpool — my grandfather’s probably; he was from Gniezno, but met Grandma in Chicago — and immigrant ID cards for all of them, complete with thumbprints and last names spelled correctly). There were also Eastern European-style markets and butcher shops that sold the ingredients that Polish homemakers were accustomed to using in their recipes. When the Unabomber story first broke, my mother reminisced about his family’s sausage factory, Kaczynski Sausage, on 50th and Ashland, and how you never could get kielbasa like that once the family moved to Evergreen Park. And she described how Grandma made czarnina: in the morning they’d go to the butcher shop, pick out the duck, hand a big Mason jar to the butcher, then go run errands on Ashland, the business and shopping district of Back-of-the-Yards, buying girdles or hosiery at Goldblatt’s, votive candles for the dresser-top altar at Neisner's, maybe pots and pans with cashed-in S&H green stamps at Meyer Brothers. An hour later the butcher would return to her the jar filled with the blood, wings, neck and gizzard of the duck. She’d also get a package of feathers (to be used for pillows), and the body of the bird, wrapped in brown butcher paper (to be used for a roast). A popular saying about the frugality of product in the Union Stockyards, "They used everything but the squeal,” could be applied to the Polish housewives of Back-of-the-Yards as well.
At home Grandma combined vinegar and water with the "stock" from the jar in a big enamel pot and set it to boiling for about two hours. When that was done she skimmed the film off the top and added prunes (sliweki), parsley (pietruzska), raisins (rodzynek), celery (selery), onions (cebula), salt (sol) , and sugar (cukier), and let it simmer for another hour. While the soup burbled, exuding its unmistakable musk (and the kids, my mother and her brothers, home from school, ran through the kitchen holding their noses), she roasted the duck in the oven. That night she served the soup with boiled potatoes (ziemniak) or noodles (kluski) — she'd switch side dishes for the next night's dinner — to her husband, grandpa Francizek, and great-grandpa (great-grandma had died in the 30’s of TB). To the kids who refused to eat the soup she served roasted duck parts with one of the side dishes. Everyone ate the black bread baked by grandpa that day at work, dunked in strong black coffee.
Grandma stopped making czarnina when she got too old to walk to Ashland to get the ingredients she needed (plus the butcher shops she liked had become scarce as well, especially after the Stockyards began closing in the early '70's), but I remember the time I first encountered it on her stove. I often went “downstairs by Grandma” to lie on her bed and listen to FM rock and roll stations on Uncle Stas’ big marine band radio (because my little plastic transistor radio only had AM Top 40) and snoop through her dresser drawers — which was how I discovered the thorn from the Crown of Thorns: a tiny object in a box lined with dirty brown cotton (now finally mine, after my mom’s death five years ago). She hated when I went through her dresser, so I did it on the sly. I’d find all kinds of cool stuff in there. But this couldn’t be kept secret: it was long and red and pointy, and the box had half-faded Polish words on it. Angry, but amused, when I showed it to her, she said a priest back in Poland gave it to her the time she almost died as a kid. Of course, that was all she said. When I asked her what she was sick from she said, “I was just sick, you know? Sick. In the bed.” She was pretty mysterious. I had noticed, in pictures of her from the Old Country, that she had what we used to call a “cast eye” — kind of like a crooked eye — corrected later by glasses. She also used to do this thing where she set a wooden bowl out in early spring to collect rainwater by the three evergreens, and I swear I have a memory of her showing me how, if you put a few drops of some kind of reddish-brown, mercurochrome-looking liquid into it, a rainbow would appear. I spent a lot of time downstairs because everything about her and her place was fascinating. What were those animal parts? A real cow’s tongue (for ozor na szaro) in a big pot of water on the stove? Actual pig noses and hooves (for kiszka ) under running water in the sink? Some kind of internal organ (a calf’s liver for pasztet ) soaking in a big bowl of milk at the back of the refrigerator? But that pan of stenchy, burbling brackish liquid on the stove was a mystery I'd never encountered before, mysterious even for her.
"Is blood soup," she said, laughing at the face I made. "Aunt Tessie bring me from Polish store by Damen. I used to make all time when your mother was little. You want taste, I give you. Is good!"