The red awning reads “KISZKA” in big white letters; directly beneath, the words “HOME MADE COLD CUTS” flap in the breeze. Faded images of different meats displayed in the shop’s window, each labeled by name, serve as a quick lesson in Polish protein.
“What kind of kielbasa do you want?” a blonde woman on a black flip phone asks the caller as she approaches the entrance to Kiszka. This Polish deli on Manhattan Avenue in Greenpoint opened its doors 33 years ago and is still one of the most popular butcher shops in the neighborhood.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2007 to 2011 survey, roughly one-third of Greenpoint’s population is Polish. While trendy bars and cafes attract the Brooklyn hipsters, the Poles maintain a strong presence within the community, evident in the number of long-established Polish-speaking restaurants, pharmacies, and markets bustling with business. Kryspa Czerwinska, a resident of Greenpoint since 1975, says Kiszka is especially busy during the Christmas and Easter seasons, when the line commonly continues out the door and down the block.
“One time I waited in line for over an hour, but it was worth it. Easter is just not complete without Kiszka’s white kielbasa,” she said.
At 3 p.m. on a Wednesday in September, Kiszka bustles with activity. One older woman exits the store pushing a red shopping cart full of groceries. She stops, searches for something in her pocket, and pulls out a box of Pall Malls, delicately lighting one and taking a long drag before waddling away. A red-faced burly man holding a black bag paces up and down the street while puffing on a cigarette, impatiently waiting for the man inside the meat market to buy his groceries. The Chopin Pharmacy next door displays a sidewalk sign advertising a seven-day natural cleanse.
The smell of cigarettes drifts into Kiszka, but is quickly eclipsed by the intense aroma of smoked meat and garlic. The four butchers behind the counter wear red caps, white aprons, and poker faces, ready to weigh, slice, and package the various meats hanging behind their heads and those displayed in the cases in front of them.
Customers are equally serious about their meats; a male customer looks at his pile of freshly sliced ham on the scale and asks the butcher for a little bit more. At the opposite end of the counter, another butcher places a dozen linked blood sausages in a red egg crate onto a scale and walks away to serve a new customer.
Patrons and employees at Kiszka converse only in Polish, and a visitor won’t find the familiar Claussen pickles or Land O’Lakes butter, but rather a jar of Krakus pickles and half pint plastic containers labeled “Pure Lard.” Shelves to the right of the entrance carry canned sardines, marinated mushrooms, and at least ten varieties of “Adamba,” a dried soup mix with an image of a woman dressed in traditional Polish garb carrying a steaming bowl of soup. Packages of “Big-Active Slimming Coffee,” described on the back label as an “unconventional coffee with weight loss effect”, stand next to the “Vegeta,” an all-purpose food seasoning.
A man carrying a black bag and smelling of liquor introduces himself as Josef, a painter from upstate. He declares, “Kiszka has the best fresh kielbasa in all of Greenpoint.”
With his dirty fingernails interchangeably painted neon yellow and orange, Josef points to a box of lemon flavored herbal tea and says it’s delicious with just a little bit of milk and honey. The cashier quietly tells Josef to not bother the customers. He ignores her and takes out a tattered address book, wildly searching for a blank spot to add the number of the new friend he just met. A few minutes later Josef leaves, numberless, and takes his black plastic bag with him.
The Staropolski Meat Market directly across the street is closed, the windows barred. Next door at the top of the building that houses Starbucks there stands the white eagle, Poland’s national coat of arms, watching over its people.