My “Foody” Ancestors

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The Zabski Family

The Zabski Family

Going through a box of photos the other day, I found this family portrait. The man in the foreground is  my grandfather. Dziadzi is the Polish word for grandfather which we pronounced “Jahji.”  Standing behind him and next to each other, from left to right, are his wife, their daughter Polly, and my dad, Thomas. How serious they look. Obviously the photographer didn’t ask them to say “cheese.”

Both Babcia (grandmother in Polish) and Dziadzi came to the United States from Poland. My grandfather, Wladislaw Zabski, was born in the city of Trembowla in 1888.  He came to this country, landing at Ellis Island on September 22, 1912. Babcia was born in 1894, only a few miles northwest of Dziadzi’s home. Her name was Michalina Podhajecki.  She arrived on Ellis Island on March 16, 1911.  She was only sixteen. She was released to her sister, a dressmaker in the city.  She and and my grandfather married on October 5, 1913, at the Church of St. Stanislaus in New York City.

According to one set of records my father had been born on September 18, 1913, just a few weeks before his parents married.  Others say he was born  on the same date in 1914. Obviously more research has to be done in order to find out his exact birth year. I find it amusing that there is talk among cousins that Dziadzi was a lady’s man and “adored” young girls. Also, my father was very strict with me. As his only daughter, I was’t allowed to date until I was a senior in high school. I was forever feeling embarrassed because he wouldn’t even allow me to go to the movies with friends on a Saturday afternoon because, “Bad things happen in the dark.”  Was he trying to save me from getting involved with a cute guy and making the same mistake his own parents had? He did send me to a  private girl’s school for my junior year in high school because I was going steady with a boy named Steve.

Eventually both grandparents became United States Citizens. After years living at various addresses in New York City and Queens, they moved out to Port Jefferson, on Long Island where they both resided until they passed away.  Babchi, at five-foot two inches and overweight, spent all of her time in the kitchen cooking up the food they grew on several acres of land.  Before she retired she worked at a local lace factory. Dziadzi, a bit over six feet tall was a cabinet maker.

They raised chickens, had a huge vegetable garden, and a grape arbor under which they ate their meals during the summer. Babchi thought being fat was the healthiest way to be.  She complained to my mother that I was too thin, saying in her broken English, “Skinny no good. Plumpy is helty.” Her daughter’s son, John, on the other hand  was “good and plumpy.”

The first time Babchi met my soon-to-be husband, Bill,  she happily exclaimed, “Oh Joiny, he’s so plumpy.” He wasn’t even terribly overweight at the time, but standing next to me at only one hundred and five pounds he must have looked massive. Finally I had done something that made her happy.

Dziadi was very tall, dark, and mysterious. I was afraid of him.  He was gruff and tough, drinking his coffee every morning with a raw egg cracked into it.  He loved the awful looking blood sausage that was always on the table. He made me try it once.  I screamed and carried on and never had to eat it again. I didn’t like it when my parents left my brothers and me with them. If we didn’t eat every bit of food in front of us, including the brown, mushy, bananas, Babcia always kept in the fruit bowl, we were threatened with the wolf who lived in the pump house across the street. He thought skinny children were delicious and would come and make a meal of us.

Food was a huge part of my grandparent’s lives, and in turn it became a huge part of my own.  Both of my parents were fabulous cooks. We ate dinner with my grandparents most Sundays, rich with all the Polish fixings. Perogis were alway my favorite, especially those filled with sauerkraut. And Babchia’s Bobka, a yeast cake she often stuffed with farmer’s cheese and studded with raisins was to die for.

I learned to cook when I was around ten years old, making the world’s best devil’s food cake. One of my favorite past times was cutting out recipes from magazines and putting them together in my own recipe notebook.  You can still catch me today finding amazing recipes on the internet or in our newspaper’s weekly food section. My collection fills a file box I bought just for them.

When I was small, I didn’t appreciate my grandparents or even like them very much.  As an adult I’m grateful for their obsession with food and the few recipes they have passed down to us. I wish I could sit around the table with them now and share a meal. I’d like to talk with them about their life in Poland, and what it was like to leave family and friends behind and move to a new country.


  1. Joan — By the time I finished reading this post my mouth was watering and my stomach was growling. I love perogis!

  2. Brenda Neil says:

    Thanks for some more history on Benjamin’s ancestors. I remember Zed telling some of these stories, especially about eating and being plump. I would have enjoyed meeting them and hearing all the stories of life in Poland, the boat ride, and how they navigated once in America. So much history lost in stories not being recorded.

    • I’m so glad you enjoyed this Brenda. I wasn’t interested when I was young, but as I get older I regret that they are gone and I’ll never know any of those things. Hope all is well with you. I’m so happy for you and your new man!

  3. I love it when I see authors mining the past to preserve it for future generations. You know I’m doing that all the time on my blog. Pairing the history with food is a sure-fire way to tantalize readers. Sauerkraut is a good PA Dutch dish, and I see you use it with perogis.

  4. Marian,
    Oh yes, we Poles love sauerkraut and especially for perogis. I imagine it was a universal dish in much of Europe. Other fillings my folks made for perogis was a mix of potato and farmer cheese, and chopped mushroom with lots of garlic and onions. I’m making myself hungry!

    I love your blog and the way you are constantly mining the past. Keep up your wonderful work.


  5. Joan, it’s as if you’ve dug deeply into the archealogical mines of your family’s history and found riches! I think I’m lucky to have avoided your family’s cooking — I’ve become a foody pretty much on my own and with little help from anyone else. The dinner I prepared this evening could not compare to this! Thanks for taking us down your family’s memory lane.

    • Sherrey, Thanks for your kind words. Unfortunately, other than what you read above I know little more about my grandparents. They were a very tight-lipped pair and never talked about their lives before coming to the U.S. or what it was like to arrive on foreign shores.