Hanna Zaruski enjoys sharing flavors, traditions of her native Poland
“I want my food to look good, Hanna Zaruski said as she talked about garnishing while giving a final check of her dining table before guests arrived for dinner.
The table was set with her native Poland’s traditional blue-and-white tableware. The dishes, made in Boleslawiec, Poland, are a gift of her mother-in-law, Danuta Zaruska, who brought a few pieces each time she visited her son, Dr. Andrew Zaruski, and his family in Baton Rouge. “It probably took her 10 years to bring us all of them. It was a labor of love on her part,” Hanna Zaruski said.
Why the difference in spelling of the family name? a visitor asked. “In Poland names have gender. Men have an ‘i’ at the end of their name and women, an ‘a.’ I use Zaruski here because it’s already difficult enough.”
The Zaruskis have been in the United States since 1981, almost 25 of those years in Baton Rouge where Andrew Zaruski practices urology at the Baton Rouge Clinic and Hanna is a travel agent. They have two grown daughters and a grandson.
They unofficially left what was then Soviet Union-dominated Poland by pretending to be going on a short vacation. They each took only a small suitcase so they won’t arouse officials’ suspicions. “We went first to a refugee camp in Austria — there had been a massive exodus from Eastern Europe at that time — and then to one in Italy. We came to the United States as political refugees on Dec. 2, 1981, and Polish law was imposed on Dec. 13,” Hanna Zaruski said.
That action would have made their escape very difficult, she said, adding they never thought of returning to Poland after the crumbling of communism in the late 1980s.
Hanna Zaruski, who holds master’s degrees from a Polish university in Slavic literature and in Roman languages and literature, taught French for years at Most Blessed Sacrament and Trinity Episcopal schools. “I used to speak decent Russian, which was mandatory when I went to school in Poland. In high school you had to choose a Western language and I chose French,” she said.
Consequently, she didn’t speak English when she arrived in the United States.
“We lived first in New York, then Connecticut, New Jersey, New Orleans and finally Baton Rouge. Andrew had a medical degree and Ph.D. in Poland, but he had to go through residency again in the United States” before he could practice medicine, she said. “From Day One I worked to learn English. My first job was at a watch factory in Manhattan. It was assembling and so boring, but I had a little transistor radio. I listened all day to people talking, talk shows, so I could learn English, and I watched ‘Sesame Street’ with the children. That is wonderful for newcomers. Andrew jokes he thought he spoke English when we arrived in America.”
“I’ve always cooked,” Hanna Zaruski said. “I believe in dinner from scratch. It’s a traditional and ritual in our house, but probably less now that it’s only the two of us at home.”
She doesn’t have a favorite dish or food that she likes to cook. “I cook some Polish things, but not too many. They take too long. I don’t do pirogi,” which are baked or fried turnovers with either savory or sweet fillings. “I like to prepare nice things in a short time but pirogi are not in this category. It would take half a day.
“Both my daughters make them. They are great Polish recipe keepers. I and their grandmothers, too, taught them” traditional Polish dishes, Hanna Zaruski said. “Polish men don’t cook; they love to eat but they don’t cook. Maybe the new generation is a little different.”
She is most likely to prepare Polish recipes during the holidays, she said. She sometimes refers to a cookbook written in English and Polish, “Old Polish Traditions in the Kitchen and at the Table,” published in Warsaw in 1981 and which she said contains recipes that are hundreds of years old.
“I do decent spaghetti sauce. I make all sorts of soups. We eat all kinds of soups and salads, and I make fish. I’m not a dessert maker or baker. My younger daughter, Klementyna, who is a veterinarian in Reading, Pa., is terrific. She could be a pâtissier,” Hanna Zaruski said, using the French word for a person in charge of baked goods, pastries and desserts. “She has a theory why I’m not a baker. I’m not a very precise cook. I like to re-create from taste memory. It’s a lot of fun. With recipes, my heart is not there. Klementyna thinks that’s why I don’t succeed in baking. I have no patience” for it.
During the summer in Poland, people serve a lot of cold fruit soups and cold beet soups, but Hanna Zaruski said she never acquired a taste for them. “What I make is on the light side. Polish food is heavy and not compatible with the Louisiana climate. I gave up making a lot of Polish dishes” after moving to Louisiana, especially those that are very time consuming, she said.
For her Polish-theme dinner party, she selected a menu that could be prepared ahead of time. The entree, a pork tenderloin stuffed with prunes, can be served at room temperature or even cold, she said.
The dessert, Plum Cake, is similar to a pound cake, but denser, and is topped with fresh plums. “The whole idea is it will keep for several days. You only add a little baking powder, so it’s almost like a cake that didn’t rise properly but you do it on purpose,” she said.
Here are the recipes for her dinner party: