How My Great-Grandmother's Kielbasy Recipe Became One of America's Best

Kowalonek’s Kielbasy Shop in Shenandoah, Pennsylvania is one of America's best butcher shops, and it has a long relationship with my Polish family—or so the story goes. 

Kielbasa on the grill
Photo: Owen Franken / Getty Images

Scanning Food & Wine's list of the best butcher shops in America this past Thanksgiving, one name caught my eye: Kowalonek's Kielbasy Shop in Shenandoah, Pennsylvania. I first tasted Kowalonek's smoked kielbasy two summers ago when my mother returned from visiting her Aunt Helen in Shenandoah with a carry-on full of their Polish sausages. That wasn't the first I'd heard of the family business, however. After all, it was my great-grandmother Katherine Mazack who originated their legendary kielbasy recipe—or so my family's story goes.

Much of what I know about my maternal relatives is what they ate. My mother was born in Frankfurt, Germany, from where her mother emigrated after marrying my Polish-Pennsylvanian grandfather, who lived with my family in California throughout my childhood. On the occasions he spoke of his mother we were almost always in my kitchen. There, I heard tales of a work ethic that persisted well into her nineties, of her penchant for feeding people, and of the home-smoked kielbasy for which she became famous in their community, evidencing both.

That I grew up with my grandfather meant an early education in Polish home cooking. Some of my favorite meals were stuffed inside pockets of pierogi dough whose bellies swelled with potatoes, fresh cheese, and a heavy helping of onion. Cabbage was a household staple, whether pickled, stewed, or wrapped around logs of ground pork and rice in a dish called gołąbki. And according to my grandfather, distilled white vinegar was the answer for everything, from recipes lacking a smack of acid to a cure for the common cold.

Together with five siblings, my grandfather was raised in Turkey Run, a predominantly Polish and Lithuanian neighborhood in Shenandoah that was built atop a network of mines where the men in his family worked. The eight Mazacks, originally Mezyks, lived in one-half of a two-story twin home that was owned by the local coal company, with dormitory-style bedrooms upstairs and a large coal stove that took up a majority of the first floor.

Around this stove is where life revolved: For breakfast, my great-grandmother would skewer slices of bread on a long, three-pronged fork and toast them directly over the coals. This is how they heated their water to cook and wash, and on chilly evenings, the smoldering stove kept their wooden house liveable in lieu of central heat.

Eventually, my great-grandmother built a smokehouse in the neighborhood where she could smoke meats like boczek, the Polish for bacon, and Krakowska, a cold cut, welcoming her neighbors to do the same. Enter the Kowaloneks.

The Kowaloneks opened their first grocery on the corner of Chestnut and Chester Street in Shenandoah, minutes from my grandfather's house in Turkey Run. According to the shop's website, the family business originally smoked its kielbasy using cherry wood in a sixty-four-square-foot smoke shack just down the road. Cherry wood, rather than the more common applewood, was likewise the secret to my great-grandmother's kielbasy.

The details of how the Kowaloneks came to use my great-grandmother's tools and techniques change depending on who in my family is telling the story. My mother's cousin Ray—a Pennsylvanian who raised his kids on Kowalonek's and to this day drops by the shop whenever he's in town—has no recollection of the smokehouse my grandfather mentioned. My great-aunt Helen, a mild-mannered woman who never left Shenandoah, rarely spoke of her old neighbors but adamantly refused the armfuls of meat my mother showed up with on her last visit.

I may never know the truth behind the role my relatives played in developing Kowalonek's smoked kielbasy—or if they played a role at all—though Jessica Kowalonek is familiar with the rumors. "We've heard there was another woman in Turkey Run," she tells me over the phone, noting that others have come into the shop with claims akin to mine. A fourth-generation Kowalonek, however, she did not recognize the Mazack name. Much as American heritage can be slippery, such generational legacies have a habit of twisting around themselves in time.

Yet the Kowalonek family's success—which they alone can claim, having built a small empire out of humble Polish sausages, elevating the traditions of an immigrant coal-mining community in rural Pennsylvania to the status of America's best—still feels personal.

Never do the Polish branches of my family tree feel more in reach than when I'm watching a simple pot of potatoes boil or dragging a stiff slice of rye bread through a bowl of gulasz until it's spongy and stained paprika red. These might be the only times I feel Polish at all. I've never been to Poland nor visited relatives there like I did my distant aunts in Frankfurt as a girl. I know nothing of the language as I do some German—not even the word for grandfather, having called mine Pop while my grandmother was always Oma.

But on those spring days when I turn up to my mother's house, pick a head of cabbage from her garden, and together we strip and blanch its leaves to wrap around palmfuls of minced pork, later destroying our handiwork with the swift, hungry cuts of our forks, I can almost picture my great-grandmother Katherine huddled around that big coal stove, teaching my grandfather how to roll the gołąbki he later passed down to me.

And you better believe I'll be first in line at Kowalonek's anytime I find myself within driving distance for as long as they keep churning out cherry-wood-smoked bites of my family's heritage—even if not its recipes.

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