They Call This Simmer: Bigos and the Wild World of Family Recipes

This is a guest post to Illuminations for the Great Rare Books Bake Off by Devin Burns, Religion Ph.D. Student.

When I was seven, my grandmother taught me how to make stuffed cabbage or golabki. For a whole day, we washed and cooked the cabbage, cooked the beef, cut vegetables, rolled the meat into the cabbage, and finally served it for dinner that night. It was the first time she invited me to share in a recipe, and would not be the last. That summer, we made golabki, red borscht (a beet soup), and bigos, or hunters’ stew. For years afterward, whenever I visited her and helped cook a meal, we would both reminisce about that day fondly. For her, it was the first time she was able to share her family recipes with her oldest granddaughter. For me, these times in her kitchen were some of the first where I felt like I got to know this branch of my family and its deep roots.  

My grandmother was Polish–her parents immigrated in the early twentieth century to Passaic, New Jersey. Food became one of the most significant ways that my family kept their culture alive in this new place. That culinary culture made its’ way down to me through years of aural recipes and days filled with cooking borscht, pierogi, golabki, and bigos together as a family–whether it was in my parents’ kitchen, my grandmothers’ kitchen, or any number of other family kitchens and gatherings. 

When I was looking through our large compendium of family recipes looking for something to make for this bake-off, a recipe for bigos caught my eye. Bigos, or hunters’ stew, is a Polish dish that can be made any number of ways with any number of ingredients. Originally made for hunters when they went on long expeditions with whatever meats and ingredients on hand, the longer it simmers and the longer the mixture sits, the better it is. Bigos is a stew made to combat cold Eastern-European winters that were eventually elevated to upper-class homes and is now one of the most recognizable dishes from Poland. The main components are sauerkraut, fresh cabbage, and multiple forms of meat. Beyond that, the spices, vegetables, and other ingredients are all up to the particular person making it. Growing up, bigos was never a meal that I followed a recipe for, I took my instructions from my elders in the kitchen who just knew what a dish needed through years of practice. Reading through this recipe, which is equal parts exacting and vague, made me feel instantly transported back to my grandmother’s kitchen as the ingredients and the instructions sound as though someone took a transcript of her process and called it a recipe. 

Fig. 1: Bigos recipe as typed in the Burns Family Recipe Book, labeled “Mom and Babci’s Recipes.”

Once I came across this particular recipe, I knew I had to do my best to make it so I set about the process of figuring out all of its idiosyncrasies through conversations with family members. Between myself, my parents, and my aunt, we figured out what the ingredient “secret herbs and spices” meant, what cuts of meat were needed, what exactly the “best” kielbasa and sauerkraut is, and mediated if a regular cabbage really would do in place of a Savoy cabbage. The idiosyncrasies did not stop with the ingredient list, as all throughout the recipe, there were strange and endlessly amusing directives that could only come from a family recipe written down. The one instruction that made me stop in my tracks and made me resolve to make this iteration of bigos was the discussion of how to cook the bacon. In the recipe, it states “Cut all the bacon, except one slice, into half-inch long piece: and fry…..When the bacon is done, eat the single strip and throw the pieces in the pot.” The incorporation of a ritualized snack into this recipe, on par with the grating of cabbage or the browning of the beef, showcases the deep familial roots of this dish. This isn’t a recipe made for mass consumption, it’s a recipe made for my grandmother and all the cooks in her kitchen.

Fig. 2: Most of the ingredients for Bigos, including the “secret herbs and spices.”

Once the questions of ingredients had been settled I purchased the ingredients, up to and including the forbidden sauerkraut in a plastic sack (see the second line of the recipe), and set about making this stew. First I set water to boil, draining the sauerkraut and adding it into the pot. I cut the pieces of beef and pork into half-inch chunks and browned them in a pan with the herbs and spices, which were determined to be caraway seeds, ground mustard, paprika, onion powder, garlic powder, pepper, and parsley flakes. Once the meat was browning, I chopped the cabbage very finely, almost shredded in consistency, and chopped the onion. I added the cabbage, onion, beef, and pork to the sauerkraut mixture and let those flavors incorporate. Then, I cut the kielbasa into half-inch chunks and seared them in the same pan as the beef and pork. 

Fig. 3: The Single Strip of Bacon.

Once the kielbasa was done, then came the bacon. I chopped the bacon into half-inch pieces, save for the one important strip, and cooked until crispy. After I had enjoyed my single strip of bacon, I added the bacon into the pot with everything else and used the same pan to brown the breakfast sausage (also cut into half-inch chunks). Once those were added to the pot, I added sugar, salt, pepper, four bay leaves, and a small can of tomato paste and stirred everything together to incorporate. Finally, I let the stew sit on the stove and simmer for roughly four hours. Typically served with bread on the side, I shared the copious amounts of bigos I had with my friends.

Fig. 4: The finished product.

Though not the most exciting or innovative dish, bigos is filling and representative of my family’s culinary heritage. A dish made for cold nights and produced in quantities to feed an army, the work to make this dish brought me back to those days cooking with my family, proving once again the timelessness of food and its ability to connect people across years.

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