Don’t tell my fiancée, but I’m carrying on a passionate affair with a very special lady – she’s boxy, red, and weighs about eight tons. Her name is Betty, and she makes the most amazing pierogi (she’s also a truck, but don’t judge – the heart wants what the heart wants).
Polish food means comfort for a lot of people in Buffalo, NY – pierogi, bigos, and golabki were regular appearances on a lot of tables. Even if we didn’t grow up Polish, a lot of us fondly remember eating these dishes at friends’ homes or picking them up at the Broadway Market around Easter as part of the melange of Eastern European, German, Italian, African-American, and Irish influences that much of this city was built upon. Yet for a town so steeped in Polish heritage it seems that there are only few a places that still serve these traditional tastes with any regularity (Peter K’s and Gadawski’s come to mind) and fewer still who have built upon these traditional takes to elevate and refine them into something truly special (The Black Sheep’s pierogi come to mind). Betty Crockski is straddling both sides of this line and bringing their own take on pierogi back to the streets of Buffalo.
The company’s proprietors, Kate Hey and Dana Szczepaniak, officially launched the truck, appropriately enough, on Dyngus Day 2014. Prior to this Dana had been working as CPA in New York City and Kate was working in marketing back in Buffalo, but some casual discussions at a Memorial Day party in 2013 quickly led to the pair writing a business plan and found Dana moving back to Western New York. Over the next eleven months the concept behind the truck and the recipes slowly developed. “We always knew we were starting a Polish food truck, both because of our backgrounds, but because we realized that Buffalo needed one badly. WNY has the highest concentration of Polish-Americans outside of Chicago, and there’s a strong sense of Polish Heritage here. We have the largest Dyngus Day celebration in the country, and we see it out in the community when people come to the truck and see our family names and tell us ‘I used to cut your uncle’s hair'” Kate told me after her portrait session. Long nights making test batch after test batch of pierogi for friends followed, becoming the method by which Kate was able to refine and finalize the recipes the truck served when it launched; Betty Crockski soon became regarded as one of the most exciting members of Buffalo’s young food truck community.
As part of their pre-launch process, the girls took a research slash eat-your-way-across-all-of-Poland trip to the old country to get a taste of some of the nation’s most famous restaurants as well as some now notorious upstarts that are completely reinterpreting the Polish food tradition. The trip wasn’t so much a revelation as it was a confirmation of what Kate described to me as Betty Crockski’s philosophy on Polish cooking – “We try to celebrate local ingredients and culture, as well as fill in the blanks in the polish dining scene here in Buffalo that’s very focused on the a mid-century style Polish-American approach to cooking and preparation. We had our own ideas and vision about what these dishes could be and were totally vindicated by our trip when we saw that these great polish chefs were already acting along these similar lines of thought and had been for a long time.” Dana added “We got to see so many different facets of both the traditional and contemporary Polish food scenes, not just from eating, but from being invited into restaurant and home kitchens and being taught the way someone’s father makes pierogi, or a contemporary style of making golabki that gets away from the low-and-slow traditional pantry style and takes a fresher, brighter, and quicker approach.” A food tour of Warsaw hosted by Magda from the blog Eat Warsaw turned out to be one of the high points of the trip, not just because of the food they experienced, but because of the context and history it provided about the evolution of dining out in Poland.
The truck’s menu is small and perfect. Four kinds of pierogi: A cheese variety that blends local chèvre, farmer’s cheese, and BellaVitano; one that marries a mix of caramelized sauerkraut and house pickled plum in a bourbon glaze; a meystard braised pulled pork pierogi, and a spicy potato filed option with white cheddar and herb butter. This selection is punctuated by regular seasonal specials, like a turkey and walnut sage stuffing filled pierogi with boozy pickled cranberries, and bigos – a traditional polish hunter’s stew (think Poland’s answer to chili, where everyone has their own family recipe or twist they like to put on the dish pulling from their own experiences and tastes). They also feature their own fresh Polish kielbasa spiced with ginger, caraway, and marjoram.
There’s one other element in this Polish comfort food equation that diverges a bit from the Polish traditions that the truck sprung from, one that leads in a decidedly German direction. Betty Crockski sells this absolutely addictive mustard – they call it “Meystard” (and I call it “German Heroin”) and that name ties into almost 80 years of Buffalo food history. Kate’s family was the proprietor of the legendary Carl Meyer’s Hof, a German restaurant that was the first tavern in Buffalo to serve beer from old kegs. And while the restaurant has been gone since the early 80’s, the mustard served alongside the pierogi and sausage on the truck is the same homemade recipe that the Hof served for decades. Thankfully you can buy some to take home to help with the withdrawal you’ll start to experience when you can’t make it to the truck (or to go along with Betty’s new take-home packs of frozen pierogi).
If you aren’t one of the dedicated few who’s willing to brave a food truck in the deathly cold of a Buffalo winter (and if you aren’t, what are you doing in this city?) Kate and Dana shared some good news with me: Starting in February they’re going to be partnering with the South Side Social and Athletic Club to do a small weekly Saturday menu of small dishes. Less a pop-up and more of a gourmet Polish happy hour, it’s going to be something of a lab for the Betty team to experiment with new recipes and try out what Dana calls “bar food, Betty style” in one of Buffalo’s oldest South-Side neighborhoods.
Betty’s may still just be emerging from their first very successful year in business, but they’ve already become an important part of both the food and cultural landscape of Buffalo. I’ve hung out on the truck with Dana and Kate during a service in the course of this project and I’ve gotten to see people absolutely light up when they have their first bite of one of Betty’s pierogi and then stand by the truck’s window and chat with other diners about their own childhood connections to Polish food in Buffalo and abroad. I’ve gotten to hear Dana’s stories about tracking down the perfect cheese for their pierogi, and after so many iterations, finding the perfect one produced locally by First Light Creamery by pure chance once day. While these stories are important, this isn’t just a chronicle of prepping sausage and making pierogi dough at two a.m., which is fascinating in its own right – but is quickly transforming into a story of how a sense of adventure and risk allowed such a new business to be integral in reconnecting a city to one of its most important culinary heritages.