Taste and safety were key ingredients in Polish baked goods

When we were children, my wife Debbie and I would both regularly enjoy placek as a delicious part of a nutritious breakfast. For those who might not be familiar with this delicacy, placek is a type of Polish coffee cake. With a soft buttery texture, it delights the palate and rejuvenates the body. For special holidays like Easter, my mother would create such masterpieces from recipes that her grandmother had brought from Poland when she came to America in the 1880s. Memories of these foods were refreshed last week, when my good friend Dolores Slazak surprised me with a loaf of her own placek.

Dolores is a former vice president of the Polish Union of America and served with me on the PUA’s board of directors in the 1980s. I had always known her to be a skilled manager and a fabulous singer. Now I can add baking to her list of special talents. Not only was her placek delicious, but it caused me to consider the importance of baked goods to the Polish community.
Baked goods have always been a vital part of Polonia’s culinary culture. When busy schedules limited opportunities to bake for oneself, Polish residents of Buffalo would patronize professional bakers.
In Western New York, Polish bakeries have existed for almost as long as our community. The Buffalo City Directory for 1886 identifies what was probably the first such business, a bakery owned by Theopil Groszewski at 184 Detroit St.
By 1906, at least 18 Polish bakeries were operating in Buffalo. These included nine bakeries at the Broadway Market in Polonia’s central business district, as well as nine other neighborhood enterprises.
The political leaders of Polonia recognized the importance of fresh baked goods to their constituents. In 1899, a controversy arose about the freshness of bread at the Broadway Market. Local bakers complained that large outside producers were delivering stale bread at prices with which on-site tenants could not compete.
Meanwhile, residents argued that milling companies had conspired to raise the price of flour for home baking. In its edition for June 2, 1899, The Buffalo Times reported that James N. Rozan spoke on behalf of the community at hearings on this matter before the Buffalo Aldermanic Committee on Ordinances. Rozan was a founding member of the Polish Democratic Club and would later serve in the New York State Assembly.
He stated that consumers had been placed “between the Devil and the deep sea.” While flour producers had raised prices “on the necessities of life,” bakers wanted to prevent residents “from buying where he can buy cheapest.”
Dr. Francis E. Fronczak was a groundbreaking advocate for food safety, including the safety of baked goods and their ingredients. Born in Buffalo in 1874, he became not only one of Polonia’s foremost community leaders but also an internationally recognized authority in the field of public health. In 1910, Mayor Louis P. Fuhrman appointed Dr. Fronczak to serve as Buffalo Health Commissioner, a position that he held until his retirement in 1946. In recognition of his distinguished service, The University at Buffalo has named one of its most prominent academic buildings in his honor.
Even before he began his tenure as health commissioner, Dr. Fronczak promoted enhanced regulation of the baking industry. On Feb. 6, 1908, The Buffalo Courier reported that as an assistant in the Department of Health, Fronczak testified before the Buffalo Board of Councilmen in support of a “proposed ordinance imposing more rigid inspection of the bake shops.”
He then continued this advocacy after his promotion to commissioner. For example, in its edition for June 12, 1910, The Buffalo Sunday Morning News announced that Fronczak would participate in hearings on an ordinance “providing that all loafs of bread, or product made from wheat, rye or any sort of flour, shall have stamped either in the loaf or on the wrapper or carton, the exact weight of the loaf or package.”
In one of his first initiatives as Health Commissioner, Dr. Fronczak conducted a vigorous campaign to assure sanitary conditions among the bakeries of Buffalo. On Oct. 2, 1910, the Buffalo Sunday Morning News reported that through his enforcement actions, the commissioner was warning bakers “to clean up.” In response to questions, Fronczak made the following statement:
“You can’t make it too strong in warning the bakers that if they do not comply with the bakers’ ordinance and keep their places clean, they are likely to be prosecuted and fined. When people buy bread they have a right to expect that it was made under clean conditions, and the Health Department will do its best to see that it is.”
Dr. Fronczak also directed his attention to the quality of baking ingredients, most particularly with regard to egg freshness. In the winter of 1911, he initiated the vigorous enforcement of a food safety ordinance that had been enacted three years earlier. On Jan. 13, 1911, The Buffalo Courier reported that the Health Department had condemned 10,000 pounds of eggs. Police officers stood guard over the suspicious product until Fronczak could complete a public hearing to direct their destruction.
Although newly installed into office, Fronczak had made a clear statement about the priority of health and safety. As quoted by The Buffalo Courier on Jan. 30, 1911, Fronczak emphasized his commitment: “One thing is certain. The old situation in regard to the surveillance over the trade here in food and drugs cannot be allowed to remain on the old basis.”
In particular, the policies of Dr. Fronczak brought peace of mind to all consumers of baked goods. On Feb. 14, 1911, The Buffalo Enquirer quoted Dr. Fronczak as follows: “Our inspectors are awake and I think I can assure the public that no more bad eggs will find their way into pie and cake and other baking products for some time.”
The legacies of Assemblyman Rozan and Dr. Fronczak continue today, with an expectation of access to quality food ingredients. For my family, this confidence was manifested last week, as we enjoyed placek for breakfast. We give thanks to Dolores Slazak, our friend and excellent baker, and to all who continue the work to assure the quality of the ingredients that she used.