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From potato to rice and beans: memory and Polish culinary tradition throughout three generations

De la pomme de terre au riz aux haricots: mémoire et tradition culinaire polonaise tout au long de trois générations
Claudia Ridel Juzwiak, Teressa Juzwiak and Victor Ridel Juzwiak


Aiming to comprehend the continuities and changes in food choices and the role of Polish food as a part of the food culture of each generation, four subjects were interviewed, representing three generations of a family that migrated from Poland to Brazil. Narratives were analysed using Content Analysis and the Food Choice Trajectory Model as a framework. For the three generations, it is during family celebrations that the Polish traditions and cuisine have been recovered and rediscovered and when “Polishness” has revealed itself the strongest. However, the memory of recipes has been lost over time and the preparation methods currently in use have been adapted. The assimilation process observed in the adoption of the most typical Brazilian staple food does not overshadow the complexity of multiple identities within each individual nor of the family as a whole.

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1One of the most important cultural aspects that affect the life of migrants is food. In this paper, our focus is to examine the influence of migration on food choices and the trans-generational transmission of food practices within the context of a Polish-Brazilian family.

2Given the magnitude of migration to Brazil since the arrival of the first settlers in 1500, there has been a relatively small number of studies addressing food issues of migrants in the country, especially regarding Poles. This may reflect the fact that, according to Teleginski (2016 : 94), “Polish immigration was significant in Brazil, even numerically, but from a historiographic point of view, it is seen as a ‘hidden immigration’, since the volume of studies carried out on ethnic groups that arrived in the same period such as Germans and Italians is superior to studies addressing Poles”, including studies on food (Collaço 2013; Menasche 2007; Menasche 2015; Menasche & Krone 2016; Reinhard 2012; Woortmann 2015). This phenomenon was amplified by the fact that, at the time of the first Polish migrations to Brazil, in the 19th century, Poland was partitioned, which resulted in many ethnic Poles carrying German, Russian or Prussian passports (Dvorak 2013).

3Migrants’ recipes, culinary practices, and traditions travel with them and it was no different with Polish migrants who first arrived in Brazil and settled mainly in the southern states. They were able to maintain some of their traditional foods, such as the potato, cabbage, meats (especially pork), dairy products, and products prepared with wheat or rye flour, especially bread, dumplings (pierogi), and porridge (kaszka). They reconstructed and transmitted their knowledge, which today constitutes a food heritage that is present in the kitchens of their descendants and disseminated throughout the region in a constant process of re-creation, change, invention and adaptation to local ingredients (Teleginski 2016).

4Aiming to understand how the migration process influences food choices throughout generations, this study followed a family that did not settle in the states where the Polish diaspora flow occurred. This aspect of isolation from other Polish migrants allowed us to better understand the efforts and negotiations that were made to maintain dishes, traditions, and rituals over several generations. The starting point was an inquiry of one of the authors regarding the maintenance of traditions and concerns about their Polish identity. We thus conducted a study of the family by collecting narratives and adopting a life course trajectory perspective. This allowed us to identify the trajectories that represent persistent eating practices and affiliated changes.

5The migratory process exerts a strong influence on the eating practices of those who experience it, producing the re-signification of food as a form of identity as well as new ways of eating in the subsequent generations. This is the case even when the experiences are lived in the micro-context of a single family. As Cuche (2002) argues, culture – and in this context, food – is not considered an inheritance that can be transmitted in an unchanging way from generation to generation; rather, it is a historical construction and is adapted based on the relationship between social groups. When migrants leave their countries of origin, the culture they leave with is the one that they practice at the time and it tends to remain static in comparison with culture in the home country. However, this culture also undergoes adaptations based on contact with other communities in the host country. It is this adapted culture that is passed on to new generations. According to Curtis et al. (2009:82), the generationality within families and the individuals’ experiences of family life are connected through the construction of shared narratives.

6In this paper, we bring insights obtained from the narratives of each interviewee’s life course trajectory and food choice process, highlighting the influence of migration processes and contexts. We further describe how Polish food traditions and identities were preserved and transformed and how the family was influenced by the Brazilian food culture.

7We believe that this study contributes to the understanding of the different dimensions involved in food practices adopted during migratory processes and its impact on the continuities and changes in food choices. More specifically, we aim to identify the (re-) significance of eating and its importance as a component of identity and tradition in a Polish migrant family within a context of isolation from other Polish communities.

Theoretical orientation: migration process

8The history of Brazil is strongly marked by migratory processes. From the arrival of Portuguese settlers and slaves, to internal movements, to the most recent migratory waves of refugees, Brazil has always been the scene of intense demographic displacements (Juzwiak 2014).

9In a study about the impact of immigration on the evolution of the Brazilian population, Levy (1974) describes census data pertaining to the arrival of immigrants from 1872, when the first census was conducted in Brazil, to 1972. In that timespan, the proportion of foreigners in relation to the total population varied from 6.16% in 1900 to 1.31% in 1970 and the main migrations were from Portugal, Spain, Germany, Japan, Turkey-Asia, Uruguay, and Poland (Levy 1974).

  • 1 Areas denominated as “uninhabited” were, in reality, populated by indigenous tribes. In the 19th ce (...)

10The first Polish migration waves started in the second half of the 19th century during three periods known as the “Brazilian fever” (1890-91; 1895-96; 1897-1905). These migration waves coincided with efforts by the Brazilian government to populate “uninhabited” areas in the south of the country1 and to find cheap labour to substitute African slaves, as slavery had been abolished by then. Therefore, the first Polish migrants were settlers and their families arrived to work on the land. The First World War slowed down the migration process and it was only between 1919 and 1938 that we see another increase in mobility between the two countries. It is estimated that in 1920 there were roughly 200,000 Poles in the southern states of Santa Catarina, Paraná, and Rio Grande do Sul. With the economic crisis in the 1930’s, the Brazilian government imposed restrictions on immigration. A new migration wave occurred after the Second World War with the arrival of 10-20,000 Poles (intellectuals, demobilized military personnel, concentration camp prisoners, and qualified workers) who settled in towns rather than in rural areas. Although the waves occurred in different moments, they all coincide with periods in which Poland was experiencing political unrest, resulting in an environment of uncertainty and threat, which led people to seek better living conditions in other countries (Malczewski 2016). In all of the migration periods, there was a strong sense of nationalism, as a reflection of their partitioned land and “the national sentiment merged with religious sentiment, since Polish Catholicism is defined as ‘a church of ethnic expression’" (Teleginski, 2016:92).

11Although there are many variables that distinguish one migratory movement from another, the migration process as a whole is defined by the integration of a migrant into the host society. Integration “can be understood in different ways depending on the country and context but is generally described as the process of mutual adaptation between the host society and the migrant” (IOM n.d.). This adaptation occurs in different dimensions, including the social, political, economic, and cultural (Martiniello 2006), which includes the adaptation of food practices.

Food culture and identity

12Through discourses on food, we can identify the meanings of eating (Usme 2014) and its importance as a component of culture and identity (Koc & Welsh 2001). Food culture can be defined as a “set of representations, beliefs, knowledge and practices inherited or learned, associated with food, that are shared by a social group” (Contreras & Gracia 2011:129). What we eat, where we eat, with whom we eat, and when we eat, as well as what we do not eat (aversions, taboos) reflect a dynamic and complex process, which involves social policies, organisation of food systems, and cultural arrangements (Koc & Welch 2002; Durán 2009).

13Identity is the result of a complex construction process that implies the interaction of numerous aspects such as age, sex, nationality, ethnicity, religion, and social class, amongst others (Koc & Welch 2002). According to Dantas et al. (2010 : 47), “the identity is built in a context that presupposes the recognition of otherness, that is, it is a relational concept and it develops from the connection with the other”. In relation to food, according to Fischler (1988 : 275), “The way in which any human group eats helps to affirm its diversity, hierarchy and organisation, but also, at the same time, its uniqueness in the form of otherness of one who eats differently.

14When faced with a new culture, migrants can adopt different strategies to deal with their foodways. One of the integration processes that migrants undergo is that of acculturation, which includes two dimensions: the maintenance of the cultural identity and the desire for inter-ethnic contact (Satia-Abouta et al. 2002). The interaction of these two dimensions generates four strategies: assimilation, separation, integration, and marginalization (Berry 2001). According to Berry (2001 : 619), the assimilation process happens when migrants seek daily interaction with the new culture, not wishing to maintain their heritage; in the separation process, the culture from the country of origin dominates, with avoidance of the host country culture; the integration process is characterised by the maintenance of the origin culture to some extent, while migrants seek to participate in the host country’s culture; and finally the marginalisation process happens when there is little interest in cultural maintenance and little interest in having contact with others. Although both the dominant and non-dominant (migrant) groups are involved in this process, we will focus on the migrant perspective.

15The cuisine of a country, with its own characteristics (e.g. culinary grammar, flavour principles, preparation techniques) and typical or emblematic dishes, is connected to the feeling of belonging and contributes to the expression of an individual’s or group’s identity (Contreras & Gracia 2011) – aspects which translate into the saying “we are what we eat”.

16Individuals who migrate are exposed to a different culture, which initially leads to a conflict of identities, which progresses into adaptation (Dantas et al. 2010). As far as food is concerned, migration leads to a breakaway from daily and habitual practices and ways of eating; this process takes central stage in building a new identity in the host country. Food can also be considered a form of resistance, as the dietary peculiarities of each cultural group are the last to disappear in the integration process (Poulain apud Teleginski 2014).

17The arrival condition in the host country/region is one of the first markers of change in eating practices (Cáceres 2008): how migrants arrive - as asylum seekers, resettled refugees or legal immigrants, what their reasons for leaving are - economic pressure, family reunification, whether they have friends or family in the host community, to what extent the host food traditions are similar to their own, and migrants’ language proficiency with the host country’s language all influence eating practices. These are just some examples of situations that have a strong impact on eating practices.

18Even considering the current globalisation of food, it is inevitable that the migrant's cooking will undergo adaptations including the incorporation of new techniques and flavours (Rocha & Rial 2014). When preparing a recipe for a typical dish, "it is possible to experience the memory of the palate, an experience linked to the native land" (Rocha et al. 2013 : 188).

19Poles who migrated to Brazil incorporated many local ingredients in their recipes, adapting their preparation methods because not all the original ingredients could be found. Immigrants produced sourdoughs with wheat or even cassava and sweet potato flour. However, the staples of beans with flour or rice, also became part of their everyday food (Teleginski 2016).

20The study of narratives of lived experiences and the memories of migrants allows us to identify cultural patterns, social structures, historical processes, fluidity of the identity process, and the cultural boundaries for change and resistance, as well as the impact on the narrator's life (Portelli 1997).

Methodological procedure and participants

21This study is part of the larger project “Food from Here and There: Migration Processes and Food”, which uses the qualitative method of narratives to understand the relationship between people and food and the act of eating, exploring different experiences of migration. The project is registered under appraisal #0857/2016 in the Ethics Committee of the Federal University of São Paulo. This “umbrella” project consists of several research areas, including “Food memory and trans-generational transmission” within which the present study is embedded. In this research area, we aim to understand the trans-generational transmission of memory and food practices within migrant families, with consideration for the numerous migration waves to Brazil and their impact on the local culture.

22In this study, we chose to focus on our own family, given its migration history. A narrative approach was adopted. This method enables study participants to express their experiences and perceptions through storytelling, which captures social representation processes such as feelings, as well as subjects' relationships with food, their eating practices, and their life trajectory and experiences. The use of narratives is particularly relevant for studies that seek to understand conceptions, behaviours, and experiences from the perspective of the subjects investigated. The way in which everyday life is reported reflects the factors that influence behaviour (Bates 2004). We can uncover the social dynamics and cultural exchanges in time (present and past relations) and space, verify the strategies of transmission of cooking practices, understand the meanings for those who preserve the cultural traditions of the countries of origin, and explore the reformulation (adaptations, exchanges) of food amongst the descendants (Teleginski 2014).

  • 2 Real names were changed.

23We interviewed four subjects from the same family spanning three generations. The family stems from the first-generation migrant couple: Ana2 and her husband who had 4 children (two were interviewed: Dorota 63 years old; Jan 55 years old), 12 grandchildren (one was interviewed: Magda 27 years old), and 3 great-grandchildren (all below four years of age) (Figure 1). One of Ana’s daughters-in-law and one grandson participated in the development of the study and shared their eating experiences within the family but were not formally interviewed.

FIGURE 1: Family tree – 3 generations

FIGURE 1: Family tree – 3 generations

Legend: purple = individuals born abroad; red = individuals who lived abroad at some stage; shaded = individuals interviewed for this study.

24Ana and her future husband fled Europe during and after the Second World War, respectively. This family is not representative of Polish migration to Brazil, as Ana and her husband settled in a city where the diaspora did not take place (a city located in the southeast of Brazil).

25To understand the mental processes involved in the construction of food choices, we used the Life Course perspective proposed as one of the dimensions of the Food Choice Process Model. This framework provides an understanding of decisions (conscious or otherwise) regarding past and current food choices, defined over a lifespan (Sobal et al. 2006; Sobal & Bisogni 2009). This perspective focuses on five aspects: a) trajectories - food and eating experiences and situations, as well as pathways in food choices, attitudes and behaviours; b) transitions - shifts in life that lead to the change or continuation of behaviours; c) turning points - transitions that have a major impact on food choices; d) timing - specific moments when a particular change takes place and how the specific timing of an event influences food choices; and e) contexts - macro and micro level environments in which people exert their personal agency in making food choice decisions over time (Sobal et al. 2006).

26Through in-depth open-ended interviews, we obtained narratives revolving around the participants' life courses, experiences and food practices. We used photo-elicitation (photographs from participants’ childhoods and photographs from celebrations) as a complementary resource in two of the interviews. Interviews lasted between 52 minutes and 1.5 hours. Two of the participants were invited to a second interview to provide additional information and insight.

27The rapport between interviewers and interviewees was strong. Despite having shared many meals together, the interviewees and interviewers had never talked about these experiences. The interviewees revealed new information about how they perceived those experiences. In this way, it was possible for interviewers to be impartial while maintaining rapport.


28The interviews were recorded with the consent of the participants and transcribed verbatim. The contents of the narratives were analysed through Contents Analysis according to Minayo (2012). First, transcripts were read and coded. Then, from the codes which emerged from the subjects' discourses, data was organized into categories based on reoccurring themes. Finally, inferences were made based on the interpretation of the results, which took into consideration the context, the underlying meanings, and the events as they were reported in time. In the first stage, the structure, content, and perspectives presented in the narratives of each participant were analysed in order to understand their personal history and the social contexts to which they belong. In the second stage, the narratives of each family member were aggregated to draw a social portrait of the family’s context (Bates 2004).

29This analysis enabled us to understand the complexity associated with food in the migration context. We explored the accounts of experiences and memories with food, using the five aspects of the Life Course model as a framework. This allowed us to identify cultural patterns, social structures, historical processes, and the impact on the narrator's life (Portelli 1997).


Life course trajectory, migration, and food choices

30The narratives presented aspects that are deeply interrelated but also showed how each individual, as a result of their life course, developed a personal system for food choices in which values are attributed to food depending on the context and situation (Sobal & Bisogni 2009).

31Ana was born in 1928 in Poland, where she lived until 1940. Fleeing World War II was a turning point in her life, which led her, her mother and her brother to move to Brazil. They initially settled in Curitiba, where the Polish diaspora was located. This led to a drastic change in all aspects of life: encountering a new culture, a new language, and financial hardship. It was particularly hard the first two years because they had limited income. Ana had to eat at school, where for the first time she tried rice and beans, the Brazilian staple food, which contrasted with the traditional Polish potato. Meals were no longer a family gathering because her mother worked long hours. In the evenings, Ana had to heat up her own food that her mother had prepared earlier (Figure 2).

FIGURE 2: Life course trajectory of Ana - First generation migrant: transitions, turning-points, and macro and micro contexts

FIGURE 2: Life course trajectory of Ana - First generation migrant: transitions, turning-points, and macro and micro contexts

Legend: yellow = macro context; orange = micro context; blue = food/eating transitions; purple = food/eating turning points.

32In 1943, Ana’s father, who had an important job with the Polish government in exile, arrived in Brazil. They moved to Rio de Janeiro, their economic situation improved, and her mother was able to take on a domestic role again, which included the preparation of food. The staple at home remained the traditional Polish potato. In 1947, her father lost his job (due to the recognition of the Polish communist government by the Brazilian government) and, as she describes it, “the hard times began”, with their socio-economic situation affecting their food practices extensively. This was reflected in her statement: “We could catch the pigeons by the tail, and then the pigeons would go into the soup”.

33In 1949, another turning point occurred when she obtained a scholarship to study at a college in the United States, which invariably introduced her to a new food culture. Upon her return to Brazil in 1952, she married a Pole, who had arrived in Brazil just after the war. The couple had four children. This meant that Ana now had to learn to cook and become a homemaker. At the request of her husband, Ana started to include traditional Polish food in her recipe repertoire but the hiring of a Brazilian maid meant that the everyday meals included the staples of rice and beans.

34Her experience in Brazil has been marked by the lack of a Polish community in the city (a city located in the southeast of Brazil) she lived in after she was married, with the exception of her family (her parents and two aunts). Although there was a strong Polish community in Curitiba and in Rio (and her mother was a part of this community), Ana does not refer to this community in her interviews.

35Dorota was born in 1953 in Rio de Janeiro and was Ana’s first child. That same year, Ana’s parents, Dorota’s grandparents, moved to the United States. Soon after Dorota’s birth, the family relocated to a city located in the southeast of Brazil. She was brought up with Polish as her mother tongue and only realised that it was not a “secret family language” at the age of four, upon meeting another Polish person who was visiting her parents. This demonstrates the isolation of the family from any Polish diaspora community (Figure 3).

FIGURE 3: Life course trajectory of Dorota: transition, turning-point, macro and micro contexts

FIGURE 3: Life course trajectory of Dorota: transition, turning-point, macro and micro contexts

Legend: yellow = macro context; orange = micro context; blue = food/eating transitions; purple = food/eating turning points.

36Dorota’s first turning point occurred at age 16 when she went on a six-month exchange to the United States where she experienced a food culture clash. She explained that much of her diet consisted of junk food. This was, however, not her first contact with international food. Starting at the age of two, Dorota travelled with her family to the United States and Europe every three years. In 1970, a year after her exchange program, she left the family home to study in another city where she lived in an all-girls facility. There, she ate “whatever was available”.

37In 1973, she married a Belgian and in the following years they had three children. She used to cook at home before marriage and was quite proficient in the kitchen when she met her husband, often making recipes she had learned from her grandmother. However, the staple foods in her home were the traditional Brazilian rice and beans.

38In 2003, her husband started taking some responsibility for the cooking (particularly lunches) because Dorota worked full time but was still able to join him for meals. Rice and beans remained the staple.

39In 2011, due to the declining health of her parents, Dorota progressively took on more responsibility for maintaining family traditions, particularly around Easter and Christmas. This entailed cooking and serving dishes that had been part of the family celebrations for many years.

40Jan was born in 1961 and was the third child of Ana. He lived in Brazil in his family home, with Polish as a first language. Although he had some contact with a few Polish dishes, because he had a Brazilian maid at home, rice and beans were the staple foods (Figure 4).

FIGURE 4: Life course trajectory of Jan: transitions, turning-points, macro and micro contexts

FIGURE 4: Life course trajectory of Jan: transitions, turning-points, macro and micro contexts

Legend: yellow = macro context; orange = micro context; blue = food/eating transitions; purple = food/eating turning points.

41In 1975, he had his first experience abroad, spending eight months in Alaska (US) at his Polish uncle’s home. This created a shift in the way he ate. During this time, he ate lunch at school (in Brazil he had eaten lunch at home) and was fed an overabundance of American-Polish food prepared by his aunt.

42His next transition occurred in 1981, in Brazil, where he lived alone for the first time. This is when he experienced cooking for the first time and he mostly prepared pasta, rice, meat, and “anything but vegetables”.

43In 1987, Jan got married to a Brazilian woman and they had three children in the following three years. At home, they adopted his wife’s healthy eating lifestyle (she was a dietician) and rice and beans were the staple foods.

44Another turning point happened in 1997 when he and his family were transferred to Spain for a job for one and a half years. He was exposed to a new eating culture, part of which was adopted in the household due to the lack of availability of Brazilian products. A few years after his return to Brazil, Jan became unemployed, which eventually resulted in him taking on the role as a homemaker with a newfound interest for cooking.

45Magda, the first child of Jan, was born in 1988 in Brazil, the same year the mother of Ana died. Magda lived with her family in Brazil without any contact with a Polish community other than her family. The death of her great-grandmother meant that an important link to Polish culture was lost.

46Magda’s first turning point was in 1997, when her father was transferred to Spain for work. At the age of eight, this had a significant impact on her life as she was introduced to a new culture, language, school (American School), and food system. She started eating lunch at school but did not enjoy the food and complained about not being able to eat rice and beans (Figure 4).

FIGURE 4: Life course trajectory of Magda: transitions, turning-points, macro and micro contexts

FIGURE 4: Life course trajectory of Magda: transitions, turning-points, macro and micro contexts

Legend: yellow = macro context; orange = micro context; blue = food/eating transitions; purple = food/eating turning points.

47In 2007, she went back to Spain to pursue her undergraduate studies, starting life as an adult on her own. This time period was marked by increased responsibility for all aspects of her life, including the organization, preparation, and cooking of meals in a new environment. Her food practices were constrained given her limited budget that is often associated with the life of a student.

48In 2009, she moved to Poland for a year of academic exchange and came into close contact with “real” Polish food and culture for the first time. She chose Poland as a means to reconnect with her Polish identity and heritage. There, she experienced the same conflict as her grandmother: potato versus rice and beans. She also started learning Polish, because in contrast to her father and aunt, she grew up with Portuguese as her mother tongue.

49Her most recent turning point was when she moved to the Netherlands for study and where she eventually found a job and stayed. Once again, this move exposed her to a new food culture. Moreover, two elements from her micro-context had influenced her way of eating – transitioning from student- to work-life (better financial condition), and finding a large Polish community in her neighbourhood with several Polish food options available in stores. Despite living for many years in northern Europe, where the potato is the staple, rice and beans remain her preference.

50Based on the mapping of the life course trajectory of the four subjects, we observe an assimilation process. That is, the growing preference for the most typical staple Brazilian dish, which is demonstrated in the narratives of Dorota and Jan. Ana adopts rice and beans as her staple for purely practical reasons: they are very accessible, and she has a Brazilian maid at home who cooks. When Dorota and Jan grow up with rice and beans, assimilation occurs. Reinforcing this assimilation, we see Magda yearning for rice and beans even in the context of Ana’s potato homeland. This assimilation is partly driven by external factors such as the lack of a Polish community outside of the family. This is different from other Poles who settled in the southern states of Brazil.

51Diaspora communities constitute a means for migrants to maintain transnational links with their country of origin. Alongside globalisation, diaspora communities have influenced the way migrants relate to their places and cultures of origin, and the existence of a diaspora community can influence the integration experience of a migrant. For instance, studies on communities of Polish origin in southern Brazil (Grechinsk & Cardozo 2008; Teleginski 2016) found that the culinary practices from Central-Eastern Europe introduced in Brazil by migrants are transmitted to the descendent generations, becoming part of the dietary habits in the region. In this way, they integrate the cultural heritage of Paraná State and Brazil with the local food system, which includes exchanges with other ethnic groups. There are examples from the interviews, which highlight the relationship with the everyday staple food:

There always had to be potato. The potato was like the Brazilian rice, we did not have rice, pasta, beans [in Poland], but we had potato. The potato was boiled, fried, all kinds” – Ana

  • 3 Arracacia xanthorrhiza, a starchy root vegetable originally from the Andes. Also known as arracacha(...)

We eat rice and beans every day. Rice and beans are a part of… potato, for example, we don’t enjoy as much anymore. We like potato, but we substituted it for mashed ‘mandioquinha’3, we eat cassava, I think we ‘Brazilianised’ a lot” – Dorota

I think there was more [potato at my parents’ house]. I remember mashed potatoes boiled potatoes; anyhow, there were more potatoes. There was also rice and beans, but I remember the potato, the taste of the potato. Here [at home] we have already discarded the potato” – Dorota

“[About the everyday food at home] nothing very typical Brazilian other than rice and beans. I really love rice and beans” – Magda

52Despite rice and beans substituting the traditional Polish potato as a staple food, both Ana and Dorota recount the persistence of Polish flavor (smak) in their food:

[Our food] had a special taste, we used more butter than Brazilians. We didn’t use much oil, because we didn’t like it. And very little garlic, we didn’t really use it because we hated it” – Ana

  • 4 Majeranek: marjoram.

Maybe it was the Polish seasoning. So, for example, the ‘smak’ [taste] was Polish. My mom would use the seasoning she was used to. So, we had onions, we also had garlic, but not like in Italian cuisine, it was only a bit, not exaggerated. There was ’majeranek’4 to season the pork. So, the taste was Polish” – Dorota

Polish traditions and identity

53Given the occurrence of this assimilation in the staple food, what is then the role of Polish food and how does Polish identity express itself?

54For all three generations, it is in the family celebrations that the Polish traditions and cuisine are recovered and rediscovered and when “being Polish” manifests itself. However, the memory of recipes has been lost over time and the descriptions of food preparations that are currently used indicate that the recipes have been adapted to the family's taste, or adapted to account for other factors such as difficulties in finding ingredients, laborious preparations, and climate differences between the origin and host countries. As described by Dorota:

  • 5 Barszcz: this beetroot soup is the first course during Christmas Eve feast, served with uszki (tiny (...)

And I remember her [grandmother] doing it [cooking] at Christmas time, because Christmas was a feast time. Easter and Christmas were always big rituals here at home, so we had special food at this time. And the foods were repeated over years, it was always the same. I remember my grandmother flattening out the dough to make ‘uszki’ to put it in the ‘barszcz’5. She would flatten that dough, and my mother never did that, it was my grandmother who did it. My mother always went with… she maintained tradition, but she adapted it to the easiest and most practical way”.

  • 6 Bigos: traditional stew with sauerkraut, meats and dried mushrooms.
  • 7 Flacki: tripe.
  • 8 Sernik: cheesecake.
  • 9 Makowiec: cake layered with poppy-seeds.
  • 10 Zrazy: meat dish with fresh cream sauce and dried mushrooms.
  • 11 Klops: meatloaf.
  • 12 Galaretki: gelatin filled with chicken and vegetables.
  • 13 Chłodnick: Cold beetroot soup.

55Other reported dishes that were prepared in special family events or family gatherings were bigos,6 flacki7, sernik8, makowiec9, zrazy10, klops11, galeretki12, chłodnick13 some of which reflect the dishes traditionally prepared by the communities of Polish origin in the south of Brazil (Grechinsk & Cardozo 2008). Curiously, the pierogi (dumplings), one of the most popular Polish dishes, was not part of Ana’s recipe repertoire, though her mother cooked it. Magda tasted pierogi for the first time when living in Poland.

  • 14 Slédź: herring.
  • 15 Bakalia: mix of dried fruits and nuts.
  • 16 Kompot: Dried or fresh fruits in syrup.

56From the narratives, it is possible to see that traditions were transformed and adapted to new temporal and spatial realities over the generations. For example: the main fish dish, which is served hot in Poland, was substituted by fish and prawns served cold, which is much more acceptable in the warm Brazilian Christmas weather, as opposed to the cold Polish winter. The slédź14 and dried mushrooms, not found in Brazil, were brought by travelling friends or relatives whenever possible, as a special treat. Other foods (e.g. bakalia15, kompot16) and practices were maintained, such as having an extra plate at the table for an unexpected guest during Christmas Eve dinner (this custom was eventually lost when the family grew too big), and starting the dinner only after the first star appeared in the sky, and no meat (other than fish) allowed on that day. We observed that the Polish traditions are revealed mostly through specific rituals, which are in some way connected to food. These were described in detail by Magda:

  • 17 Often sent by post by friends or relatives from Poland.

I remember Christmas as a wonderful time! When I was little, we celebrated it at the country house. The whole family came together for the holidays and summer vacation. My grandparents (Ana and her husband), their four children with their spouses and twelve grandchildren. The whole family was involved in organising Christmas Eve dinner. The women worked in the kitchen, led by my grandmother, who was in charge and did most of the work. Children helped to decorate the Christmas tree and the table, which was huge and fit us all. The men would go to the nearest town to make last-minute purchases, as there was always something missing. Everyone dressed up nicely, and we always took a picture before dinner, which always starts when the first star appeared. My grandparents used to send those pictures to Poland. Two specific rituals always come to mind. First, the sharing of the Christian wafer, opłatek17, between family members whilst wishing each other good fortune. The second happened just before we started eating. The adults would do several rounds of “do dna” vodka toast, meaning “to the bottom”, in memory of family and friends who could not be present”.

57For this family, Polish cuisine is defined by their perception and reinterpretation of traditional dishes based on the recipes brought by Ana’s mother and then taken over by Ana. But most importantly, the traditions are defined by the associated food rituals, including the moment of preparation in which the whole family is involved; setting the table, choosing the music, buying ingredients, washing up, and, of course, cooking. In later years, “Polish cuisine” was only served during family gatherings, especially Christmas and Easter, and the cuisine was more related to the preparation of the food than the food itself. It is also important to mention that Polish cuisine, at the time that Ana left Poland – and therefore what she brought with her to Brazil – was fairly homogeneous. Extended regional trade routes and Polish geography lead to widespread traditional dishes as specific regional ingredients made their way to tables across the country (Michalik 2012).

58The rituals that comprise these traditions are linked to the Catholic holidays of Christmas and Easter. Grechinsk & Cardozo (2008:367) discuss the importance of the Catholic Church in the organisation of the first Polish communities in the south of Brazil. The church was responsible for recording and maintaining cultural expressions, lifestyle, and traditions among the descendants. The same was observed in other Polish diaspora communities in England (Rabikowska 2010; Janowski 2012). For this family, however, although religion was an important cultural aspect that helped to reinforce the Polish identity and traditions, including food, there was no institutional presence of the Church. In addition, religion did not represent a clash with the host culture, which is predominantly Catholic.

59Traditions should be understood as a set of socially constructed norms and practices that aim to establish values and rules from repetition, and in this way, creating a relationship of continuity with the past. Hobsbawn and Ranger (1997) explain the relationship between the past and present in the invention of traditions. The invention of traditions is a process of formalisation and ritualization of practices characterised mainly by relations with the past. The use of references from the past does not prevent the breakup and creation of new customs and rituals.

60The analysis of the narratives allows us to identify the importance of traditions in reaffirming the Polish identity within the family. Even though some of those traditions were new or modified, they were often related to typical Polish customs that were brought by Ana, her husband, and her parents.

61Teleginski (2016 : 90) highlights that between the 19th and 20th centuries, nationalism was a feeling that accompanied migrant Poles. Poland was, at the time, dominated by expansionist views and there was a desire to establish a "New Poland" in Brazil. We believe that the same national identity existed at the time of Ana’s migration and particularly for her family since her father was involved with the Polish government in exile. According to Bielewska (2011 : 25) “the national identity of post-war migrants was shaped firstly in their childhood by the strong patriotism of the nascent Polish State, and in their youth by the Second World War”. Janowski (2012) found that Polish women deported to various countries during the war had reported that the idea of a “homeland” (ojczyzna) was related to foodways. When migration is sudden, forced, involuntary, and traumatic, such as in the case of Ana, who fled Poland quite suddenly leaving her life behind, the power of the myth of the “homeland” is strengthened (Bielewska 2011). In this context, food takes on a very special role in connecting to a past life that is remembered as “normal and happy” but is often idealised (Janowski 2012 : 331).

62Ana had a strong sense of nationalism that led her to maintain her language, food practices, and rituals – and commensality was the main expression of these aspects. When the family ate together, this was the moment when everybody “became Polish”. On the other hand, for her children and granddaughter, other elements (and not nationalism), such as memories and affective bonds, were important in creating this feeling of belonging or ethnic identity despite their national identities as Brazilians.

63The trajectory of Poland – war followed by communism – affected their perceptions regarding the possibility of return. If Ana and her husband initially thought about returning (information not provided by Ana), the political situation made this option impossible for them, at least until the fall of communism. However, there was no mention of a desire to return to Poland after this event.

64Ana, even without a Polish community/diaspora to support the maintenance of Polish customs and a lack of enthusiasm for cooking, was able to pass on the traditions of her country of origin including food traditions. Daure and Reveyrand-Coulon (2009 : 417) emphasize that the relationship between migrant parents and their children, who are born in the country of destination, becomes complex once “each generation falls within a cultural universe that the other does not dominate”. In addition, the authors highlight that different cultural references for each generation can be conducive to the exchange of experiences, creating a situation with a positive sense of “double belonging”, which favours family relations. In the same way, the absence of an exchange can result in a negative sensation in which a situation of isolation develops.

65Throughout Ana’s and Dorota’s narratives, it is possible to observe that family is structured around a matriarchal role. Ana occupies this role, which is fundamental to the maintenance and perpetuation of Polish traditions. Graff (2003) discusses how women have an important status in the Polish society. For the author, the historical and religious construction of Poland allowed women to occupy these roles that characterise a matriarchal society. The image of Polish women, especially before the Second World War, represented many values such as endurance, spiritual strength, independence, love, power, and influence (Graff 2003, Bąk et al. 2010), a “person able to sacrifice her own fortune for family, nation, homeland, and whose first obligation was raising her offspring in the spirit of patriotism (the ‘Polish Mother’ myth)” (Bąk et al. 2010 : 1). Therefore, Ana plays an important role in the constitution of the Polish identity of her family, acting as the central model. Dorota expressed her concern about how these values will be perpetuated throughout the next generations.

66In today’s context of globalisation, it is inevitable that migrant cuisine will undergo adaptation including the incorporation of new techniques and flavours (Rocha & Rial 2014). However, the cuisine begins from an initial idea, a recipe. Within the repertoire of memories, recipes can be considered, according to Dória (2009 apud Teleginski 2014 : 88), “records of procedures, summaries and testimonies of a society”. However, the search for experiencing the memory of the palate seems to become complex during the acculturation process.

67The two Brazilian-born generations interviewed in this study were raised within a culture that had been adapted by their ancestors. This laid the foundation for their Polish identities. Based on this, Polish identity is therefore redefined based on very loose connections to the country of origin.

68Furthermore, only Dorota knows some of the recipes, exemplifying a transmission of knowledge from mother (and grandmother) to daughter. In a study about the pierogi as an identity food for Polish descendants in Brazil, Teleginski (2016) also found a predominance of a feminine memory – in the passing of knowledge from mother to daughter to granddaughters and to nieces. Jan never participated in any cooking activity at home and Dorota highlights the gendered family roles: “Daddy never mingled in the kitchen. He never had a prominent role in the kitchen, a decision-making role. This part of the kitchen was very segregated. He enjoyed it, he liked it, he worked so that everything was there, but he never participated in the preparation or decision-making”.

69We also believe the memory of traditions is being lost as the family grows. Despite the gender transformation in the cooking role observed in the second generation, we believe that the maintenance of the Polish identity in the family is still viewed as dependent on a matriarchal-model, mirroring Ana’s convictions and Dorota’s perception that it is her role to continue it. As Ana ages, there are doubts and fears relating to this process, given that Dorota has no daughters (she has three sons). Dorota says: “I took over a little but I do not know to what extent, after my mom is gone, how much of this will be kept the way as it has been until today”.

70As highlighted by Cáceres-Nevot (2008), the condition of arrival in the host country is one of the first determinants of the changes to the dietary practices. When different cultures merge, it becomes increasingly difficult to preserve a distinct cultural identity or to prevent the incorporation of dominant cultural influences. The preservation of the Polish culture, as part of the acculturation process, is not an individual choice. For this family, “Polishness” is built and exists in a bubble. In this study, the main family connection to Polish culture are: Ana’s mother; her father, who was not present during the first experiences of the family in the host country; Ana’s memories of Poland from her 12-year old self; and her husband, who likewise left Poland at the young age of 16.

Final considerations

71Food is an important aspect of culture and Brazilian food culture is based on the consumption of rice and beans as staple foods. The migrant communities who are immersed in the dominant Brazilian culture seek ways to maintain and establish their own cultural identities. Geertz (2008) proposes that hegemonic and counter-hegemonic cultures coexist and overlap at all times.

72The substitution of the potato – the traditional side dish in Polish cuisine – by rice and beans upon arrival in Brazil, and the challenge of finding rice and beans – the most typical Brazilian dish when living in Poland – define turning points in the food trajectories of Ana and Magda. The assimilation process, exemplified in this case by the preference for the typical Brazilian foods instead of the Polish potato is demonstrated in the narratives of Dorota and Jan. The assimilation of rice and beans is similarly observed in other Polish communities across Brazil (Teleginski 2016) and indicates the power of Brazilian culture over the efforts made by migrants (in isolation or not) to maintain their food traditions. In the case of the family portrayed in this study, this assimilation was facilitated by Ana’s practical attitude towards cooking and the presence of a Brazilian maid.

73Nevertheless, this assimilation does not overshadow the complexity of the diverse identities within the family and each individual. There would be no family tradition without the redefined Polish food and commensality, which strengthens the cohesion of the family. The Polish identity appears when traditions are maintained and is particularly important in the celebration of Christmas and Easter when Polish culture is combined with a strong Christian tradition. This has also been observed by Janowski (2012) and Rabikowska (2010), who found this to be true among Polish migrants in England. The same phenomenon was discussed by Teleginski (2016) who studied Polish migrants who settled in Brazil. It is in the moments of celebration and festivities, when the whole family gathers, that (adapted) Polish food appears. However, during those occasions, given the changes and adaptations of the dishes, it is the commensality and the rituals relating to food that are much more important than the food itself. These are essential to the maintenance and reaffirmation of the Polish identity for the generations born in Brazil.

74Two of the reasons that Polish food was only prepared for special celebrations and festivities are the challenges associated with finding ingredients and the laboriousness of recipes. Despite Ana’s dislike for cooking, the lack of a Polish community/diaspora to support her, and having a maid to cook the everyday meals, she took on the role of keeping some Polish traditions alive. These are cherished by the following generations although the knowledge of family recipes is being lost.

75These strategies are linked to a strong sense of nationalism, as well as Ana’s matriarchal role. Ana took it upon herself to maintain her language (passing it onto the second generation), her food traditions and her rituals, and commensality was the main expression of these. The feeling of “becoming Polish” arises when the family gets together for special celebrations. The maintenance of this ethnic identity for the second and third generations is significant since that their national identity is Brazilian.

76As expected, other factors influence food choices throughout life courses, marking transitions and turning points, which reflect fluctuations in habits, generational preferences, and gender roles (Rabikowska 2010). We observe that some of the most important turning points that led to changes in food choices were related to the various migratory processes that affected the family’s trajectory. Although this study departs from Ana’s personal migratory experience, we see that the following generations become migrants themselves and their identities become more complex. It is the negotiation between these identities that characterises their ways of eating. Although we see a process of incorporating new food ingredients and practices, it is interesting to point out that rice and beans remains the preference as the staple food for the second and third generations. We also observe concerns relating to the preservation of the Polish identity, which is perceived to be under threat with Ana’s ageing.

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1 Areas denominated as “uninhabited” were, in reality, populated by indigenous tribes. In the 19th century, government policies aimed at reducing the scope of indigenous-held land and “whitening” the population included measures such as relocating migrants to such areas (Carneiro da Cunha 1992).

2 Real names were changed.

3 Arracacia xanthorrhiza, a starchy root vegetable originally from the Andes. Also known as arracacha or white carrot.

4 Majeranek: marjoram.

5 Barszcz: this beetroot soup is the first course during Christmas Eve feast, served with uszki (tiny moon-shaped dumplings) with mushroom filling.

6 Bigos: traditional stew with sauerkraut, meats and dried mushrooms.

7 Flacki: tripe.

8 Sernik: cheesecake.

9 Makowiec: cake layered with poppy-seeds.

10 Zrazy: meat dish with fresh cream sauce and dried mushrooms.

11 Klops: meatloaf.

12 Galaretki: gelatin filled with chicken and vegetables.

13 Chłodnick: Cold beetroot soup.

14 Slédź: herring.

15 Bakalia: mix of dried fruits and nuts.

16 Kompot: Dried or fresh fruits in syrup.

17 Often sent by post by friends or relatives from Poland.

18 This has been used, but the original source is: HOBSBAWN E, RANGER T. 1983. The Invention of Tradition, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

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List of illustrations

Title FIGURE 1: Family tree – 3 generations
Caption Legend: purple = individuals born abroad; red = individuals who lived abroad at some stage; shaded = individuals interviewed for this study.
File image/png, 50k
Title FIGURE 2: Life course trajectory of Ana - First generation migrant: transitions, turning-points, and macro and micro contexts
Caption Legend: yellow = macro context; orange = micro context; blue = food/eating transitions; purple = food/eating turning points.
File image/png, 68k
Title FIGURE 3: Life course trajectory of Dorota: transition, turning-point, macro and micro contexts
Caption Legend: yellow = macro context; orange = micro context; blue = food/eating transitions; purple = food/eating turning points.
File image/png, 44k
Title FIGURE 4: Life course trajectory of Jan: transitions, turning-points, macro and micro contexts
Caption Legend: yellow = macro context; orange = micro context; blue = food/eating transitions; purple = food/eating turning points.
File image/png, 38k
Title FIGURE 4: Life course trajectory of Magda: transitions, turning-points, macro and micro contexts
Caption Legend: yellow = macro context; orange = micro context; blue = food/eating transitions; purple = food/eating turning points.
File image/png, 36k
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Electronic reference

Claudia Ridel Juzwiak, Teressa Juzwiak and Victor Ridel Juzwiak, « From potato to rice and beans: memory and Polish culinary tradition throughout three generations », Anthropology of food [Online], S12 | 2018, Online since 14 January 2019, connection on 15 May 2021. URL : ; DOI :

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About the authors

Claudia Ridel Juzwiak

Professor, PhD, Federal University of São Paulo, Brazil,

Teressa Juzwiak

Migration Specialist, MSc, the Netherlands,

Victor Ridel Juzwiak

Historian, Federal University of Uberlandia, Brazil,

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Licence Creative Commons
Anthropologie of food est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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