CASTLE HAYNE — Like most events in 2020, St. Stanislaus’ annual Polish Festival had to put down its accordion this year thanks to Covid-19. It’s a highly anticipated event that brings in close to 8,000 guests during one day on Castle Hayne Road, according to church officials.
All money generated from the festival (its costs alone are near $45,000, according to festival co-chair Debbie Cool) go back to the upkeep of the church.
“Sometimes it helps subsidize our programs, like Helping Hands, which feeds community members in need,” Cool said on a phone call Thursday.
Yet, Covid-19 is mandating limited gatherings. Cool, along with her co-chair Marty Yakimovich, said they made the decision to cancel the festival in June, since they saw no way to host that many people on the church’s grounds and maintain being 6-feet apart.
“It was an easy decision to make, but a heartbreaking decision nonetheless,” Cool said.
Instead, they concentrated on amending their annual holiday food sale, which the church hosts annually at Christmas and Easter. This year the December 5 event will be a drive-thru, so folks don’t have to leave their cars and can still order favorite foods they’d normally get at the festival. Eight flavors of pierogi (potato and cheese is the most popular, though they also have sauerkraut, cabbage, spinach and feta, and others) remain the most popular.
“We even have prune,” secretary Rebecca Clements said. “I think that would be more like a dessert. I would fry it and put confectioner sugar on it.”
Cool has ordered 1,920 dozen pierogi, which will sell for $7 per dozen.
The festival also will have 84 2-pound containers of potato pancake mix ($7 each), packages of kielbasa ($8 each), and they’re carrying the traditional Polish Christmas wafer, oplatki ($5 for a pack of four).
“On Christmas Eve people share it,” Clements explained. “It’s a big flat bread, and there’s a story inside how the Christmas wafer came to be. You share it, along with sentiments like ‘I forgive you for this’ and ‘Please, forgive me for that.’ People come from all over because they can’t get it anywhere.”
Cool orders the specialty items from Pennsylvania through a vendor the festival has worked with for 22 years — as long as the event has taken place.
“Pierogi, you can’t really get them good down here,” she said. “We have gotten kielbasa from New York before, and we tried to give local butcher shops traditional Polish recipes, but it doesn’t come out to the standard.”
The event on Saturday takes place from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. only, with two teams of 15 volunteers managing the drive-thru. Folks will enter from the Marathon Dr. side near the church’s office and follow the signs to place orders. They’ll be handed an order form, drive up to the checkout, where a runner will grab their items from the church hall and deliver them to the car before the customer exits.
“It will be one way in and one way out,” Cool explained.
Cool has been organizing the festival with Yakimovich for 19 years now. When they started, it was a much smaller affair.
“The church ladies cooked all the stuffed cabbage — 300 each year,” Cool explained.
Today, when the Polish Fest is up and running in its glory, they have to have it catered by Angie’s of Chris’ Restaurant.
“We couldn’t handle the inventory needed for today,” she said.
They also normally host Chadron, a Polka band from Ohio, to play the event. Front St. Brewery brews a special batch of Polish beer, only available at the festival annually, and Polish sweets and cookies are sold along with handmade crafts, and they host a silent auction.
“It’s a very energetic atmosphere,” Cool said. “And you don’t have to be Polish to enjoy it — everyone likes the food. They’re eating and just smiling and bouncing to the music.”
Cool said shared disappointment between the community and church looms any time they have to cancel the event. Most recently, in 2018 they did so because of Hurricane Florence. That year, the drive-thru holiday event sold out all items rather quickly, according to Cool.
“Cars were lined out in the road,” she said. “Word-of-mouth spreads fast. We’re definitely looking forward to next year.”
Have holiday events or food news? Email Shea Carver at email@example.com