Northeast Ohioans carry on Paczki Day tradition on Fat Tuesday

Northeastern Ohioans indulged in special sweets and meat dishes before beginning the religious fasting that characterizes the season of Lent.

Paczki Day and Mardi Gras represent two popular variations of Fat Tuesday celebrations across Northeast Ohio. On Feb. 21, people from all over the area swarmed to Rudy’s Strudel & Bakery in Parma to purchase paczkis before the Lenten season.  

Fat Tuesday is a Christian celebration where people indulge in sweets and meat before Ash Wednesday, the start of Lent. 

Baldwin Wallace senior Danny Rocco has been celebrating Fat Tuesday for as long as he can remember. Rocco’s mom would make Gumbo and Jambalaya, and purchase different pastries, including paczkis, for the occasion.  

As a Catholic, Rocco makes Lenten promises each season. Instead of giving something up every season he often tries to add something to be a better person. In the past he has made sure to check on his grandparents, aunts and uncles, and help friends and classmates. This Lent he is trying to be at least 5 minutes early to every class.  

 “I think [Fat Tuesday] is a good time [to] party. [It is] a lot of fun before you go into where you’ve got the Easter season coming up,” Rocco said. “It’s a lot of trying to be more reverent to the Easter season. I think about Jesus dying on the cross. I think it’s a big party before you get into that. It’s about family, friends and just having a good time.” 

The paczki holds a special place in Fat Tuesday celebrations in Northeast Ohio due in large part to the bakeries like Rudy’s Strudel & Bakery in Parma.

Paczkis are fried leavened dough filled with either savory or sweet fillings and powdered sugar on top. It dates to the medieval ages in Poland when people would use up all their sweets and treats, and then they would not be able to eat during Lent. This turned into the creation of Paczki Day, celebrated by Polish people all over the world the day before Ash Wednesday.  

Rudy’s has been featured on the Kelly Clarkson Show on PBS, the music publication Pitchfork and various local news sources. Through Pitchfork they were recognized for their Pavement Pierogis, an ode to the band Pavement. They have also gone viral for a special Kate Bush themed pierogi. 

In 2008 Eugenia Polatajko and her daughter, Lidia Trempe, became co-owners of Rudy’s.  

The bakery has been a part of Trempe’s whole life. As young as about three or four years old, she was the human doorbell letting her mom know when a customer came in. 

This year marked the 75th  anniversary of Rudy’s opening in Cleveland. It eventually moved to Parma, home to some of the largest Ukrainian and Polish populations in Ohio.  

The Paczki Day celebrations included a sort of birthday party for Rudy’s. While customers were waiting to purchase their paczkis, there was cornhole, cake, polka dancing lessons and DJ Kishka to ring in the momentous day.  

Paczki Day in Northeast Ohio is more than indulging in treats, it represents a community coming together. By 3:30 p.m. all paczkis were sold out, representing roughly 80,000 sold on the day.  

“It’s become really big and it’s really important to me,” Trempe said. “It’s like literally my favorite time of the year. Nothing means more to me than Paczki Day because it is taking that memory of my babcia (ed. note: “babcia” translates to “grandma” in Polish) making me rose petal paczki.”  

Some Rudy’s customers have patronized the business for generations. Trempe has attended weddings, funerals and various other occasions of some of her customers, whom she considers like family.  

“Food crosses all cultures. There is nothing more intimate and loving than sharing a meal with somebody,” Trempe said. 

The story of immigrant success in America is seen firsthand through Rudy’s, and Trempe said that she is living her “American dream.”  

“Everything that my parents provided for me — that’s what it is,” Trempe said. “It’s meant they work day and night. The American dream is what my parents did: they put me through college. And I repaid the favor and came back and helped. And I am so privileged. My parents did that for me.” 

As a popular landmark with a storied past Rudy’s represents Cleveland’s trademark grit and positivity.  

“The grittiness, the reality and still the smile that happens on the face of every Clevelander is what I think is the most special thing in the world,” Trempe said. “I feel so lucky to live in this small, big city. The grit and the shine — that’s Cleveland.”