By Katherine Bielawa Stamper
It was a feast to remember. Chroniclers detailed a sumptuous banquet celebrating the marriage of Charles IV, the Holy Roman Emperor, to Elizabeth of Pomerania, granddaughter of Polish King Casimir the Great.
The recently widowed Charles was forty-seven; Elizabeth was sixteen. Theirs was a union of convenience, forging a strategic political alliance. Elizabeth would be crowned Queen of Bohemia and Empress of the Holy Roman Empire.
An impressive list of attendees travelled to Cracow in the Kingdom of Poland in 1363 to celebrate the wedding in style. King Louis I of Hungary, King Waldemar IV of Denmark and King Peter I of Cyprus were among monarchs and nobles present.
Mikolaj Wierzynek, a merchant and banker, hosted the gathering at the behest of King Casimir. Wierzynek’s home, overlooking Cracow’s magnificent medieval square, provided appropriately lush and lavish accommodation.
Tables overflowed with game, fish and fowl accompanied by nuts, berries and expertly foraged mushrooms. The menu was a carefully choreographed culinary affair, showcasing the best of Polish cuisine. Libations heightened the already festive mood. Guests feasted for twenty days. Discussion at table reportedly focused on political issues in a Europe still recovering from the ravages of the Black Death.
Fast forward 621 years. In the fall of 1984, I was a student studying on exchange at the Jagiellonian University in Cracow. A foundation scholarship allowed me to spend two years living in an amazing medieval city during the waning days of communism.
My first year classes found me in a language institute populated by students from nations with substantial Polish émigré communities. There was also a smattering of students from the Communist Bloc. We were a motley mix of “East meets West,” forging friendships across political lines.
Giancarlo and Belcriz, from Brazil, spoke Polish with Portuguese accents. Krysia from England and Michel and David from France shared my adjustment frustrations as we traded Western consumer pleasures for ration cards and long lines for basic commodities. I remember Russians, Romanians, Hungarians, Germans, Cubans, Venezuelans, Canadians, Austrians and even a lone Iraqi in our circle of learners.
As Thanksgiving approached, my first one away from home, my American classmates and I started scheming a holiday celebration. The U.S. dollar was king, enjoying an enormous mark-up in black market trading. What goods were available for purchase—there weren’t many—were very inexpensive by Western standards.
Our American contingent decided to organize a Thanksgiving dinner at Wierzynek, which, centuries after the famed feast, was transformed into a high-end restaurant. Western tourists and party functionaries were the most likely to be able to afford the steep—by communist standards—prices.
We reserved a long table in the famed banquet room. An enormous portrait of the 1363 feast was suspended on the wall over our bustling brood of internationals whose shared language was Polish.
As self-appointed historian, I clanged my glass to catch the attention of fellow celebrants. I then offered a short retelling of the Thanksgiving Story. We then feasted on turkey accompanied by salads and root vegetables. We ate “Szarlotka” (Apple Charlotte) for dessert. There wasn’t a pumpkin pie in sight.
I remember the laughter, the conversation and the power of sharing my American culture at a table filled with new friends. Our Brazilian buddies would repay the gesture, hosting a raucous Carnival party in the spring while teaching all of us to samba.
Wherever and with whomever you spend your Thanksgiving, may it be brimming with good food, good friends and good cheer.