By Jason Newport
I’m eight years old, and I’m eating polychindas for breakfast with my little sister. She’s three. We’re eating in the kitchen while Mom’s at the stove, pouring another string of white batter into the sizzling pan. The two-story house is old, the kitchen small. There’s no breakfast bar to sit at, and the table and chairs are in the dining room where nobody ever eats. At the foot of the staircase, my sister perches in her frilled nightgown with a Mickey Mouse plate on her lap, Mickey’s face masked with butter and cinnamon and sugar leaking from the crispy tail of her polychinda, cut in two so her small fingers can manage it. She smiles as she chews. So do I. I eat standing, keeping an eye on when the next one might come out of the pan. Our breakfast is usually cold cereal in a bowl of milk, orange Kix or brown Cocoa Puffs for her, gluey Frosted Flakes for me. A hot breakfast is special—it means Mom has time to cook, something that happens only occasionally, on a weekend or a holiday—and polychindas are the most special breakfast of all. No one else we know has them, has even heard of them. They’re a family thing, a thing of ours, only on the table once in a while at home or maybe at Aunt Tamara’s or Grandma Eva’s house. Though not really on a table. My sister and I don’t let them get that far.
A polychinda is like a really thin pancake spread almost to the size of a dinner plate. When it comes hot off the pan, you smear melting butter over every inch of it, then pour a mix of cinnamon and sugar onto it in a dark spiral starting from the center and curving outward all the way off the rim. When the spiral runs out, you bend one of the flaky edges of the browned dough inward and roll the thing up tight into a layered tube. Polychindas are finger food, ideal for kids. When I was very small, Mom cut them in half for me to hold better; now I do it for my little sister. We love eating them. At the ends, the rough crusts are crackly and you can prick your tongue on them; in the middle, every bite is thick, chewy, buttery, spicy deliciousness. Once Mom gets the pan going nice and hot, polychinda after polychinda appears and then disappears as narrowly as we can time it so our next one is arriving just as we’re finishing the previous one’s last bite. We couldn’t be happier.
Sometimes Mom will take time out to make one for herself with jelly instead of butter, poking a knife into a jar of Smucker’s grape or strawberry and swiping a sheen of colored gel across the polychinda. That seems unforgivably wrong to us as we open another stick of butter.
“Where’d you learn to make polychindas?” I ask Mom, as I always do when we have them.
“From my mom,” she replies, using the yellowing spatula to check under the edge of the next one.
“Where’d she learn to make them?”
“From her mom.”
Thinking of my sly, stringy great-grandmother, I press, “Where’d she learn to make them?”
“From her mom.”
I’m at a loss to imagine my great-grandmother’s mother. How old is she? What does she look like? Where’s her house? Does she let you eat in her kitchen? All I know is that whoever she is, wherever she lives, she makes polychindas, too. I want to visit.
When I’m older than eight, I’ll discover that the Hungarian word for what we’re eating is palacsinta, and they’re just another kind of crepe, common breakfast fare in Central Europe where my mother’s grandmother’s family came from, carrying their pans and butter away with them ahead of disaster and nightmare and war. But Europeans don’t always roll them up the way we were taught to. My mother’s people were true Gypsies, though, and eventually I’ll realize that a breakfast you can carry in your hand is one you can eat on the road. Fast food for a people who had to take traveling seriously. When I’m married and making polychindas for my wife for the first time one bright Saturday morning, I’ll tell her, “This is how my great-great-grandmother used to feed her family breakfast.”
“And she still is,” my wife will observe, smiling as she takes her first bite of one.
When I’m eight, my sister and I love eating this strange, special thing in our mother’s sunny kitchen. We watch the batter darken in the pan, and draw circles with the dust of cinnamon and sugar, and roll the hot dough into a shape we can hold with our fingertips, and relish the taste that only we, of all children, know. Polychindas are bubbling, and all we want is the next one.
A native of southern Wisconsin, JASON NEWPORT is pursuing an MFA in creative writing at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. His nonfiction has appeared in C4: The Chamber Four Lit Mag, and in Chautauqua, where he is a contributing editor. His short fiction has appeared in moonShine review, Zero Ducats, Constellation, and Potomac Review. He is currently working on a novel.