Starting today in Chicopee, Massachusetts, kielbasa lovers will unite after two decades without a festival celebrating the beloved polish sausage. The four day meaty event at Szot Park brings not only food, but polka music, dance stages, rides, of course fried dough, and according to Stephen Jendrysik, the revival of a a potentially deadly competition.
“The most dangerous thing was the kielbasa eating contest. I was glad they had a doctor on hand,” he added. “Some of these fellows didn’t look like they were going to live through it. ”
Jendrysik is a Chicopee native, head of the city’s historical commission and a lover of kielbasa. He puts horseradish and spicy mustard on his. Though he adds, he eats just one at a time. “I’m getting up there [in age]. You have to be careful.”
The festival began in 1974. By 1977 Chicopee’s kielbasa obsession made national network news. The world’s largest sausage, at least according to the judges here, went missing, missing that is afor about 24 hours. Jendrysik says it may have been a prank (but still, it is hard to make off with a 100 pound sausage).
In the years that followed, with the popularity of the festival and a competition among vendors, that sausage only grew.
“The world’s largest kielbasa kept getting bigger and bigger. In fact the casing looked like a fire hose!, ” says Jendrysik who chalks up all that meat to an American way of life, adding ” … right? It’s gotta get bigger! Over the years, the sausage actually tripled in size in the city that considers itself the Kielbasa Capitol of the World.
There’s hope that with this year’s incarnation, the festival will again become an annual event. It was for a while the centerpiece of this largely Polish community, first established in the 1880s. Jendrysik says in the early 20th century the Polish made up almost half of Chicopee.
“In 1910 we had more polish owned businesses than any community in New England. And those people were of course very much into food production, also the development of festivals, parades, and events,” Jendrysik says.
And of course kielbasa. Though as an aside Jendrysik points out it was actually a business man of Irish descent who started the kielbasa festival. He says a drop in attendance, an aging population and a younger one not so interested in dancing all night to the upbeat tempos of a polka band factored in to its demise. And there was dissent among the local businesses that supported the event, which eventually split over how it should be run.
So who would try to bring it back? Someone under 40 with no time on his hands, of course. In the days before the festival, with food and drink trucks pulling on to the fields, tents stakes were being hammered into the ground, and rides sat empty waiting to be filled, the man behind the coming days of kielbasa consumption, Tom Kielbania, was walking across the grass trailed by a group of small children. At least two of them are his. Kielbania is father of four, a musician, a builder, and clearly he loves his Polish sausage. When he was young, he remembers being among the crowds who used to come the festival hungry for food and a community.
“My Grandparents were Polish, off the boat. We didn’t come from a lot,” he says, “so we didn’t go [to the festival] every year. We went when we could afford it. But it was a good time. It was Chicopee that’s for sure. It was its own thing.”
Bringing back the festival, Kielbania says, is like trying to revive a dying art. And that makes sense to a man whose nick name is “Kielbasa” and who eats the sausage with some frequency, cooking it he says until it bursts open.
Kielbania stands to make money this weekend, and more over time if the festival is a success. He also stands to lose money — rain in the weekend forecast could keep the crowds away. But he says he can be sure the politicians will show up including mayors past and present.
“Mayor Kos is kicking off [the event] and I guarantee you, Bissonnette will be here and he’s more than welcome here!, ” Kielbania says. “He never had a bad thing to say about this. He had one thing to say to me, don’t put it in a parking lot. They’re both good men, I honestly have nothing bad to say about either of them.”
It seems Tom Kielbania is a a bit of a politician himself. As for that indigestion inducing kielbasa eating contest, this year there’s going to be a version for kids. But Kielbania says don’t worry, he’s going to limit the little ones to just six pounds. of sausage. Each.