CHICAGO — Traditionally, the Illinois primary is held around St. Patrick’s Day, which helps the Irish candidates. But this year, it was moved up to Feb. 5, to help Barack Obama. That means it coincides with Paczki Day, the Polish Mardi Gras — a pre-Lenten feast of lard-heavy pastries filled with raspberry, cherry, pineapple or apricot. They’re 400 calories each, with 30 grams of fat, so once a year is enough.
On Milwaukee Avenue, the city’s Polish Broadway, precinct captain Dan Levar, a 25-year veteran of Chicago elections, stood on the salt-crunchy sidewalk in front of the Wilson Park Fieldhouse, and described his preparations for this once-in-a-lifetime primary.
“We have a variety of biscuits that we brought in,” said Levar, the alderman’s brother. “There were a few paczki. I’m Bohemian. What I call a paczki doesn’t have to be jelly-filled. Powder, custard-filled is a paczki in my mind.”
The 45th Ward is an old-line operation. It’s more concerned with electing judges and tax appeals board members than presidents. On the palm cards, that line was empty. But Levar expected most voters to go for Hillary Clinton, who grew up “five minutes away,” in the neighboring suburb of Park Ridge.
When I exit-polled voter Eugene Jakubowski, he had not yet eaten his paczki, although he planned to buy a raspberry at Jewel, a local supermarket. Jakubowski had, however, voted for John McCain.
“He’s good for foreign affairs,” Jakubowski explained. “McCain was a prisoner of war. He’s a fighter pilot. It strikes me he’s not a fanatic. He’s a realist.”
Besides endorsing McCain, Jakubowski also endorsed holding an election on Paczki Day.
“It raises your blood sugar, and you’ll think better,” he said.
Inside the field house was Carol Kramer. Kramer sent her husband out for paczki this morning, and “he went a little crazy. I said get an assortment, and he came home with a dozen. I cheated. I took half of the chocolate one, and half of the strawberry one. The rest I’ll have to leave out on the street corner.”
There was a time, in a more racially divided Chicago, when few people in this neighborhood would have supported a black candidate. But Kramer voted for her senator, Obama.
“I like the fact that he’s focusing on Republicans,” she said, “and that he’s got a lot of young people supporting him.”
As Kramer headed out the door, the top half of her head was hidden under a woolen tam, and her overcoat was buttoned to the nape. Some cities begin Lent with a parade, but in Chicago, it’s too cold to stand on a corner and cheer.
“Mardi Gras is interesting, too,” she allowed. “Don’t get much of a chance to do that, so might as well enjoy the paczki.”