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Immigration, Integration, and Imagination

A reader of Lethal Fetish and the other Riley mysteries asked me why I chose one of this Irishman’s haunts to be a Polish bakery—and how I crafted believable, immigrant dialogue (crafting realistic dialect is one of the great challenges in writing).

As for the “why”, I sensed a connection between Ireland and Poland. Both countries are grounded in working class lives. Both places have been oppressed by outside forces and have suffered terribly at times. Both countries embrace simple, honest "peasant" cuisines (and hearty drinking) without Continental affectations. And upon coming to America, both people were mocked and mistreated. So I imagined that Riley (first generation Irish-American) would find a deep connection to the Poles at Gustaw's Bakery—and vice-versa.

As for “how”, I’ve had many Russian friends and colleagues and their use of the English language was the basis for my dialogue. These non-native speakers struggle with our inexplicable use of articles (a, an, the) and conjugation of irregular verbs.

And so, a scene that exemplifies cultural commonalities and linguistic patterns:

“Riley, you look a little rough this morning,” Ludwika said as I came into the bakery.

“Nothing that a cup of Gustaw’s coffee can’t fix,” I said.

“He put together a special treat for you, knowing you never miss Monday morning with us.”

“Gustaw is a good man,” I said.

“Good inside, yes. But not so much the outside. He is growing a moustache like his idol, Lech Walesa. Gustaw looks more like cave man than revolutionary hero.”

The Polish Neanderthal came out from the kitchen, approached Ludwika from behind, wrapped his burly arms around his plump wife, and nuzzled his bristly upper lip into her neck.

“You cannot resist such a virile man,” he said as she squirmed unconvincingly to escape his grasp…

While I took a seat and tried to decide if the coffee was stronger than usual, Gustaw went back into the kitchen and returned with a plate of pierogi and a big grin.

“To celebrate the people of Poland and Ireland, I make special breakfast for you, my friend,” he said.

I poked curiously at the stuffed dumplings which were not filled with anything so prosaic as fruit, as one might expect for breakfast. The dockworker-turned-baker had an affinity for hearty food to begin the day.

“Both our people love cabbage and potato to make us strong.”

Gustaw lifted his chin and pounded his chest. I could see what Ludwika meant about the reference to ape men.

“In your honor,” he continued, “I add corned beef to pierogi!”

I tasted the concoction, a melding of Polish dumplings with corned beef hash. The result was genuinely pleasing—and far more down-to-earth than the unaccountable passion for quiche that has swept the country, with half-baked cooks dumping every imaginable frou-frou ingredient into curdled eggs and a soggy crust.


Corned beef pierogi versus broccoli-kale quiche—

is that even a fair contest?!

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