By 6:30 a.m. on Good Friday, the line outside Czerw’s is already stretched halfway down the narrow block of Tilton Street in Port Richmond. Chatter fills the air, and a jovial atmosphere that is usually hard to find so early in the morning.
Inside the single small room that’s open to the public, Debbie Blaisdell gestures at a photo that sits on top of a meat filled display case.
The image is of smiling faces lined-up outside the building. It’s dizzying to see the exact scene taking place outside as in the printed picture. A piece of painter’s tape on the photo has the words ‘Good Friday 2017- 6:20AM’ scrawled in sharpie.
Czerw’s Kielbasa is practically synonymous with Easter for those who wait in the early morning Good Friday line. It’s not an inconvenience but a tradition that allows for a connection to the neighborhood and a chance to chat with those who, regardless of where they live, feel a lot like neighbors. I’m told that the regular who lives the farthest away is from Hawaii.
The story of Czerw’s starts in 1938 when a Polish immigrant by the name of Jan Czerw opened Philadelphia Provisions in a converted horse stable. He installed three smoke houses and began to sell Kielbasa and pierogis. The predominantly Polish community had a taste and nostalgia for the familiar eats. Before long the business became a neighborhood institution.
In the time since, the business has passed down to Jan’s children and grandchildren while never moving, never changing the smoke houses, and never messing the with the ingredients that made the business a success.
“You don’t mess with a good thing,” says Jan’s grandson John through a smile.
Observing the laborious process of making the Kielbasa, I find it hard to imagine anyone faulting the family if they had wanted to mess with that good thing. There is rarely a minute that passes where John, an employee, or family member is not rubbing smoke from their eyes while tending to the small fires in the smokehouses. When my own eyes start burning, they all assure me it’s something you get used to. I don’t particularly believe them.
Dennis Czerw, John’s brother, creaks open the smokehouse door revealing dozens of hanging Kielbasa. I ask him how he knows when they’re finished and he gives me a chuckle.
“I’ve been doing this a long time. I see these things in my sleep.”
Despite what they say about watching sausage being made, there is a beauty to the process. The kielbasa moves from smokehouse to symmetrical hanging racks and a hot-water bath that steams an entire room and ensures they are finished cooking. Some make it to the walk-in freezer while others are taken directly to the customers in the front room.
John shuffles through a stack of white papers, each with an order. I ask how many he has to fill.
“I stop counting at 70.”