How a Retired Professor Fell in Love with Polish Food

by | May 2019

Polish cuisine chef John Fossum and his wife, Alta, who is part of the Edina Federated Women's Club.

Photo: Tate Carlson

Retired professor and globe-trotter cooks up Polish cuisine.

While on the faculty of the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management, Edina resident John Fossum, Ph.D., spent a considerable amount of time teaching in Poland.

“Back in 1992, we started doing exchange visits and developing programs in Polish universities to help the faculty transition from a communist style system to a free market system,” Fossum says.

Fossum taught industrial relations from 1983 to 2008, then did some adjunct teaching in Poland, Austria and China until 2013. What he brought back with him from his travels is an affinity for Polish cuisine.

From the beginning, Fossum and his colleagues frequently ate out and he fell in love with Polish cuisine. He says it uses more vegetables and leaves than American food. “They used very little beef back then, because pretty much all of the beef was dairy cattle, and they had a fair amount of pork, poultry, fish and smoked food,” he says.

One of the early foods Fossum grew to like that many people don’t like is called węgorz or wędzony in Polish. It’s a smoked eel that’s fairly oily and strong tasting, he says. “We used to eat that sometimes in the late afternoon when we went to a bar. Because we also said that the eel had to have something to swim in, so we’d have shots of vodka with the eel,” he says.

Now, Fossum cooks Polish cuisine at home and for a Polish dinner as part of a contribution to an Edina Federated Women’s Club (EFWC) event called Feds Fest, which raises money for charities. Fossum and his wife Alta, who is a part of EFWC, put the dinner up for the silent auction.

The first year they tried it, it sold out. They put together a traditional Polish dinner for eight to 10 people centered on a dish called bigos, essentially a hunter’s stew, Fossum says. The stew includes shredded cabbage, various meats chopped into small chunks and a varied base, he says.

Edina residents Janet and Gordon Johnson both went to that dinner. Janet is a member of EFWC, and the couple first met Fossum while they all attended St. Olaf College. “[The meal] was very good,” Janet says.

After that dinner’s success, they decided to continue offering a nationally based dinner for the auction, including a French dinner and one with English, Scottish and Welsh recipes. Eventually, they switched back to Polish.

What he’s most interested in with cooking Polish food is finding and trying new recipes. But the dish he always comes back to is country style duck or kaczka staraopolska in Polish, which is baked duck stuffed with apples, buckwheat groats and onions.

In many dishes, Polish people experiment with sauces, according to Fossum. For a distinct sauce, Fossum has tried a recipe involving a roast chicken stuffed with clementine oranges. “As the chicken is resting out of the oven, you stir in a cup of orange juice into what’s left in the pan, reduce it down and make a gravy-like sauce that you can put on baked potatoes and Brussels sprouts,” Fossum says.

The next Feds Fest will likely take place in the fall, Fossum says. If you’re interested in experiencing one of his Polish dinners, snag a spot at the next silent auction and bring your checkbook. This dinner party meal has previously gone for around $100 per person.


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