The Broadway Market is kind of like having a hundred grandmothers, squeezing your cheeks and gushing about how your parents clearly don’t feed you. And they stuff you with food. It was usually older women, all with huge blond hairdos, wearing too much makeup, layered in sweaters with a big, metallic pin in white and red over their heart demanding “DAJ MI BUZI (“Kiss me”), I’m Polish!” The men mostly milled around the alcohol booths. Your cholesterol level would shoot up 200 mg/dL just by breathing the air, which was saturated with old frying grease. Mountains of kielbasa, Easter butter lambs, pierogi, pączki (jelly doughnuts), and containers of sałatka (a cold egg, potato and vegetable salad) were stacked high at every booth like castle walls. Bobby Vinton droned on in the background: “Oh, moja droga ja cię kocham…”

And it’s pronounced Bro-ODD-viye. In fact, English is a minority language here, though in truth the market is frequented by all sorts of people — Germans, Croats, Lithuanians, etc. But the market is in the heart of Polonia, the East Side of Buffalo, with its deep Polish industrial roots. Well, it was, once. Industry has long left the city, and the East Side is a hodge-podge of mostly poorer immigrant  groups nowadays. But while less Polish, the Broadway Market endures. In the same way that Boston isn’t really so Irish anymore, Buffalo’s East Side has moved on, and its Polish immigrant population has mostly moved to the suburbs and assimilated.

The Broadway Market went through a few phases. It started as a genuinely Polish market in the 19th century, for local Poles. But over time, as the infusion of fresh blood from the Ojczyzna — the Fatherland — dried up after the World Wars, the local culture drifted a bit and blurred some of its traditions — it became Polish-American. Hey — the Irish don’t really eat corned beef and cabbage either. And try asking for spaghetti in Italy.

Anyway, oddly, in my life time, the Broadway Market underwent another transformation, and while always remaining at its core a Polish-American market, became more of an “ethnic” market. Nowadays it’s a place where Americans of all stripes go for unusual ethnic foods.

And they go at this time of year. It has become a Buffalo-area tradition to make a pilgrimage to Broadway Market each year at Easter time, especially on Easter Monday — Śmigus-Dyngus. Easter Monday is a holiday in Poland, involving men splashing women with buckets of water (or in more civilized, urban settings, they spritz them with cheap perfume), and women retaliate by whacking men with pussy willow branches. This is an old pagan fertility tradition, and over the years has sort of become an arms race. My wife is too skilled with the pussy willow branch for me to dare nailing her with water.

“Śmigus-Dyngus” doesn’t really mean anything in Polish; I strongly suspect they are foreign, possibly German terms, that entered Polish long ago and as their meaning has been forgotten, the terms wandered a bit in pronunciation. They are sometimes incorrectly translated into English as “Wet Monday,” but that in Polish is Lany Poniedziałek.

But Poles aren’t the only ones doing this. Czechs, Slovaks, and Hungarians do it too. Easter Monday in general is a dangerous place to be for women in Central Europe.

In Buffalo, Dyngus Day has become a big deal with parades, and big crowds at the Broadway Market. Polish-Americans elsewhere often haven’t even heard of Dyngus Day, but it has become a local tradition that goes far beyond the Polish-American community. There are purists who despair that few workers in Broadway Market can even speak Polish anymore, and the foods have become more and more Americanized, but that’s how traditions work. So if you’re in the city on Easter Monday, expect to be squirted (male or female) by a water gun and kissed by some little old lady wearing white and red — but as a consolation, someone may toss you a Żywiec beer as well.