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Polish food: the art of hearty eating

Updated on February 21, 2015

Mealtimes and food have a central place in the Polish family. Meals bring the family together. Food is also central to expressing hospitality, which is very important in Polish culture: “Gosc w dom, Bog w dom” [When a guest is in the house, God is in the house]. If you are lucky to be invited to dinner in a Polish household, come prepared to eat heartily and forget about counting calories for that day.



Like many Poles, my father believed a meal was not a meal if it did not include soup. His favorite was rosol, which is clear soup made from beef or chicken. Usually it is served with thin vermicelli noodles. Dad, however, preferred a good helping of boiled potatoes in his rosol.

My uncle, on the other hand, said a proper soup should be so thick that a spoon will remain standing upright in it. His favorites were hearty mixtures of meat, potatoes and vegetables, more like a stew than a soup.

One of the central dishes for the Christmas Eve meal is barszcz made from stock and grated beets. On Christmas Eve it is usually served with uszki (similar to ravioli) stuffed with wild mushrooms. However, on other occasions, the barszcz is often enriched by stirring in sour cream. My mother only ever made barszcz z uszkami for Christmas. As a child I loved the uszki but was less keen on the barszcz. I would enter into prolonged negotiations with Mum on the ratio of the two in my bowl! Since then, I have developed a fondness for the barszcz too. I think the version with uszki is far too tasty to be restricted to one annual occasion.

The Poles seem to have a taste for sour food. Another soup is made from the leaves of the sorrel plant, which have a refreshing sour flavor. Sorrel grows wild, but is also cultivated in gardens both in Poland and among Polish émigré communities. Soup made from finely chopped sorrel is thickened with sour cream or egg yolk or both. It is served garnished with croutons or a chopped hardboiled egg.

Sorrel soup and beet soup with sour cream are often served chilled in summer. Chlodnik (cooler) is a chilled soup made with beet and cucumber. Poles also enjoy chilled fruit soups made from various fruit such as rhubarb, strawberries or sour cherries mixed with sour cream.

Krakus Zurek (1l/33.8fl Oz) Ready-to-eat Polish Sour Rye Soup
Krakus Zurek (1l/33.8fl Oz) Ready-to-eat Polish Sour Rye Soup
If you'd like to try zurek, but the process of making it seems a bit too complicated or scary, you can also buy some ready-made.

A very traditional soup, called zurek, is made by soaking rye flour in water and leaving it to ferment for some days. The sour liquid (zur) that forms is used to make the zurek. During Lent, a minimalist zurek often features on the menu. For this, the zur is combined with vegetable stock and a few vegetables are also added. At other times, the ingredients that are added depend on the season. Chopped hardboiled egg, chopped cooked potato, smoked sausage and bacon, together with a few seasonal vegetables are typical additions. There are also specific regional variations. For example, in the Mazowsze (Mazovia) region of central Poland, horseradish, garlic, sour cream, mushrooms and white sausage is added to zurek, and marjoram is used to flavor it.


Fish,as well as meat and poultry, is often cooked plainly, by baking, boiling or coating in breadcrumbs and frying. Accompaniments may include kasza (buckwheat), kluski (noodles) or boiled potatoes sprinkled with parsley and melted butter.

The most highly prized fish in Poland is carp, which is a common centerpiece of the Christmas Eve meal. Carp is fried, baked or prepared in aspic. Another variant is to cook the fish in vegetable stock and leave it to cool. Horseradish and sour cream are added to the stock to make a sauce which is served with the cold carp.

One childhood memory I have is of being taken on holiday to Hel. This is the thin “finger” of land that pokes out of the Polish coast. Between this strip of land and the main coast, there is freshwater, while the other side faces the salt water of the Baltic. Both freshwater and sea fish were in abundance. Best of all was the smoked fish sold ready to eat from numerous street stalls. I have never again seen so many different varieties of smoked fish.

Pickled herring is very popular. My mother would chop it up and mix it with (you’ve guessed!) sour cream and lots of sliced raw onion. We would eat this piled high on thick slabs of white bloomer bread. I still love the taste, although now I use thick plain yogurt instead of sour cream.


Poles eat meat cooked in all the usual ways, but also have some specific ways to prepare it. Here are three examples.

Thin slices of beef are rolled round chopped onions, gherkins and carrots to make a dish called zrazy. After the zrazy have been stewed slowly, sour cream is added to the gravy. Kasza (boiled buckwheat grains) is the traditional accompaniment.

Pigs trotters and pork knuckle are boiled together with celery, carrots, herbs and allspice until the meat falls off the bone. Both meat and vegetables are then cut into small pieces and put back into the cooking liquid. Chilling the dish causes the liquid to become jelly. This wobbly delight is called zimne nozki (cold little feet). It is often eaten doused with vinegar.

Pozarskie kotlety are cutlets made from boned chicken breast rolled round a mixture of minced veal and egg yolk. The cutlets are dipped in beaten egg and breadcrumbs, browned in butter in a frying pan and then baked in the oven until fully cooked.

Wiejska, kabanos and white sausage
Wiejska, kabanos and white sausage | Source

Polish sausages (kolbasa, kielbasa) are famed all over the world. Most are made with pork, but liver, game and beef are also used. In 1964, the Polish government wished to control the quality of meat products. To this end, it issued a standardized list of recipes. This included 119 sausage recipes and 19 more recipes for blood sausage and liver sausage. There are numerous regional specialties, which depend on variations in the smoking techniques and the spices and herbs that are added. Krakowska is a thick, straight pork sausage with lots of pepper and garlic. Wiejska is u-shaped, made from veal and pork and flavored with marjoram and garlic. Jalowcowa is pork flavored with juniper. As a child in Ealing, London, I loved going to the Polish delicatessen with my mother. “Uncle Miki”, the proprietor, would always give me a kabanos, a thin, dry pork sausage with caraway seeds. I would chew on this happily all the way home.

Have a taste of Polish sausage

Wardynski Smoked Polish Sausage with or without Marjoram - 4lbs
Wardynski Smoked Polish Sausage with or without Marjoram - 4lbs
This sausage is made in Buffalo NY but follows a traditional recipe and method from Poland. Try a taste...

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Vegetable and other savory dishes

Vegetables served on the side will often have browned breadcrumbs in melted butter poured over them. In my opinion, this works exceptionally well with cauliflower.

Polish gherkins are not pickled in vinegar, but are obtained by leaving small cucumbers to ferment in brine together with lots of dill and peppercorns. In my family, ham and gherkin sandwiches were a regular teatime treat. My mother would also make a mixed salad by mixing together chopped gherkins, fresh cucumber, tomato, onion and hardboiled eggs, and stirring in some mayonnaise.

Mizeria is a salad of cucumber, onion and sour cream (again!), which is often served as a side dish. It is a bit similar to the Greek tzatziki, but sour cream is used instead of yogurt and the cucumber is sliced rather than being diced into small pieces.

Grated raw potato and onion, mixed with beaten egg and flour is fried to produce placki. These are eaten hot with dollops of (yup!) sour cream. I always showed my Anglicization by asking Mum to hold the sour cream and eating my placki with tomato ketchup.

Like gherkins, kapusta (sauerkraut) is also made by packing shredded cabbage with salt or brine in a barrel and leaving it to ferment. It can be served as a warm or cold side dish.

One of the main uses of kapusta is to make bigos, which some consider to be the national dish of Poland. Traditionally, this was a hunter’s stew, with game from the hunt being added to the kapusta. Nowadays, bigos is more likely to contain smoked sausage and pork. Some people prefer to mix the kapusta with an equal quantity of fresh white cabbage. Others prefer to leave out the kapusta altogether and just use fresh cabbage, although it is then a matter of debate whether it can still be called bigos. Onions, tomatoes, wine and even prunes are sometimes used as additional ingredients in bigos.

In the days when farm households made their own kapusta, a few whole heads of cabbage would also be placed into the fermentation barrel. The leaves from these were used for golabki (the name means little pigeons, possibly due to the shape being like a pigeon breast). The leaves were rolled round a mixture of buckwheat, onion, mushrooms and minced beef, pork or chicken. The golabki were baked in a small amount of water. Today, it is more common to use blanched leaves from fresh white cabbage, rice instead of buckwheat, and to cook the golabki in tomato sauce.

Fancy doing some pickling?

TSM Products Fermentation Pot, 15 Liter capacity
TSM Products Fermentation Pot, 15 Liter capacity
Like many other fermented products, sauerkraut is an extremely healthy food. If you want to make your own, this 4 gallon stoneware fermentation pot is ideal for the purpose. Hand-crafted in Poland, it weighs a mighty 41 pounds, but is available with free shipping.

Pierogi are the ultimate comfort food. A pasta dough from egg, flour and water is rolled out and made into parcels with a variety of stuffings. Popular stuffings include minced beef and onion, shredded cabbage and mushrooms, soft cheese and chopped onion mixed into mashed potato. Boiled pierogi are eaten with melted butter, or, in the case of the meatless stuffings, with chopped fried onion and bacon scattered over them. The next day, the leftovers are fried in butter or oil and taste even better.

Cheese and Potato Pierogi: a hands-on method!


Cakes and desserts

Stewed fruit, either one variety or a mixture, is a popular dessert and can be served warm or cold. Fruit can also be juiced or pureed and then thickened with arrowroot powder and slightly sweetened to make a cold sweet known as kisiel.

Sernik is the Polish version of cheesecake. Soft cheese is mixed with sultanas for the filling. Unlike American cheesecake, sernik is baked giving a very different result.

Chrusciki are made from strips of a very light pastry, which is twisted into a characteristic shape. The pastry is deep-fried and sprinkled with confectioner’s (icing) sugar. Another name for these is faworki.

My mother’s signature cake, produced for all birthdays and great occasions, was a coffee-walnut torte. Instead of flour, she used ground walnuts mixed with sugar and a dozen eggs. She would bake the cake, cut it across into three layers and douse it liberally with rum. She would then beat butter with sugar and coffee until it was totally smooth and use this to sandwich the layers and cover the cake. The final touch was to decorate the top with walnut halves and plain chocolate drops.

Yeast dough is used in many Polish cakes. At Easter we would always have babka. This is a tall, semi-sweet cake with candied peel and sultanas, often glazed with lemon water icing and decorated with strips of candied orange peel.

Another type of yeast cake, makowiec or makownik, is made by rolling yeast dough round a filling of poppy seeds boiled with sugar and mixed with candied peel and sultanas. Our local delicatessen would sell these cakes for Christmas and Easter and orders had to be put in early to avoid disappointment because they were always a sell-out.

Make poppy cake without the grind

Baker Select Filling Pppyseed
Baker Select Filling Pppyseed
Ready-made poppy seed filling is a great time saver. Try them in a home-made makowiec or other cake. Not only do poppy seeds taste delicious, they are chock full of omega-3 fatty acids, which help to keep your brain, eyes and heart healthy.

As an adult, I love exploring foods from around the world. As I came to learn more about different types of food, I realised that often East meets West in Polish cuisine. One tasty example of this is halva. Although it is better known as a Middle Eastern sweet, halva made from ground sesame seeds and various flavorings is also produced in Poland. Another way sesame seeds are used in Poland is by being mixed with melted sugar to make something similar to nut brittle. In my opinion, these are best when produced as very thin bars, often sold in small packs of three.

"Jedzcie, pijcie i popuszczajcie pasa!" [Eat, drink and loosen your belt] say the Poles and they mean exactly that!


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    • Danette Watt profile image

      Danette Watt 

      8 years ago from Illinois

      My dad's mom was German-Polish and he grew up eating borscht and kishka. I haven't had it in a few years but try to buy some when I go home to Michigan. I'm sure I can find it in St. Louis if I looked. I checked on Wikipedia and this is the kind I grew up eating:

      One Eastern European kishka type is kaszanka, a blood sausage made with pig's blood and buckwheat or barley, with pig intestines used as a casing.

      My husband tried it once after we were married and hated it! He doesn't know what he's missing, but then, that's what he tells me about grits (I tried it, hated it!). :)

      Congrats on the Hub of the Day

    • newusedcarssacram profile image


      8 years ago from Sacramento, CA, U.S.A

      Congratulations on becoming Hub of The day. I didn’t know much about Polish food, your hub has so many detailed information, I really enjoyed reading it. I also think that now I have to try some of the Polish cuisine, especially the soup.

    • frozenink profile image


      8 years ago

      Wow! Very useful and informative and of course, tasty! Must try these some day.

    • sparkleyfinger profile image

      Lynsey Hart 

      8 years ago from Lanarkshire

      Love Polish food! Nomnomnom!

    • WriteAngled profile imageAUTHOR

      Krys W 

      8 years ago from Abertawe, Cymru

      Thank you to all for your kind comments. This hub has been languishing with minimal views for a couple of years. I'm really enjoying its day of glory :))

    • WriteAngled profile imageAUTHOR

      Krys W 

      8 years ago from Abertawe, Cymru


      That is really interesting what you say about the sour mushroom soup. I've never heard about that as a variant for Christmas Eve. In fact, I've not heard of sour mushroom soup at all! Of course, I speak from a position of ignorance, because my whole experience is based on what happened in my family.

      Please feel free to add a link to your mushroom soup here, and I will incorporate it into the body of my hub.

    • Kramar profile image

      Snarky Babbler 

      8 years ago from USA

      Bardzo Dobzie

      yumski yumski

      I miss my busia


    • ComfortB profile image

      Comfort Babatola 

      8 years ago from Bonaire, GA, USA

      Some mouth-watering dishes you got here! Congrats on the HOTD award.

    • renegadetory profile image

      Carolyn Dahl 

      8 years ago from Ottawa, Ontario

      My family on my mother's side is Hungarian so I grew up eating cuisine similar to what you have shown in this Hub... borscht, strudels, sauerkraut, you name it! To this day whenever I smell cabbage cooking I think I am in my Nana's house again. Thank you for sharing your polish delights with us, it certainly brings back memories for me as a kid.

    • phdast7 profile image

      Theresa Ast 

      8 years ago from Atlanta, Georgia

      What a wonderful Hub. And you put so much work )and loving descriptions) into it. :) my father's family is Polish, my mother was a Georgia Peach and at different times we lived on the Texas-Mexico border, Greece, and in the Philippines. Needless to say we all learned to love an eclectic variety of fod and appreciate many cuisines. Quite a few of the dishes you mention found their way onto our dinner table.

      I often serve Bigos and boiled parsleyed potatoes at Christmas and I do a variety of hot or cold fruit soups...and cucumbers and onions in sour cream is to die for. I really enjoyed your Hub. Many thanks for the memories. :)

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      Thanks for a wonderful read on Polish cuisine. Your overview with personal experiences is delightful. I'm going to look up that lemon water glaze!

      Oh, almost forgot to say congrats on your Hub of the Day! :)

    • pinto2011 profile image


      8 years ago from New Delhi, India

      I have some guests coming to my place and surely they will remember this time as I am going to try to cook with your suggested ways.

    • Stephanie Henkel profile image

      Stephanie Henkel 

      8 years ago from USA

      Your hub was like a trip down memory lane as I read about so many Polish foods that were part of my childhood! I particularly enjoyed reading the Polish names for many of them as I never knew the Polish spelling before. I smiled when you mentioned that Poles have a taste for sour foods because so many of our favorite dishes were sour - sour soups, homemade pickles, sauerkraut and more. And everything was definitely better when it had sour cream added! I was interested to read that your Christmas Eve soup was a beet barszcz - ours was, and still is, a sour mushroom soup.

      Congratulations on your well-deserved Hub of the Day! I will be adding links to your hub into my recipe hubs on Chrusciki, Pirogies and Sour Mushroom Soup. Voted up and shared!

    • WriteAngled profile imageAUTHOR

      Krys W 

      8 years ago from Abertawe, Cymru

      Hi Sid,

      Schav (or in Polish spelling szczaw) is the Polish name for sorrel. Sorrel soup in Polish is zupa szczawiowa. It seems the Yiddish name originated from the Polish name for the plant rather than from German (which calls sorrel Sauerampfer or Sauergras).

      Actually, I never liked beets on their own, I think because I was turned off by how they stain everything else on the plate a lurid pink. However, I thought soup made from them was perfectly OK (although the uszka were what I really loved).

      Thank you, gmwilliams! I hope you enjoy :)

    • gmwilliams profile image

      Grace Marguerite Williams 

      8 years ago from the Greatest City In The World-New York City, New York

      This is such an inviting and delicious hub. I am going to try some of these recipes. Voted up.

    • SidKemp profile image

      Sid Kemp 

      8 years ago from Boca Raton, Florida (near Miami and Palm Beach)

      What a delicious hub of the day. Pierogi are my favorite. I know the soups from my grandparents by their Yiddish names: barszc = borscht (but I never liked beets) and Sorrel soup was called schav. I liked that, and haven't had it in years. You're inspiring me to try it again - I enjoy sour flavors these days. And maybe some pickles!

    • Esperanta profile image


      8 years ago from Rhondda Fawr, Cymru

      Yum! You'll have to invite me over for a feast! Heh heh!

    • WriteAngled profile imageAUTHOR

      Krys W 

      9 years ago from Abertawe, Cymru

      I'm afraid I can't help with brand names as I live in the UK. Fermented pickles, which are the most traditional sort in Poland, are not "vinegary". They get their sour and very characteristic flavor from lactic acid which is produced by bacteria during the fermentation. However, I have seen gherkin pickles from Poland which are simply preserved in vinegar rather than being fermented. Some of these have sugar or sweetener added to them as well as dill. I'm tending to think this is the type you bought. If yes, looking at the ingredients listings on various brands could help you find ones which have added sugar/sweetener.

    • profile image


      9 years ago

      The pickles! I bought some Poland Gherkin Pickles at Big Lots. They had dill in the jar but had a sweeter taste than regular dill. I have gone back for six weeks and they haven't gotten anymore in. Do you know what I am looking for? Do you know where I can get them?

    • WriteAngled profile imageAUTHOR

      Krys W 

      9 years ago from Abertawe, Cymru

      Thank you, Hollie. I'll have to get some recipes together. I do have one for beetroot soup with uszka. Should have put a link in here to it. Doh! Going to that now.

    • Hollie Thomas profile image

      Hollie Thomas 

      9 years ago from United Kingdom

      What a fabulous hub! Other than Pierogi, I have not sampled Polish cuisine. My son on the other hand, visited Krakow a few years ago on a history field trip with school and sampled food in the Jewish quarter. He loved it! Please post some recipes Writeangled, I'm eager to try (and love sour cream!)

    • jamiesweeney profile image


      10 years ago from Philadelphia, PA

      Sounds Delicious, I love to eat.

    • A.A. Zavala profile image

      Augustine A Zavala 

      10 years ago from Texas

      I love pierogi and kielbasa sausage. Thank you for sharing.

    • Rochelle Frank profile image

      Rochelle Frank 

      11 years ago from California Gold Country

      This sounds delicious, and many of the dishes you describe sound very familiar. My mother-in-law was a great German cook, but her family roots were in West Prussia (now part of Poland) so I think a lot of the culinary influences in her life came from Poland. Including the herring and sour cream, the jellied pigs feet with vinegar, the cabbage rolls with minced pork, pieroges, breaded cutlets, cucumber salad etc etc, and more.

    • WriteAngled profile imageAUTHOR

      Krys W 

      11 years ago from Abertawe, Cymru

      Ooops, missed seeing your comment, Rope. Sorry. Glad you enjoyed the hub. I hope to link to more Polish recipes as I find them on HP and hope to add a few myself. I've come across a couple of Scarytaff's hubs as I tend to look for hubs relating to Wales.

    • The Rope profile image

      The Rope 

      11 years ago from SE US

      Great recipes "WA". I love getting traditional recipes from other cultures and appreciate you sharing so many here. I'm definitely bookmarking this hub. Thanks for sharing...

      (p.s. have you met "Scarytaff", he's from Wales as well and also shares a lot of recipes as well as his experiences from engineering and travels to other countries)

    • WriteAngled profile imageAUTHOR

      Krys W 

      11 years ago from Abertawe, Cymru

      I recommend going to Krakow. It's a great place to visit for all sorts of reasons and I had some superb food there, including a meal in the old Jewish quarter accompanied by a klezmer group.

    • dragonbear profile image


      11 years ago from Essex UK

      WOW! What a treasure trove of food! Many years ago the parish in which I lived had a large Polish community. After the main mass on a Sunday was the Polish mass; once a month there would be a Polish market in the church hall after their mass. An amazing spread of sausage, bread, cakes - you name it, it was there or could be ordered for the next visit.

      Thanks for a trip down memory lane and some great recipe ideas!

    • suziecat7 profile image


      11 years ago from Asheville, NC

      I love Polish food. Thanks for this Hub -

    • Sally's Trove profile image


      11 years ago from Southeastern Pennsylvania

      What a wonderful tour of Polish tastes.

      I had to chuckle about the sour cream. You know the panic shopping trip when snow and ice are about to hit, the trip for the obligatory milk and bread? Well, to our Polish family, sour cream is just as critical. If there is none in the fridge, then to us, the pantry is empty! A favorite night-time snack for our kids is home-canned peaches placed in a bowl with their own juice and a good dollop of sour cream. Great to taste, but also fun to play with.

      Thumbs up while I go check out your Barszcz z Uszkami Hub.


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