Gramma Z's Pennsylvanian Pierogies

(recipes in the last post!)

Northeastern Pennsylvania, where I was born, is a mishmash of Eastern European cultures, which have blended through the generations to form something of an accidental, artificial, invented tradition. Elements from Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, in fact from throughout what was the Austro-Hungarian Empire, have lost their Old World boundaries to become something specifically Pennsylvanian. This, however, has all happened without the locals realising it, and we grow up, therefore, thinking that we are living a single, unified, traditional background, which came with our ancestors over the ocean to Pennsylvania from that little village where they used to live called Europe.

This blending of cultures is nowhere more apparent than it is in our family cuisine. I grew up with dishes from all over Eastern Europe, and never imagined I wouldn't be able to find them all in the same kitchen if I visited the small village of Spišká Stará Ves, in Slovakia, where my grandfather was born. This cuisine includes kielbasa (from Poland) halushki and chicken paprikash (from Hungary) countless cakes and cookies and breads that I have yet to trace, and of course, the inevitable pierogi, which exists in some form in pretty much all of these places.

But the other peculiarity of the Pennsylvania Effect is that we have also adapted these dishes for our American palettes (and inherent laziness), and, having lost the languages that named them, somewhat bastardised the vocabulary. So while kielbasa (which we pronounce, for some reason, "kill BAH' see") in Poland is simply a generic term for sausage, Pennsylvanian kielbasa is a very specific garlicky, fatty, full ring sausage, often made from wild deer meet, served smoked or fresh with mustard and horseradish. And while in Hungary halushki (or 'haluški', if spelled properly) is actually just the collective word (and in the plural at that) for 'dumpling', in Pennsylvania it is a dish of grated, fried cabbage and onion, which, although it was probably once served over handmade dumplings, is now surreally acknowledged to only be prepared correctly if it is served over farfalle pasta (or 'bowtie noodles', as Pennsylvanians like to call it).

Likewise we have adapted our pierogi recipe. Again, the general Polish dish, which is a dumpling filled with any number of possible mixtures, in Pennsylvania has been weeded down to one essential combination, the Ultimate Pierogi, stuffed with potato and cheese and fried in butter and onion. For us, the pierogi is so ubiquitous that in Wilkes-Barre, the town where I was born, you can order them as a side dish with your meal at the most traditional of local establishments, Abe's Hot Dogs. In Poland the potato and cheese variety is called 'Ruskie Pierogi', and it has a light filling of whipped potato with fresh farmer's cheese. In Slovakia, where our family recipe probably came from, the filling is heavier, and, although the cheese is still fresh, a much stronger-flavored goat's curd cheese is used. Here the pierogies are not fried after boiling, but a garnish of bacon bits fried in butter is poured over them.

For the American palette, somewhere in the past, we removed any element of lightness from our pierogies. We replaced the fresh cheese, goat's or otherwise, with extra-sharp, dry, crumbly cheddar, and added fresh minced onions for a bit of tang. They are common enough that they are even mass produced and available across the country, and, thanks to Mrs. T, it appears there is even a National Pierogi Day (spelling varies):


Meanwhile, in my own cooking I have begun to experiment with more fillings. As I have moved back to the "Old World" (or at least closer to it) I am, of course, always looking to broaden my horizons. My favorites so far have been an adaptation of the above-mentioned halushki topping (grate cabbage and onion in a 3 to 1 proportion; fry slowly in lots of butter until deep brown and caramelized; add salt and lots of black pepper), and a version that feels more Estonian to me, although I first had it in Poland, of tatar prepared with bacon, served with sour cream. But the most fun, like we did in Mooste for our foodclub, it to get as many hands as possible involved (i think we had about 30) and invite people to make up their own fillings. We were spoiled with wild boar, and hand picked mushrooms, and sweet carrot, and cheese with herbs; really, with an empty pierogi in front of you, anything is possible!

1 comment:

  1. Oh my god! That sounds so good! Down here in Texas, pierogies have only started coming to local palate in the last few years, so this is a new food discovery for me. Now I have to go make some!