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Pierogi Palace

(by Lillian Yates Duggan)

Dented metal bowls are scattered across the fading brown countertop. Snowy flour decorates its useful plane. The church ladies measure, mix, roll, and mill about. Mom says I can stir a slosh of dough. Flour, salt, eggs, water. A dull combination, yet its potential assures.

The ladies knead the dough, then roll it flat and thin, clapping rolling pins onto countertop. Clap, roll. Clap, roll. They’ve been doing this for years, since the old country, since their mothers taught them. Then with swift motions, they knife the dough into welcoming squares, homes for the treasure that is the fillings. Pungent sauerkraut, the flat brown of my hair. Seven-year-olds aren’t supposed to like it, but I do. Cheese of a sort I would eat under no other circumstance. It’s bumpy and lemony, decidedly white.

And the main draw: potato. A cream of richness; the texture of comfort and satisfaction. Combined with cheese, it takes on a pep, an alert tang.

I look on as the church ladies spoon the fillings onto the squares of dough with estimation rather than precision, then fold each square from corner to opposite corner, forming a triangle. They pinch the edges, sealing the filling inside like feathers in a pillow. As they boil, the pierogies’ scent deceives. Only the dough seems to be impacted by the heat of the water. And what’s to smell of hot water and flour? Earth? Humidity?

Mom and the other church ladies drain the pierogies with big slotted spoons and then sauté them in melted butter. My senses are fully roused. How can I wait any longer?

“You can only have one,” Mom says.

I should be grateful, as we’re here for business. The ladies package the pierogies by the dozen and sell them to customers—fellow parishioners, church neighbors—through a window that opens out from the kitchen to a hallway.

Mom, my brother, Jim, and I are regulars at Saint Nicholas Carpatho-Russian Orthodox Church in Glen Park, a section of Gary, Indiana. Our fellow parishioners are Yankoviches, Suloviches, Conjelkos. Mom has attended Saint Nicholas since she was a little girl. Dad works three-to-elevens and sometimes midnights as a pipefitter at U.S. Steel—one of the reasons he stays in bed rather than go to church. Every week, the priest, draped in a white robe thick with golden embroidery, streams musky incense throughout the congregation. We sing in both English and Slovak, Mom’s voice throaty—she’d defied Dad by becoming a smoker, like him—yet smooth and earnest. Christos voskrese means Christ is risen. The tart moistness of communion bread charms my tongue and taste buds.

At Easter time, church tradition offers a lushness of food. Mom spends days preparing a basket heaped with sausage, homemade cheese, hard-boiled eggs, salt, and paska bread in round, vigorously brown loaves covered by a baked-on Orthodox cross. On Good Friday she dons a skirt and blouse and brings the basket to the church to be blessed by the priest. The baskets stay there for the weekend, and come Sunday I’m more eager to bring ours home than to seek out the one stuffed with a chocolate bunny and eggs and jelly beans and plastic-y faux grass that Mom and Dad have hidden.