(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.
After my parents’ divorce when I’m about eleven, the priest, tall and balding, comes to our house in a black shirt and white collar. He sits at the metal-framed kitchen table Mom had painted a bright yellow and asks why we’re not going to church anymore.
“Money,” Mom says. “It’s the gas. I can’t afford to drive there.”
“But,” he says, “God will give you what you need.”
Would God provide gas money?
On top of the piano in our living room sits a photo of me in my white Communion dress standing before the Saint Nicholas altar holding a prayer book and smiling flatly. I watch the priest walk past the piano and out of our house. He would return to the altar, to the church ladies and the kitchen, to the fragrant incense and blessed baskets. I would not.
Over time, other things would be foregone, too. First, my childhood home, the next one even farther from church. Then dinners out, ice cream, fresh fruit, new clothes, piano lessons, and, by the hollowing out that pain and distance yields, Dad.
Poverty would stick with us: food stamps briefly, free lunches, utility company threats. A house repossessed. In spite of Mom seemingly always working, eyes bound to every penny. We would move more and under difficult circumstances for the sake of protection and survival.
The next time the three of us are in a church together is my wedding. By this time, a college degree promises steadier financial footing. Marriage does, too, but takes me to New Jersey, three states away from Mom. She makes haluski from time to time when we’re together. It’s a Slovak dish of homemade noodles and sauerkraut, redolent of pierogies yet less labor intensive. Mom doesn’t mind mixing, rolling, cutting the noodle dough. I reap the benefits of her effort—the buttery waft that overcomes the kitchen, the elemental harmony of flour, egg, appetite, and memory.
My husband and I become regulars at our local Catholic church, latching on to the faith he grew up in as a religious home for our children. Other than an annual Pasta Night and pancakes at Breakfast with Santa, food traditions are absent. No pierogies. No blessed baskets of bread or sausage or anything at Easter.
“One year you should come out and we can make an Orthodox Easter basket and go to an Orthodox church,” I say to Mom on the phone. She’s living in Indianapolis, where the same piano adorns her living room, unused except to display photos—my kids, long-gone family members, me in my Communion dress. I tell her there’s one about a half-hour away from my house, and Jim could take the train over from New York and cook with us.
“I would love that,” she answers.
I discover a store two towns away from mine that makes and sells pierogies and nothing else. In a space slightly bigger than a one-car garage, two or three women at a time blend dough, roll cut and fill it, pinch and boil the pierogies. The filling options exceed Saint Nicholas’s exponentially: sauerkraut, cheese, and potato, yes, but also mushroom, cabbage, potato combined with sauerkraut or onion or garlic, beef and kielbasa, even sweet blueberry.
Some years into my marriage, having accumulated enough courage to plop my cultural inheritance into my in-laws’ holiday celebration, I bring some of these “homemade” pierogies to Easter dinner. They’re not paska bread, not an authentic Russian Orthodox Easter basket item, and my in-laws are indifferent. But they taste like church and God to me.
On a recent October morning, I call in an order of three dozen—one each of potato and cheese, sauerkraut, and mushroom—to bring to a friend’s birthday party. Arriving at the scheduled pickup time, I enter a tense scene: a tight mess of a kitchen, dirt-battered floor, and two teenage cooks arguing. One of them is pinching dough while she tosses insults at a near-yell to the other, who rolls her eyes and zips back two- and three-word retorts. There are no other customers in the store, so I stand at the counter awaiting their attention, gradually gleaning that one of them is accusing the other of stealing her money.
Finally one, the accused, looks up. She says my pierogies will be ready in ten minutes and I can wait in my car if I’d like. But I’m parked too far down the street, so instead I stand outside on the cracked sidewalk, facing a bland liquor store. I notice a couple other people sitting in their cars, apparently waiting for their own pierogies.
Ten minutes turns to 15 as the girls’ verbal assaults continue, seeping through the glass storefront, stoking my frustration. This couldn’t be further from my church-kitchen memories. I fantasize about calling the manager the next day to complain. I fantasize, too, about Mom coming for Easter, about church food cooked in my own kitchen, my own teenage children looking on and smelling and tasting. One of those ideas that floats in the atmosphere. Deemed worthy, even beautiful, yet not pulled down to earth and wrought into the tangibles of airline tickets, grocery shopping lists, space in the calendar.
So instead, my church food is being produced in an unholy scene of mistrust and slur. I feel that, like the adolescent accuser, I’ve also been robbed of something. But the perpetrators know nothing of Gary, Saint Nicholas Orthodox Church, Mom’s haluski, or that I don’t see her enough. They know nothing of the obligation I’ve bequeathed them.
After a few more minutes, the accused steps out and hands me a heavy plastic bag. I pay her in cash, on the sidewalk, to avoid the loaded vibe indoors. She crosses the street to the liquor store to break my twenty-dollar bill.
When I walk to my car a block away, I’m still shaken by the angry tremors between the girls. As I turn the ignition key, I strive to recover my enthusiasm for the savory stuffed pillows sitting on the passenger seat beside me.
I’ll open the containers when I get home, I tell myself. The smell will make things better.
Lillian Yates Duggan is a writer and freelance editor. Her writing has appeared in Writer’s Digest, The Gary Anthology, and Rearing in the Rearview. She’s working on a memoir that deals with class and its impact on parent-child relationships. She lives in New Jersey and can be found at www.theidealword.com and on Twitter.
Pirohy* / Pierogies with Cheese Filling
1 c. dry cottage cheese
2 egg yolks
2 t. butter
pinch of salt
1 c. flour
1/4 t. salt
about 4 T. cold water
butter, melted and browned, for serving
Prepare filling: Combine cottage cheese, egg yolks, 2 t. butter, and pinch of salt.
Prepare pierogies: Mix flour, egg, and salt with enough cold water to make a medium soft
Knead well, then roll out thin.
Cut dough into 50 squares.
Place 1 scant t. filling on each square.
Fold each square in half to make triangles.
Pinch edges together tightly so filling doesn’t escape.
Bring a pot of salted water to boil, and add pierogies in small batches.
Cook until they rise to the top, then cook an additional 5 minutes.
Use a slotted spoon to drain.
Place in a serving dish, and pour melted and browned butter over the pierogies.
(Pierogies may be spread carefully on a cutting board after draining to allow them to dry a
bit before serving.)
*Pirohy is the Slovak word for pierogies.