I’ve just read the most wonderful piece in the New Yorker online (we get the print magazine passed along to us in good time but sometimes I can’t wait) and it’s reminded me of childhood visits to my father’s family in Edmonton. (The article, “The Underrated Pleasures of Eastern European Dumplings“, by Olia Hercules, discusses those amazing creations and offers a recipe for Pork Manti, something I will have to try, probably when one or more of my children are here.)
These days, though, I no longer try to hide the fact that my death-row meal would, without question, consist of varenyky, the Ukrainian version of what in Poland are called pierogi. Even though the name comes from varyty, meaning “to boil,” these half-moon-shaped dumplings are sometimes steamed or boiled and then refried. My favorite filling is one of the simplest: homemade cheese curd, called syr, mixed with egg yolks and heavily seasoned with salt. The filling is gently wrapped in the thinnest of pasta doughs and boiled briskly. To serve, varenyky are dropped into a large bowl with about half a stick of melted butter and served with thick, full-fat crème fraîche called smetana. I can only eat about ten ravioli at a time, but I can easily pack away about forty varenyky in a single sitting. When I eat them, I feel like a euphoric child.
When I was a child watching my aunts, grandmother, and mother (her background was Scots Presbyterian but she adapted well to the communal experience of preparing a Eastern European feast), anyway (to wrangle this sentence back into line), watching them prepare mountains of tiny dumplings, I felt such anticipation and also comfort. Their voices murmuring, some gossip (spoken quietly because little pitchers have big ears), the soft sound of a long rolling pin pressing out the dough on a floured table, the smell of warm potato, snipped green onion, and ground pepper (a-choo!). And what about the name? Other people called what the aunts made “pierogy”, which I think is the Polish version. We said “pedaha”. I’ve looked online and find this, from Wikipedia (not my usual go-to reference source but there you have it):
Although called varenyky in standard Ukrainian, speakers of the Canadian Ukrainian or Rusyn dialect refer to them as pyrohy, which can be misheard pedaheh or pudaheh by Anglophones unaccustomed to the rolled-r sound, or alveolar flap. This is due to the history of Ukrainian or Rusyn (Ruthenian) immigration to Canada, which came predominantly from the former Austro-Hungarian Empire.
Ours were filled with cheese curd, and my father said in his own childhood, his mother made the simple cottage cheese she used for their pyrohy (there. I’ve used what was probably the word I heard) with milk from the family cow. He always claimed they were better with homemade cheese. Potatoes went into another version. I don’t remember meat in ours, though there was a little ground pork in the cabbage rolls, or holubchi. And sweet plums in a dessert version, heavenly with sour cream (though I love smetana, a little more like crème fraîche, and I wonder if I’m remembering correctly that in the Czech Republic, smetana was a sweet cream rather than tangy? ). At the evening meal, for which all this womanly work was directed, our plates were piled high with plump dumplings, yellow with butter, flecked with green onions, and glazed with sour cream. If we didn’t count the number we ate, our aunts did. Gluttony was encouraged. We were good children if we went back for another plateful, then another. We reclined under the trees in the backyard afterwards, holding our stomachs in awe.
Every year, often about now, John and I head for the road, taking the Crowsnest Highway to Osoyoos where we settle into the Sandy Beach Resort. One day is spent visiting our favourite wineries—Tinhorn Creek, Wild Goose, and Desert Hills—and eating lunch at Miradoro (at Tinhorn Creek); it probably has the most stunning view of any restaurant anywhere. You sit on the deck and look out to the hills on the other side of the valley and almost every time we’ve been there, a thunderstorm has passed by quickly, lightning stitching hill to hill, the air filled with the scent of rain on dry rock. Another day is spent driving to Grand Forks, with a stop in Greenwood for coffee at the Copper Eagle. (Best cinnamon buns ever.) A stop in Midway—McMynn’s Store— for flour from the Heritage Mills in Rock Creek (because we’ve never yet found the mill itself open but their flours are worth the drive). And lunch at the Borscht Bowl in Grand Forks. Their borscht is Doukhobor-inspired and it’s wonderful, though nothing like the borscht we had at home when I was growing up. I’ve written about that here and I know I’m repeating myself but isn’t that what food is about? Trying to capture a moment which itself is a distillation of memory, of history, of necessity and comfort?
3 thoughts on “the pleasures of Eastern European dumplings, in the New Yorker, in Edmonton, in Grand Forks”
Funny, Theresa, on top of the many things we have in common, culinary heritage is another – my Russian Jewish grandmother in New York made mountains of Eastern-European food including blintzes and of course, much borscht, assuming that my shiksa mother could not keep my father alive. Unfortunately, I hated all of it because it wasn’t peanut butter, which is just about all I ate. Wish I could taste it all now.
I think of how labour – intensive that food was to make (my forays into won-ton with the Christmas turkey give me some idea!) and how it was work women could do together (the Doukhobor borscht has so many steps…). Enforces my idea that women are the carriers of history, the dailiness of it, encoding all these activities with meaning and continuity. And don’t you wish you could taste your grandmother’s food now???
Typo: WAS just about all I ate.