the pleasures of Eastern European dumplings, in the New Yorker, in Edmonton, in Grand Forks

autumn borscht
At the Borscht Bowl in Grand Forks

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?

soup

The other day we drove to Grand Forks for lunch. We were staying in Osoyoos and part of what we do when we’re in that area is drive up into Boundary Country for the long views, the golden fields, and the pleasure of Russian food at the Borscht Bowl in Grand Forks. Every fall I make a huge pot of that borscht, using this recipe. (I have wonderful cabbages in the garden right now, begging to be shredded and used in this soup.) My grandmother made borscht, a red barszcz, probably in homage to her first husband, who was Polish. And for my parents, that was the benchmark of borscht. I tried making the Doukhobor one for them once, thinking it would be a good thing for my mum and I to do together, but they simply couldn’t hear that it was also a borscht. Nope. Borscht was beets and maybe some thin slices of beef, whiffy with vinegar, and served with a dollop of sour cream. Smetana. They kept saying, “It’s a good vegetable soup but it’s not borscht.” And in the way of family history, it’s a phrase we use every time I make this soup.

autumn borscht.jpg

The borscht in Grand Forks is delicious. Everything is diced or shredded very finely and the surface of the soup is ferny with dill. It’s thick and the colour of ochre. I had a big bowl and had to restrain myself from ordering another. We were also having vareniki, large ones, stuffed with beef and potato, and served with smetana and grated cheese. My grandmother’s, called pedeha, in homage to her second husband (my grandfather), who was more or less Ukrainian, were smaller than the ones we ate in Grand Forks. Hers were almost always filled with homemade cottage cheese and potatoes, with flecks of green onion. She also made dessert ones filled with golden plums. She kept heaping them on plates and showed delight as we asked for more.

I can understand why the Doukhobors were drawn to the Grand Forks area. Everywhere we saw those fertile fields, roadside stands with boxes of squash, huge tomatoes, cabbages, strings of garlic, bags of red and yellow-skinned onions, even bags of Russian noodles called lapsha and which my grandmother also made, though I don’t remember what her version  was called. My father said that when he was a child in Drumheller and the family was very poor, she made them to sell, using eggs from her chickens and butter from her cow. My father said it was rare that they ate butter themselves because my grandmother could sell it and supplement my grandfather’s sporadic income from coal mining. I hoped to buy flour from the Pride of the Valley Flour Mill but it was closed and none of the grocery stores we looked it had it for sale. (But then I found Red Fife flour at the McMynns Store in Midway, milled at the Heritage Flour Mill in Rock Creek. So later in the week, I’ll bake bread with a taste of that Bounday wheat.)

For years I never thought about these foods. We ate them when we visited our father’s family in Beverley (then a community near Edmonton and now part of the city itself) and they were foreign, though eating them meant that we were too. (I never felt foreign, apart from the first day of school when teachers used to struggle with the pronunciation of my surname!) And now I want to know how to cook them. I want to eat them on these cool fall days and think of the generations of women in my family who grew cabbages and churned butter and carefully peeled potatoes for the pedeha, tossing the peels to the chickens who waited by the kitchen door. Sometimes they are so far away, in time, in geography, in language (my grandmother’s English was so heavily-accented that I could barely understand her), and sometimes they are in our hands as we cut and dice, they are in the faces of our children and grandchildren (where else do the blue eyes come from?), and in the way we drive long distances to see a landscape both familiar and nourishing, and to eat the bowls of soup that called us there.

stopping on the Bridesville-Rock Creek road for the bluebird (of happiness)

We’re spending a few days exploring in the Similkameen-Boundary area under blue skies filled with tumbling clouds. Today we drove to Grand Forks, taking the winding Bridesville-Rock Creek road through the most beautiful soft forests and grasslands. A charmed landscape. We knew this almost right away, that we’d entered an enchanted place, when a small rabbit hopped off the road and a bobcat bounded across into the trees a little further along. Deer, ground squirrels, a marmot — every one of them looking suprised to see a car, the squirrel waking from a deep sleep in the sunlight  to scamper aside. A mountain bluebird took its time with whatever it was eating. A worm? A grasshopper? We kept seeing wildflowers — scarlet gilia, Indian paintbrush, and then a small thicket of larkspur, sticky geranium (I think it was this one, the Geranium viscosissimum; I was so busy trying to get a photograph while it waved in the wind that I forgot to touch the leaves…). We drove into Grand Forks to discover the Farmers Market in full swing which was lovely. John bought a confit of blueberries and garlic and some pickled asparagus and then we went went to the Borscht Bowl for the eponymous soup and some light vareniki made with buttermilk dough. Amazingly good.