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?

postcards, the road to Grand Forks

Left in the cool morning to drive to Grand Forks, through Boundary country, the wide fields and fall colour just ravishing. We stopped at places we stop every time — the side of the highway near the summit of Anarchist Mountain to look at the yellow farmhouse standing alone in a pasture.

house-by-anarchist-mountain

Michael Kluckner wrote this about the house:

The ranch just to the west of Anarchist Summit is known locally as the Lawless place. I was told by Fred Lawless of Cawston that it was built of squared and dovetailed tamarack timbers that have been sheathed with horizontal drop siding. It actually looks like a typical frame house, perhaps balloon-framed. The interesting point is the clear span across the living-dining room, supported by a major beam parallel to the side walls; that open room, together with the large kitchen and pantry (it must be a pantry as it’s windowless) supports the notion of many ranchhands being fed, with the family’s own quarters somewhat separate at the front and upstairs, where there are probably three bedrooms (it is only about 600 square feet).

Don’t you love that phrase, “dovetailed tamarack timbers”? It sounds like a dance, perhaps a square dance (dovetailed), and the music? Oh, Patsy Cline, whose music was our soundtrack today, the old sweet songs of love and loss. (“Don’t leave me here, in a world/Filled with dreams that might have been…”) Yet a house has been left and it’s as lonesome a house as any on earth, with its memories and its emptiness, the ranchhands and the family all dead and gone.

A stop in Greenwood for espresso and butter tarts at the Copper Eagle and a walk around that beautiful little town. We camped here nearly 30 years ago and looked at the museum with its well-organized exhibits, eating ice-cream on the street afterwards. And John and I came back to the museum in 2009, trying to find out about Phoenix, a place where my grandfather lived briefly (as a miner) in 1911. I wrote about this search in Mnemonic: A Book of Trees, wrote about the drive over Phoenix Mountain on a backroad, using a small map from the museum and finding so little left of the community — and nothing of my grandfather.

All the fall colour, the shades and shadows. This Doukhobor village (it might be the Ozeroff village?) just west of Grand Forks, which I believe was in the process of being restored a few years ago but now it looks abandoned, given up on. I scrambled along the highway, trying for the best view, pushing aside choke cherry branches almost the exact colour of the houses:

doukhobor-house

The faded pinks and the tawny grass remind me of a consolation waltz, maybe with Patsy singing again, a woman alone on a long road, heart wistful for the lives lived in old houses:

I walk for miles along the highway
Well, that’s just my way of sayin’ I love you
I’m always walkin’ after midnight
Searchin’ for you