Pappy lived with my grandparents in Potomac when he no longer wanted to live alone, even though alone is how he preferred to prepare pierogi. “It would take him all morning and into the afternoon,” my grandmother recalls. “Sometimes when I’m out running errands, I still have this urge to be back home by three, when he was usually finished.” Making pierogi hadn’t always been a solitary endeavor; it was once a task Pappy shared with my great-grandmother when they both still lived in the house he built in Whitesboro, N.Y. She died in 1988, and, looking back, I wonder if he made pierogi just to pass the day, perhaps as a silent dedication to her.
When it wasn’t Christmastime, my immediate family often received large plastic bags when we visited the Potomac house; the bags were filled with layers of flour-colored semicircles separated by wax paper. At the seal was a label made of masking tape. Neat, all-caps lettering told the date and filling: “CABBAGE,” “CHEESE,” “POTATO.” Those bags went into our freezer to be pulled open for quick dinners.
My great-grandfather died at the age of 85 in the late winter of 1996, when I was 12. By then, he owned little that bore any but strictly sentimental value. There was no written record of his pierogi recipe, of course; he carried it within, like a polka that you learn by dancing it. So the next Christmas Eve, the last frozen bags were opened and their contents fried in butter. For the first and only time, we had Pappy’s pierogi without Pappy.
My grandmother is of the Stouffer’s generation and had never cooked pierogi. After Pappy died, she called a childhood friend from her Polish neighborhood of New York Mills, N.Y., to ask for a recipe.
Pierogi, we have found, are not easy to make. It takes a committee to do what Pappy used to do. So every year, before Thanksgiving but after supermarket parking lots are decorated with snowflakes, we gather in my grandmother’s kitchen to prepare pierogi for Christmas Eve.
My grandmother starts the day before, chopping and sauteing the proper vegetables for each filling. “Can you believe this is two heads of cabbage?” she asks, peeling plastic wrap from a storage container. We start early in the morning, beginning with the distribution of aprons. This year, mine reads, “I’d rather be playing tennis.” But I wouldn’t. To me, to my family, pierogi on Christmas Eve is tantamount to turkey on Thanksgiving.