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Making Ukrainian pierogi roots me to my family tree

(Scott Suchman for The Washington Post/food styling by Lisa Cherkasky for The Washington Post)

When it all gets to be too much and I feel like I need to do something even when there is absolutely nothing I can do, I generally make my way to the kitchen.

Sometimes it results in a pie, or an over-the-top dinner for friends. For the past couple of years, it has mostly involved stress-baking bagels. I got pretty good at it, and it was a welcomed weekly distraction from pandemic monotony.

The situation in Ukraine has stirred up a new level of anxiety. Or, rather, reintroduced the anxiety that I grew up with as a member of Gen X. In high school in the 1980s, I was required to take a class called “Americanism vs. Communism.” The formative pop culture of my youth included plot lines that involved surviving in a post-apocalyptic world or rogue teens saving the country from evil invaders.

It had been a nice couple of decades since we had to seriously worry about that dystopian narrative, but here we are again. And there’s really nothing I can do about it. So I’m heading to the kitchen.

I volunteered at World Central Kitchen to feed the hungry. I ended up finding the meaning I needed.

I don’t align strongly with any particular ethnicity, but I remember when I was growing up, anytime we had a family get-together on my mother’s side, we would get to see my great-grandfather, Gigi, who I thought was fascinating with his thick accent and tales of “the old country.” It would be years before I learned that the old country he spoke of was Ukraine, and even then I wasn’t sure what that meant, because at the time it was part of the Soviet Union. I guessed that Ukraine was a state there, kind of like Pennsylvania, where we lived at the time. And I recently learned that he came to America sometime after the turn of the century as a stowaway on a boat, escaping the upheaval that was growing ahead of the Russian Revolution.

The thing I remember most vividly from those parties was the food. There were always stuffed cabbages, which my grandmother made and I liked so much because they made me feel like I liked a vegetable. There were huge vats of kielbasa and sauerkraut. Beets with horseradish was one of my absolute favorites, a condiment I would put on everything in sight.

But the dish that got me put on the buffet watch list was pierogi. My grandmother, Nastazia, made those, too. They were mashed potatoes and cheese stuffed in a pasta dumpling wrapper, and they spoke straight to the heart and gut of the carbotarian I would become.

On the buffet, they would be served simply boiled and tossed with onions sauteed in tons of butter. There was always sour cream on the side, which just made them that much better. I was always near the front of the line, petrified they would run out before I got my turn. I ate so many once that I got sick, and restrictions were subsequently placed on my access to them. I felt like that was unfair, but every now and then I would manage to sneak a couple beyond my quota.

Other times when we had them, they would be boiled first, then pan fried, giving the already perfect package extra textural interest. I don’t prefer one way over the other. They’re both my favorite.

I wish I had paid more attention to the stories, or asked more about them when there was still someone to ask. I wish I knew enough to be able to match current events with things Gigi used to talk about, even though it would break my heart. Or maybe because it would break my heart, that very particular pain of having a deep enough connection to a place to feel innately the horror of what’s happening there.

But I do have the recipes. My grandmother wrote a spiral-bound cookbook of family recipes, and the last chapter is dedicated to Ukrainian dishes. The last time I made her pierogi, I did it because I was working through the fact that she didn’t have long to live, and I felt like making her recipe would be the connection I needed in the moment.

Now I’m making them for a connection to a place I’ve never been and ancestors I know almost nothing about. But also, maybe, to some living, distant cousin that has a place on a far-flung branch of my family tree. So distant that no online DNA sample would ever link us. Maybe they are going through something right now that I can’t imagine, being asked to defend their very home. Or to evacuate it. Maybe, if this wasn’t happening, I never would’ve wondered if they were out there at all.

Maybe I would have almost nothing in common with them. But maybe, just maybe, our recipes for pierogi come from a common root.

Correction: An earlier version of this story did not include the time it takes to make or storage note. That information has been added. Also, it included an incorrect amount for the milliliters of water needed. The dough calls for 1/2 cup (120 ml). This has been corrected.

Get the recipe: Ukrainian Pierogi