I think of my great-grandfather most at Christmas. He was born to Polish immigrants on the Feast of the Epiphany. He was named Caspar after one of the three Magi, though he went by his middle name, Anthony (and I knew him simply as Pappy). Many of his flannel shirts were a Christmasy red plaid. But more than that, more than the accordion on his knee and the polka in his whistle, I remember him for pierogi.
Pierogi are really potato ravioli. They were designed not to delight the sophisticated senses but to ensure survival in the very poor, overpopulated areas of Eastern Europe. If Pappy was not leaning over the crest of the living room chair watching the Yankees, it seemed, he was in the kitchen stuffing pockets of unleavened dough, pinching their edges before gently placing them in a large pot of rolling salted water.
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.
“Elizabeth, this towel is for clean hands; this one, for cleaning,” my grandmother says. “Barbara, you start the dough.” Those who have the day free come early. Others stop by, tackle a task for an hour or two or however long they have, and leave. Pierogi take many steps, and, contrary to the adage, there are never too many cooks in the kitchen.
The dough must be elastic. Sometimes it takes two people to roll it flat. Circles are cut using an old-fashioned (cocktail) glass and then gently stretched, using two hands.
The rest of the rules: Use a spoon to fill with stuffing and a fork to pinch closed. Do not overstuff. The dumplings go into a large pot of salted boiling water. Stir constantly to avoid sticking. Cook for 10 minutes or until every one of the pierogi has risen to the surface. (If one ruptures and its contents dance in the water, dump out the water and boil a new pot for the next batch.) Ladle the pierogi out one at a time and lay them in a colander. Transfer to a clean dish towel or a bed of paper towels to rest; they need to dry thoroughly. If they are to be eaten right away, saute with a pat of butter until lightly browned on both sides. If not, place them in a plastic bag, each layer separated by wax paper, and freeze until Christmas Eve.
It has been 15 years since any member of our family has eaten a pierogi made by Pappy, and it probably will be another 15 before we get the recipe right. I don’t mean to be elegiac, merely honest. Our pierogi are delicious, but they’re always missing something. It could be the stuffing, or it could be the dough.
One thing is for certain: The Polish word “pierogi” is plural, and its singular equivalent, pierog, is not used. They say that’s because pierogi are always served in multiples. But I believe it’s something more. If there is one thing today’s pierogi have in common with Pappy’s, it is that the crucial ingredient is a large family singing a chorus of approval for a job everyone at the table knows is arduous. And that’s something, I’m sure, Pappy would be proud of.
McNamara is an assistant editor at Prevention magazine. She lives in Arlington.