By Bob Podurgiel
She pushed the roller firmly over and over the dough from side to side, and back and forth until she had formed the dough into roughly the shape of a pizza crust, only thinner, about an eighth of an inch to sixteenth of an inch thick.
Occasionally, she tossed some loose flour onto the dough as she worked the simple mixture of water, eggs, flour and salt with a stainless steel rolling pin.
“I use a stainless steel roller, much better than wood,” Marlene Pendleton, 73, said this week in her kitchen in Carnegie where she was performing a yearly ritual, loved and passed down from generation to generation of Eastern European women, and some men, preparing a simple, yet tasty food that is both filling and evocative of a shared heritage – making pierogi.
Like a great jazz composition, a song with a basic structure but countless variations or interpretations, the carbohydrate-rich food, most of us know as pierogi, is just one version of this Eastern European staple.
In Ukraine, depending on the region, the dish is called pirohy, in Russia, it is called pelmeni, but they all share one common heritage, a simple food made from simple ingredients that tells a complex story.
Finally satisfied with the consistency of the dough, not too sticky or too dry, Pendleton then turned to a technique taught to her by her Babcia (Polish for grandmother) Kaczorowski. She used a coffee cup to form segments of the dough into perfect ovals.
She twisted the coffee cup into the dough, over and over, then removed the ovals, and the nascent pierogies were ready for the filling – two kinds, prepared ahead of time and waiting in pots near the stove. Both fillings, one potato and the other cheese, were made from variations of Babcia Kaczorowski’s recipes brought with her from Poland in 1899.
Soon she had made a dozen pierogi cut from the dough, which now resembled a thin slice of Swiss cheese, only with bigger holes.
As Pendleton portioned out a filling to each oval, she recounted a little of her family history.
Janek Kaczorowski, her grandfather, married Marianna (Babcia) in Eastern Poland, a region dominated by Russia in the nineteenth century, and the couple came to America in 1899.
Janek found a job at the A.M. Byers Pipe Mill on Pittsburgh’s South Side. Later, he opened a small grocery store on Mary Street in the South Side and the family lived above the store. The grocery store did well and the family bought the house next door where three generations of the Kaczorowski family lived together.
The Kaczorowski family story fits a pattern that has repeated itself over and over in American history with slight variations, just as the recipes for pierogi vary.
In 1899, Janek and Marianna were part of an influx of immigrants who arrived in America. They came because a famine had struck Eastern Europe after several years of poor harvests. Men from the countryside flocked into the cities looking for work, but at the same time an economic depression had hit the region so there was no work to be had in the cities, triggering the migration to America.
Desperate for work, the men took any jobs they could find, usually the hardest, most physically demanding work in the mines, railroads and mills.
High carbohydrate foods like pierogi, and haluski, a mixture of noodles, cabbage, butter and onions, met the dietary needs of the immigrants for foods that were inexpensive but would give the workers the energy they needed to work long, grueling hours of physical labor.
What Janek and Marianna faced was very familiar to the challenges other immigrants to America faced.
The Irish in the 1840s fled their home country in the grip of the potato famine. They dug the Pennsylvania Canal from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh by hand with pick and shovel. They laid many of the track for the first railroads in Western Pennsylvania. German immigrants flocked to America about the same time, fleeing political and religious persecution in Central Europe. Italian immigrants faced many of the same challenges as the Eastern Europeans later in the nineteenth century - grinding poverty and food shortages.
All of that, however, was backstory to the task at hand – making a new batch of pierogi.
After adding the filling to about a dozen of the doughy dumplings, Pendleton was ready for the crucial step in the process, pinching the round ovals into the crescent shape of a finished pierogi.
Her fingers pinched the sides of the dough until the filling was sealed inside. Then she used her fingernails to create a pattern of ridges along the seal.
“They just look better that way. The main thing is to make sure the filling doesn’t come out when they are boiled, which is the next step,” she said.
One at a time she dropped the pierogi into a pot of boiling water.
“Like ravioli, they are done when they start to float. There is no meat in the traditional recipe. Eating meat was a rare treat for the poorer people in Poland,” she said. “That’s how kielbasa became part of Polish cooking. The rich ate the choicest cuts of meat, and the poor had to eat the trimmings, the leftover bits of meat that were tossed out. People took those discarded scraps and turned them into a sausage that became known as kielbasa.”
Not wasting anything is also part of the process of Eastern European cooking.
“The leftover dough can be cut into pieces to make noodles,” she said.
As the pierogi floated in the boiling water, she used a wire scoop to transfer them onto trays and then drained the excess water into the sink.
The pierogis were now ready for the final touches. Some people like them boiled and slathered with butter and onions. Others like them fried until they are crispy and crunchy. Either way, they are a nourishing food with a long history passed down from generation to generation.
Pendleton is part of that legacy. She has passed on her Eastern European cooking skills to her youngest granddaughter Courtney Kurth. He had one final message after her tutorial in Eastern European cooking. She pointed to her apron emblazoned with the word Smacznego, pronounced (Smuchnego), Polish for Bon Appetit.
You can still enjoy old-world goodness
For those who don’t have the time or patience to make pierogi the traditional hand-made way, there are a legion of women (and men) who donate their time and cooking skills at Eastern European churches in our area.
Among them are Holy Trinity Ukrainian Catholic and St. Peter and Paul Ukrainian Orthodox churches in Carnegie; and Holy Ghost Byzantine Catholic and St. Mary Ukrainian Orthodox churches in McKees Rocks. Usually, the pierogi are sold to raise money to help keep the churches operating, for charitable projects, and to keep the tradition alive. Times and dates for the sales vary:
• Holy Trinity Ukrainian Catholic, 730 Washington Blvd., Carnegie, year-round Thursdays and Fridays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Call (412) 276-9897 to leave your order.
• St. Peter and Paul Ukrainian Orthodox, 220 Mansfield Blvd., Carnegie, will have pierogies and other Ukranian food items available for purchase during the 55th Annual Psanky (Easter Egg) Sale set from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. on April 2.
• Holy Ghost Byzantine Catholic, 225 Olivia St., McKees Rocks, orders are taken 9 a.m. to noon Wednesdays through March 29 at (412) 331-5155, with final pickups March 31. Walk-in accommodations are limited.
• St. Mary Ukrainian Orthodox, 116 Ella St., McKees Rocks, available Fridays from Labor to Memorial days, excluding major holidays. Call Fridays by 10 a.m. to order (412) 331-9288.
For those who can’t make it to the church on time, Bob’s Diner, at the Kennedy Township and Carnegie restaurants, has pierogies for sale from Holy Trinity Ukranian Catholic as part of the Lent Menu served Fridays through April 7.
Kaczorowski Family Recipe
1 cup warm water
3 cups flour
1 teaspoon salt
Mix until dough is not too sticky or dry.
Roll out dough until dough is an 1/8th to 1/16th-inch thick.
5-6 mashed potatoes (can be leftovers)
½ stick butter
½ loaf of Velveeta Cheese
(Optional: chives, garlic)
24 ounces large curd cottage cheese or ricotta
onion, salt, pepper,
Add a little flour if dough is too runny.
Use coffee cup to cut out round shape of pierogi in dough.
Pinch by hand until filling is encased in the dough.
Add to boiling water and cook 10 to 15 minutes until perogies float in boiling water.
Use scoop or slotted spoon to retrieve perogies.
Add onions and butter to taste.
Pierogies can also be fried or baked after boiling.
Makes about two dozen
Writer’s note: My grandmother in Carnegie, Helen Bugala, who also emigrated from Eastern Poland, passed on her family recipe for pierogi to my mother Mary Podurgiel. Before my mother became so sick that she was confined to her bed, she made a last batch of the cherished dumplings my brother and sister had enjoyed as children. It was her final gift to us.