Keeping Culture And Community Alive Through Dumplings PORTLAND — Many Americans are busy sweeping up tinsel, but Ukrainian, Russian and other Orthodox churches are preparing for Christmas on January 7th. And at the Christmas Eve feast, most of them will eat pierogies. These dumplings are traditionally prepared at home, but in churches across the Northwest, pierogies have become something of a parish industry. Food journalist Deena Prichep visited one community that’s come together over dumplings.
NPR logo Keeping Culture And Community Alive Through Dumplings

Keeping Culture And Community Alive Through Dumplings

Keeping Culture And Community Alive Through Dumplings

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PORTLAND — Many Americans are busy sweeping up tinsel, but Ukrainian, Russian and other Orthodox churches are preparing for Christmas on January 7th. And at the Christmas Eve feast, most of them will eat pierogies. These dumplings are traditionally prepared at home, but in churches across the Northwest, pierogies have become something of a parish industry. Food journalist Deena Prichep visited one community that’s come together over dumplings.

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On Friday nights parishioners caramelize onions and peel potatoes, and on Saturday morning a new batch of volunteers scoops out the smooth potato filling to make tray after tray of hand-shaped pierogies. Photo by Deena Prichep hide caption

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A to-go serving from St. John’s includes a dozen pierogies tossed in melted butter, topped with caramelized onions and a generous dollop of sour cream. Photo by Deena Prichep hide caption

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Even the youngest members of the kids’ table can shape circles of homemade dough into traditional potato pierogies. Photo by Deena Prichep hide caption

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Myra Petrouchtchak is in the basement of St. John the Baptist Ukrainian Church. It’s a small parish of about 50 people in Southeast Portland. She sits with a few dozen others, stuffing and shaping potato pierogies by hand. A lot of pierogies.

Myra Petrouchtchak: “It will be around 180 dozen, yes. And when we started, we were making 45 pounds of potatoes, and that was a lot. It took us half of the Saturday. Now we make 100 pounds of potatoes, and by 1 or 2 o clock everybody will be done.”

The church has had to increase production — the pierogies have developed a following beyond the parish.

Myra Petrouchtchak: “People come here and say that those pierogies remind them about their childhood. Not only Ukrainian people — some German people, Polish people. And it’s like, Oh, my grandmother used to do that.”

Petrouchtchak and her husband, the priest at this parish, started weekly pierogie sales when they came to the church five years ago. And they’ve raised enough money to renovate the church basement. But from the beginning, this was more than just a fundraiser. And about more than just food.

Myra Petrouchtchak: “It was also good for the parish as a community. Because many young women didn’t know how to make pierogies, or didn’t have time to make pierogies at home. But here, all children can learn how to do it, and carry on the tradition.”

I am struck by how many young people there are here – this isn’t just a basement of 80-somethings talking about the old country. Little kids carry trays from the kitchen, and their older siblings help shape pierogies. Andrea Roelofs is third-generation Ukrainian-American, and explains that while the kids learn about their Ukrainian heritage, the adults get something out of it too.

Andrea Roelofs: “It’s a great way to socialize. If they come in, and they’re a little frustrated with something, by the time they leave, they’re fine. It’s cheaper than a psychologist (laughs).”

People really do seem to be enjoying themselves. In fact, I can barely go five minutes without someone trying to get me to join in.

Ukrainian Woman 1: “You want to try? You want to try to do with us?”

Ukrainian Woman 2: “We can teach you — it’s easy. Put the potatoes, corner together. Are you try it? It’s delicious food.”

And she’s right — it is delicious. Especially topped with sour cream and caramelized onions. Brian Belo came to try the pierogies, and ended up ordering three dozen for Christmas.

Brian Belo: “I grew up with all this back in Pittsburgh, so I’ve been looking for it here for a couple years, and now I’ve found it.”

But as it turns out, these pierogies aren’t totally traditional. Usually they’d be made with a bit of cottage cheese. But in a concession to American palates, St. John’s uses cheddar instead. And parish member Maria Kamsha tells me the results might be a little too good.

Mariya Kamsha: “My children will say, mom, you know, your pierogies that you make at home, they are not quite that good as the ones that are at the church...”

Kamsha is wistful about the change. But while the exact recipe may have evolved, the heart of the tradition—friends and family coming together over pierogies—is not in any danger of dying out.

Ukrainian Pierogies

St. John the Baptist Ukrainian Orthodox Church

yield: 48-50 perogies

Dough:

3 cups all-purpose flour (plus additional for kneading)

1 cup water

1 large egg

2 tsp vegetable oil

1 tsp salt

Potato Filling:

2 Tbsp vegetable oil

1 medium-sized onion

1 1/2 lb russet potatoes

1/2 cup shredded cheddar

1/2 tsp salt 
1/2 tsp ground black pepper

Making the Dough:

Put the flour in a large shallow bowl, and make a well in center. In a separate bowl, mix together the water, egg, oil, and salt until combined. Pour this mixture into the well in the center of the flour, stirring with a wooden spoon to gradually incorporate the flour and form a soft dough. Transfer dough to a lightly-floured surface and knead, dusting with flour as needed to keep dough from sticking, until smooth and elastic, about 8 minutes (dough will be very soft). Let the dough rest at least half an hour to relax (cover it under an inverted bowl or with plastic wrap to keep it from drying out).

Making the Filling:

Heat the oil in a large skillet over a low flame. Dice the onion, and sauté in oil until golden brown, about 15-20 minutes. While the onions are cooking, peel the potatoes and cut into 1-inch cubes. Cook potatoes in a large saucepan of boiling salted water until tender, about 8 minutes. Drain the potatoes, and mash until smooth. Mix in the caramelized onions, and season with salt and pepper. Cover and keep the filling refrigerated until you are ready to fill your pierogie (can be prepared the night before).

Forming and Cooking Pierogies:

Divide the dough in half. Leave half covered to avoid drying out, and roll the other half out on a lightly-floured surface to 1/8” thickness (it will be about 15” in diameter). Cut out 2” rounds with a cutter or glass. Place a round in your hand, and fill with 1 tsp potato filling. Fold the round in half, and pinch edges to seal completely. Repeat with remaining dough, re-rolling scraps as needed.

Bring a 6-8 quart pot of salted water to a boil. Add the pierogies, stirring with a wooden spoon to keep them from sticking to each other or the bottom of the pot. When the pierogie float to the surface, reduce the heat and simmer for 3-5 minutes. Drain and serve with caramelized onions and sour cream.

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