Nonfiction

The Bread of Kings by Teresa Lust

Fake Pies and Pig Thighs by Rachel Komich

An Essay in Which Pam Greer Oozes Out of Her Clothes by Richard LeBlond

On Pierogi(s) by Mark Lewandowski

Vegetexting by Jennifer Bal

The Benefits of Eating Too Much in the Desert by E. M. Eastick

A Question of Taste by Meredith Escudier

The Beauty of Pizza by Austin Rogers

Marmalade: The Melomeli of Modern America by Michael Pennell

Three Elizabeths, One George, Hot Cross Buns, and Hampstead Heath by Paula Panich

Duck by Eileen Shields

Food for Thought by Kathryn Jenkins

Playing Mass by Catherine Scherer

My Big Fat Orthodox Thanksgiving by Ruth Carmel

The Astrophysics of a Sandwich by Raychelle Heath

Tantric Chicken by Mara A. Cohen Marks

Full by Kelly Ferguson

Monkey Eve by Carolyn Phillips

Capon by Natasha Sajé

The Paella Perplex by Jeannette Ferrary

The Right to Eat by JT Torres

This Isn't Supposed to Happen in the Morning by Heather Hartley

Recipe for Winter by Khristopher Flack

Step One by Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich

Flour Fool Meets Great Poet and Pie Instructor by Amy Halloran

Everett by Jason Bell

The Intrigue of Aaron Barthel by Kristy Leissle

Personal Sugar Defense Kit by Sari M. Boren

Kitchen Tirade by Eric LeMay

Eat Dessert First by Iris Graville

Parsley by Natasha Sajé

American Zen Breakfast by Dick Allen

This May Make You [Sic] by Paul Graham

Prisoner's Thai Noodles by Byron Case

Lavender Fields by Susan Goodwin

Ménage à Fongo by Kathryn Miles

All That She Could Make with Flour by Katherine Jameison

Weasel by John Gutekanst

Into the Deep Freeze by Jason Anthony

Defining Gluten by Ann Lightcap Bruno

The Text(ure) of Pleasure by Tara Deal

On the Perils of Food-Buying in a Foreign Land by Tony Eprile

On Pierogi(s)

by Mark Lewandowski

September 2015    

I.

When I first walked into the neighborhood produce store--a small metal shack plopped down in a grove of Stalinist block apartments--I stood in back behind layers of other customers, stealing glances between them of perfectly ripe apricots, of mounds of blueberries, of well-scrubbed carrots, of piles of apples without blemish. I whispered the Polish words for the produce and the numbers for the weight over and over again, buying time by allowing anyone who wanted to cut in front of me. Finally it was just me. The woman behind the crates, hair kept at bay with a faded, purple bandana, smiled and greeted me. I stammered and sputtered. The words left me. Her smile dropped. I shook my head and beat it out of there, empty plastic bags crumpled in my shaking fist.

I wouldn’t go back for a month, nor would I patronize the nearest butcher shop. Instead I shopped at the small supermarket which, along with the post office, encompassed the ground floor of a meager retail complex a few minutes’ walk from the produce shack and the butcher’s. The meat sold there was of questionable quality, the apples misshapen and tasteless, and unless stewed for hours, the carrots inedible. However, with the exception of the deli at the back of the store, nothing was behind a counter. As long as there was a hand basket available before the turnstile, you could walk in and pick and choose things off the shelves at your leisure. There wasn’t a whole lot to choose from, though. A good third of the products were mass-produced cakes, cookies and candy, mostly imported from Germany. Breakfast cereal came in two varieties: corn flakes in a bag, and corn flakes in a box. But there were packaged cheeses and fresh bread. And the store had actual registers so when you paid you could peek at the total, negating the need to use or understand numbers.

I lived a block away, in a rectory that let out flats for visiting foreigners. For my first month in Biała Podlaska, before classes started at the college, I ate lunch—the main meal in Poland—with the priests. The head priest’s sister served, and her daughter cooked. Meals started with soup, followed by meat, potatoes and some kind of salad. Otherwise, I ate corn flakes for breakfast, and for supper bread and cheese. I knew I wouldn’t be able to eat like that forever. Once I began teaching, I’d be left to my own devices; the meals with the priests would end. Eventually I’d have to stock my mini fridge and crank up my two-burner hot plate.

Then something miraculous happened at the supermarket. At the back, on the counter of the deli, a large glass bowl topped with plastic wrap had appeared. It contained pierogi, clearly fresh and handmade. There was no sign for them. I didn’t know what variety they were, or how much they cost.

Pierogi? Could it be? I had lived in Poland for three months by then, and had yet to see one. The priest’s sister never served them. We didn’t get them during the Peace Corps training. I had begun to wonder if pierigi were Polish at all.

For my whole life, my family has celebrated Christmas Eve according to my father’s traditions. Dinner consists mainly of foods not exactly kid-friendly: breaded fish not at all like Mrs. Paul’s sticks, unmashed potatoes, stewed fruit, and a warm salad consisting of yellow peas and mushrooms. (Luckily, we were spared what my mother encountered on her first visit to her future in-laws: duck blood soup. My grandfather acquired its namesake’s main ingredient by slamming an ice pick into the skull of a live duck and suspending the creature from its feet over a bucket.) Still, for my siblings and me, Christmas Eve dinner was our favorite. Why? Pierogi. Or as we called them, “pierogis.” (I wouldn’t find out “pierogi” was the plural form of “pierog” until I lived in Poland, where I also found out “dupa” was not a word you should use in polite company.) My grandmother stuffed the half-circle dumplings with a simple filling of sauerkraut and onion. As a child it was the only kind of pierogi I knew. Even though I’d never want to eat sauerkraut and onion on their own, something magical happened when my grandmother stuffed the pockets of slightly chewy dough, first boiling them, and then sautéing them in margarine until a light crisp formed on either side. She served them topped with healthy dollops of sour cream. We kids flicked the other foods to the peripheries of our plates and piled on the pierogi, tearing through as many as our parents allowed. We knew we’d get more on New Year’s Day at my grandmother’s sister’s house. But after that? Not for another fifty-one weeks. We shoveled in the pierogi like we did the Easter candy after enduring the forty days of Lent. Even though my grandmother died thirty years ago, her pierogi remain the mainstay of my family’s Christmas Eve dinner. We embrace the dish with the same relish Bob Cratchett’s family looks upon the golden-roasted goose in A Christmas Carol.

In Biała Podlaska, when the woman behind the counter appeared, I boldly stepped forward and without hesitation, let the proper words flow out of me. I asked for the whole lot. She didn’t even blink, just plucked the pierogi from the bowl with a pair of tongs and filled two brown paper lunch bags with them. I bought some margarine and rushed back to the rectory to heat them up. Mushroom and sauerkraut. Which became my favorite variety of pierogi. I ate one bag immediately, the other the next morning for breakfast.

I had found my language.

II.

Two years after my stint in the Peace Corps ended, I returned to Poland to visit former students and take in some of the sights I had missed. I stopped in Lublin, staging ground for the Nazi death camp at Majdanek. In the city center sits a castle with a front of Arabesque ornamentation. In the 19th century the Russian czar turned it into the most notorious prison on Polish territory. In the 20th, both Hitler and Stalin upped the ante.

The weight of Polish history demands fortification. Only pierogi would do. I found a milk bar within sight of the castle. Polish milk bars are wonderful places. Portions are cheap, and prices are low. “Milk Bar” might evoke images of A Clockwork Orange—polished porcelain tits shooting milk into the eagerly held glasses of Alex and his droogs, but a Polish bar mleczny is more like a Southern lunch joint. Typically the ever changing menu is mounted above an opening to the kitchen. Women in uniforms starched white dish up pierogi, roasted sausages, veal goulash, mashed potatoes, pork cutlets, soups, salads, breads…You can even buy milk, but typically it’s unpasteurized. (I once took my sister and her boyfriend to a milk bar in Cracow that specialized in pierogi, featuring a dozen or so varieties. Old women cooked over coal burning, caste iron stoves in a kitchen open to the street. My sister’s boyfriend was a self-professed milk addict. I warned him against the unpasteurized brew, but he couldn’t help himself. He ended up spending the night shitting his guts out in the ghastly bathroom on the Cracow-Prague express train.)

In Lublin, I stocked my tray with chicken noodle soup, a heaping plate of sauerkraut and mushroom pierogi topped with caramelized onion and bacon drippings, a thick slice of brown bread, and a glass of cherry compote. I maneuvered my tray through jostling office workers, squeezed into a table, and went to work. It was a serious amount of food, but even just halfway through the pierogi, I knew I’d want more. I was flying back to Cincinnati a couple days later; no Polish milk bars there. After sopping up the last of the bacon grease with the bread, I ordered a serving of apricot pierogi. Americans typically see fruit-filled pierogi as a dessert. In Poland, they are more likely served on warm summer days as a main course, often preceded by cold beet borscht made thick and atomic pink with heavy cream.

The serving woman looked at my clean plates and laughed, revealing a gold-plated front tooth. Now grinning and joking with her workmates, she scooped six giant pierogi on a fresh plate. She paused for a moment, and after a quick wink, threw on a seventh. Then she smothered the whole lot with dollops of crème frêche and a spoonful of large grained sugar. After I took the tray she gave me a thumb’s up. Despite my protests, she added a glass of hot tea.

I found my way back to my original table. A harried looking businessman took the seat across from me. He wore a finely tailored navy blue suit and gold watch. Between spoonfuls of soup he speared pieces of pork cutlet and potatoes into his mouth. Intermittently he looked at his watch or scanned the busy street in front of the milk bar. Halfway through his lunch he tapped his watch three times with an index finger and swore loudly enough to raise the heads of his fellow eaters. He kicked back his chair with a large screech, lurched out of the milk bar and ran by the front window.

I sighed happily. Unlike the man who left his lunch half-finished, I was on vacation and didn’t have to be anywhere soon. I gazed down on my pierogi. As is often the case with the fruit variety, these were prepared with fresh fruit, pit intact. I cut around the pit of the first pierog, swirling dough and apricot through sugar and cream. I ate slowly. Between bites I raised my glass of tea and looked out the window. An old man stood there: dirty, unshaven, rags for clothes. I assumed he was a drunk. I had seen so many of them in Poland, swigging back whole bottles of cheap apple wine in the park, or passed out in the middle of the street while cars swerved around them. For a moment I thought he was looking at me. He pressed his face to the window, darting his eyes right and left. He walked away. I thought that was it. But then he appeared inside. Again his eyes darted. No one bothered with him. The lunch rush was on; the women in the kitchen were busy.

I continued eating, but kept my eyes on the old man. He shuffled over to my table and dropped down to the half-eaten lunch across from me. His eyes were clear, and his cheeks and nose sported no broken blood vessels. Not a drunk then, perhaps just one of the older people unable to ride smoothly the transition from Communism to Capitalism, unlike the young businessman who left his lunch unfinished. The old fellow took over what the businessman had started, slurping up the remaining soup, scooping up the potatoes with the same spoon, sponging the crumbs of pork cutlet with the heel of bread. I went back to my pierogi; our eating fell into tandem. Once he had mopped up the butter from the potatoes our eyes met. He dropped his, to my plate. Mine followed. All that was left were the pits.



  Mark Lewandowski is the author of Halibut Rodeo. His work has been cited in The Best American Nonrequired Reading, The Best American Travel Writing and The Best American Essays. He’s been a Peace Corps Volunteer in Poland, a Fulbright Scholar in Lithuania, and now teaches at Indiana State University.

 

Photo used under Creative Commons.