Your ancestors may come from somewhere west or south of Warsaw, but if you’re a Milwaukeean, the pierogi is yours, too.
Of course, Classic Milwaukee isn’t as easy to find anymore. Factory buildings find themselves developed into Choice Addresses. The tattooed grandchildren of proud tool-and-die makers scratch out a living as temps and part-time coffee steamers. But all of the party DJs in the Yellow Pages haven’t yet drowned out the Old Time associations: accordions, very decorated churches, big voices, big hugs, heavy food.
So before we (and our city) complete our Extreme Low Carb Lite Makeover, let’s wave the red-and-white flag for our beloved pierogi.
The flavor of that little half-moon is the flavor of life in the traditional Great Lakes cities – Buffalo, Cleveland, Chicago, Milwaukee and Pittsburgh. Which is more than railroads, ore boats and steel mills – it’s food, my friend. Coming home from the mill and eating, not dining. Finding a little ground beef or sauerkraut or, best of all, baker’s cheese and potato snuggled up in stretchy dough. A concoction plain and honest as an old song brought from the old country and now as at home here as in its native land. Think of the zither music carrying through Carol Reed’s classic film, The Third Man. Think Frankie Yankovic’s “Blue Skirt Waltz.”
I wish we could say that the pierogi is exclusively Poland’s gift to the world, but we can’t. That clam-shaped little gem comes from a big family, with relatives all over the globe and in every immigrant quarter of America’s cities. Count as pierogi’s cousins ravioli, won ton, pelmeni, spring rolls, pot stickers, xiz long bao, pasties and turnovers everywhere. Its most direct relation is the Russian pirog (or “pie”). In Russian, the word pir means “feast.” Pirog Day was a big moment in the traditional Russian wedding ritual – the third day after the wedding when the new bride prepared a feast of pirogs for her guests. The pirog, a meat, fruit or vegetable filling wrapped in a pliable noodle dough, is what made its way west to Poland and in the 19th century became our own little buddy, the pierogi.
If all this talk of pierogies is making you hungry, here’s a warning. You’ll discover that the freshly made item is not as easy to find as it was in Former Milwaukee. In the frozen food cases, cozying up with your Sarah Lees, Weight Watchers and Lean Cuisines, you’ll find one brand or another of frozen pierogi – Mrs. T, Polish Princess and so on. But the dough is usually tough and tasteless, the fillings skimpy but hyped-up and oversalted. Generally, something’s been added that shouldn’t be there and something that should be there is missing. Which is a pretty fair description of fast food, whether you buy in a drive-through or take it home frozen solid.
The fact is, frozen only tastes like the real thing if you haven’t had the real thing -lately. If you must have frozen, you can find the closest thing to a fresh pierogi in the freezer at A&JPolish Deli (1215 W. Lincoln Ave.). They have a Milwaukee origin – Milwaukee Avenue in Chicago, that is. If you don’t want frozen and can’t wait until the next Polish Fest for a plate of fresh pierogies, George Burzynski, owner of Polonez (4016 S. Packard Ave.), is your man. If you want crepes, you go to Paris. If you want pierogis, go to Cudahy, where the little pies are a passion. George knows that he’s making something even better than “comfort food.” This is home food .This is more than the sum of its calories, it’s a plateful of loyalty and belonging. Even when you eat it at a restaurant, George’s pierogies say home. His little home away from home hand-makes 200 to 300 pierogies a day, with even the filling machine hand operated. (For Polish Fest, George’s crew makes upwards of 20,000!) You have a choice of three fillings: cheese, meat or kraut. And just like Busha used to do, George puts a little -sugar in the cheese – “for the sweet.”
Like any good cook, George is a philosopher: “People come looking for something that brings back memories, home and grandma. The frozen are done for quantity, the quality of the filling is never so fine… too much quickness for the quantity. There’s no good memories in that.”
The Way of the Pierogi is clear to our man in Cudahy. You won’t find, on the -Polonez menu, pierogies that bend to fashion and become fat-free, or upscaled and lobster filled. George Burzynski is here to protect you from revisionist pierogies, food makeovers, fashion. The pierogi is what it is, and that is what any sane Milwaukeean would want it to be. Life may be oh-so–complicated, but some truths are direct, unsubtle: lust, anger, an apple, sudden tears at the sight or sound of beauty and a plate of pierogies.
Excellent as it is, Polonez is not your only fresh pierogi provider. You can cook them yourself, you know. The dough is simple, the fillings right to the point, and pierogi construction can be a healthy alternative to watching reality TVor wading through the herbicides of a golf course.
What you do is sift two cups of flour into a big mixing bowl. Scoop a little nest in the center of the flour and break one egg into the nest. Add 2 to 3 tablespoons of sour cream or yogurt, a tablespoon of oil and a pinch or two of salt. Knead the whole combination together. Add a cup or so of water slowly, kneading and adding water till you have a smooth, stretchy dough. Think of it as a noodle dough, not a dumpling dough.
Divide the dough in half. Cover and put aside one of the halves, roll the other out on a floured surface to 1/16 of an inch thick. Cut two three-inch circles in the dough – I use a modest-size martini glass for my cutter. This much dough should yield a couple dozen pierogies, depending on the size of the circles you cut.
As for filling, simple is best in any case but really best for a first batch. Why not try a mashed potato, onion and cheese filling? Figure two parts potato to one part cheese and onion, and don’t forget a bit of sugar or vanilla – “for the sweet.”
Other possibilities are mushrooms browned with onions and bread crumbs; a splat of Worcestershire sauce goes well. You can mix in a bit – or a lot – of ground beef or pork with this one, or maybe with half of them. As for proportions, emphasize the basic potato or mushroom and add from there to your own taste. After all, you aren’t making a McPierogi.
Before you start the actual filling, start a big pot of salted water boiling, as if you were cooking spaghetti.
With a glop of filling in the middle of the dough circle, the real existential moment has arrived – folding and sealing. Stretch and fold the dough in half, over the stuffing, until the edge you’re holding meets the other edge. Crimp the two edges together with a dinner fork – this is a good -tightener and gives a pleasant design to the edge. Pinch the edges together with your fingers just to be sure you have a tight seal.
Drop those beauties into the boiling water – six to 10 at a time – and let them boil till they begin to rise to the top. Scoop your pierogies out and let them dry on a plate.
You can eat them as is, but a better way is to put some chopped onion and -butter in a skillet, and when the onions are translucent, lightly brown the pierogies. Not too much now, or they’ll be tough to chew. Serve them up with applesauce or sour cream or a favorite gravy.
One last reminder: When you phone your friends to tell them the ethnic kitchen wonders you have wrought, remember to say the name right – taste the word when you say it. No p’rogi, like it was native to the suburbs of Tulsa, Oklahoma. Give it a little Europe, roll that R, treat that luscious word to three full syllables. Stretch it out, like the dough from which you made those authentic “little dumplings.”
Regular contributor Jim Hazard wrote about butcher shops in our August 2004 issue.