The smell of boiling potatoes is one of comfort, hard to describe. Mix those mashed potatoes with sour cream, shredded cheese, and sauerkraut, and the smell makes your mouth water. I mix flour and water and salt and egg and more sour cream into a dough. Though I’m descended from Poles, this isn’t a treasured recipe passed down mother to daughter. I found it on The Kitchn.
With this first batch of pierogi, I’m performing my Polish heritage, a heritage I cling to somewhat without reason. My grandmother–I called her Cici–was the daughter of Polish immigrants. Her mother, Francesca, came to America when she was only 16, reluctant to leave her whole world behind. She never spoke of the experience. She never really learned English. I don’t know how many Polish dishes she ever cooked, if any, how much she taught her own children. Sixteen is young and not-young.
“Mom, was Cici a good cook?” I’m on Skype with my parents. My grandmother has been gone since 2002, but as I grow older I realize the gaps in my knowledge about this woman.
Both my mom and my dad burst out laughing. “Cici did not like to cook.”
“She made a pretty good lasagna,” my dad offers, always ready to find the good in things.
“Sure, she learned from her Italian friends at the doll factory,” my mom says.
I tell them about the pierogi I’m making. At this point in my life, they’re used to my interest in my Polish heritage. Cici always told me to come here, give me a kiss in Polish. In elementary school, year after year, I checked out the same book on Poland from our little library. I learned about the salt mines with their bas-relief carvings and about John Paul II and about the Carpathian Mountains. I was too shy to ask Cici how much she knew about her parents’ country.
And maybe it’s this enduring mystery that keeps me so captivated by my Polish heritage. Francesca wouldn’t talk about leaving home. My mom doesn’t know much. Both of us look for some kind of meaning, of belonging in this obscured identity.
Cici didn’t like to cook. I don’t remember ever seeing her turn on her stove or pull a tray of cookies from her oven. The closest thing I have to that is when she’d heat up a Kid’s Cuisine dinner for me. I’m not upset about this. I never was. For her generation, her professed aversion to cooking really stands out. (In a way, it’s kind of feminist, and I can totally get behind that.)
I freeze the pierogi once I’ve finished pinching each dough circle around a ball of filling, filling I’ve been sneaking tastes of throughout the process. The dumplings sit on their trays in the freezer. I wonder again if Francesca ever made pierogi, at least once. Maybe as a way to remember the country she left behind, a way to share a little bit of her past with her children. Maybe that would have been too hard for her. Maybe any dish from her childhood would’ve been too fraught. A preparation of a beloved dish always connects us so immediately to the first time we ate it.
Next week, I’ll boil the pierogi, then add them to a skillet with butter and onions. This is how my mom always prepares Mrs. T’s pierogi, the ones that come from the freezer case. The dumplings will sizzle and brown, grow crisp on the edges. They’ll glisten with butter, and the onions will drape themselves over the pillows of hot potatoes and cabbage. I’ll plunge my fork in, eat the thing in one bite. The best way to eat pierogi.