The food is more than what’s on the plate. This is Equal portionsa series from editor Shane Mitchell, investigating bigger issues and activism in the world of food, and how a few good eggs help make it better for everyone.
“We missed out,” says Father Mike. “People showed up and said, ‘I wanted pierogies, but here’s a hundred bucks. “” Some customers then placed larger orders for the following Friday instead.
The Very Reverend Michael Bundz of St. Volodymyr the Great Ukrainian Catholic Church in Utica, New York, wears a white apron over his jeans while measuring flour in a commercial floor mixer. The cellar in the basement of his parish school auditorium, where he bakes batches of dough, is a temporary sanctuary from the bustling business one flight higher, where dozens of volunteers help respond to the Recently increased demand for boiled dumplings on a weekday. “We still make some, but not on this scale,” he says, opening another 5-pound bag of all-purpose flour. “You have to laugh about it. We will pass.
In the steam-filled kitchen, a group of men push their pastor’s dough through a large rolling pin, then cut out rounds by hand and scoop out toppings with melon ballers. Prepared trays are moved to a serving window until Gloria Jakubowski, 80, can rush them to folding tables covered in patterned vinyl fabric, where rows of church ladies wearing hairnets and plastic gloves bend and pinch each pierogi closed while debating who makes the best kielbasa in town. A plaster saint and a metal cross next to the stained glass windows have been pushed aside to make way for trays waiting to be sent back to the kitchen, where a cook will boil dumplings in huge pots.
Typically, four to six volunteers show up to prepare weekly orders, but when war broke out in Ukraine, parishioners huddled together. “Everyone here has family there,” says Father Mike, who immigrated to the United States in 1990 and arrived in Utica four years later. “Yesterday we sent another $1,000 because people are starving on the Polish-Ukrainian border. They have nothing. When you walk to the border, what do you want to take with you, you know, two sandwiches? »
The Mohawk Valley in upstate New York has a large Slavic community: Polish, Ukrainian, Russian, Belarusian, Bosnian. (Refugee families currently make up 25% of Utica’s population alone.) A monastery founded in 1930 has become one of the main spiritual centers of Russian Orthodoxy outside of Europe. The Bosnian Islamic Association is two blocks from St. Volodymyr. Polish grocery stores sell lamb in butter, as well as pisanki, or painted wooden eggs, for Easter. Everyone eats pierogies.
“Ukrainians call them varenyky,” says volunteer John Kosar, pushing a cart of cooked dumplings into the auditorium for packaging. “As far back as I can remember, there has always been pierogi making in our church. It’s seasoned well – years and years and years of practice to put this together. Sales helped build the auditorium.
The root of the word varenyky means “to boil”. Ukrainians consider these dumplings a symbol of national identity. Olia Hercules, author of Mamushka and Summer kitchens, refers to varenyky and similar Eastern European dumplings as his ultimate source of solace. His recipes include a wide range of seasonal toppings, such as sauerkraut and porcini mushrooms, pork belly, sturgeon, carp, pumpkin and apple, and sweeter versions with sour cherries and apricots. Born in southern Ukraine, Hercules recently co-founded the Cook for Ukraine campaign, which promotes awareness of his country’s cuisine and raises funds for UNICEF in areas affected by the invasion. It has inspired other culinary initiatives large and small, including the latest Bakers Against Racism participatory bake sale.
Towards the early evening, the pace in St. Volodymyr picks up as more and more volunteers arrive after work. They pile their coats on chairs, tie their aprons and sip coffee and bottled water. Laughter bounces off the vaulted ceiling; more toppings emerge from the kitchen. Cheese is one of the most popular, and Father Mike’s signature blend combines farmhouse cheese, cream cheese, and sharp cheddar. The church also sells potato and kapusta (sauerkraut) versions.
“In Ukraine, the tradition is to eat on Sunday,” explains Father Mike. “Because working ladies have more time to pinch them on weekends. And usually they are cooked with butter and onions together.
Another of the volunteers, Josephine Ambrose, sits with friends, all quickly pinching pierogies, and shows them her mother’s technique for crimping tiny, sleek packets with scalloped edges. “Every time I pinch, I say a prayer. Pinch, pinch, pinch. Each for a lifetime,” she says.
By the end of the night, they had prepared 12,000 pierogies.
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