Archivy etc.

opinions, occasional rants, and sometimes things that have nothing to do with archives at all. Nothing here should be assumed to be reflective of my employer's opinion(s) nor should it be assumed that at anytime afterward, this is what I still think.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Carbo-loading in the melting pot

As long as I can remember, my family has a tradition of breakfast for dinner. And one of those standard breakfasts-disguised-as-dinner meals was something we all called pirogen. Essentially a thick crepe, Mom generally made them about 8-10" across. She and Dad would have them slathered with sweetened cottage cheese and rolled up, us kids would have them spread with jam and rolled up.

For a long time, it was just one of those things. As an adult, I periodically pull out the recipe and make them when I'm in the mood. But it wasn't til recently that I started pondering this dietary semi-staple.

My folks both grew up speaking German and our family is German quite a ways back. Didn't always live in Germany, but German-speakers anyhow. But we kids didn't learn the language so much. Sure we'd take the occasional school class, but mostly got just about enough to ask the way to the bus stop. As a kid, I just assumed pirogen was one of those weird German words that I just hadn't heard in any other context. My dad had a few of those, so I was accustomed to that concept.

When I was in my teens, our family moved to Winnipeg. And for the first time in my life I was exposed to--or perhaps just became aware of--a lot of other European cultures. Serbs, Croats, Ukrainians, Poles, etc. And somewhere along the way I was introduced to pierogies. Nom, nom, nom. Still a personal favorite though I do miss the homemade ones I used to get there. On some level I was aware of the similarity in the words, but I never really processed it.

Until recently. I've had a friend staying with me as she commutes long distance between her home in Utah and her job in Alaska. And one night not too long ago I was in pirogen mode. And made them for her and she loved them and she asked the origin of the name.

Stumped, I was. I knew enough by now to know it wasn't German, but none of the cultures I'd come across that used the word pierogi (or variants) had anything like this for the product. I knew the recipe had come from Mom's side of the family and got to wondering: was it just that somebody in the family had gotten really lazy about making pierogies that they didn't even bother to seal them off and boil them, but just fried the dough like pancakes? Grandma did all the cooking even though from all reports she wasn't the supremely gifted cook that some of her daughters became, but she was from far western Germany, so that didn't seem like something that would have come from her side, given the linguistic connect of the name to eastern Europe. Grandpa had come from eastern Europe--what is now Poland but he was from a family/group of German speaking residents in what had technically been the border areas of Russia at the beginning of World War 1 (Poland after). But it's not like he cooked, he'd lost much of his family when he was a teen during World War 1, and he emigrated in the early 20s to the US, so he probably carried very little in the way of cultural heritage with him. And even if the linguistic connect was there, the food product didn't bear any resemblance. So where did this family tradition come from?

I pondered this semi-publicly on Facebook. And one of my cousins came to the rescue. Apparently she'd asked her mom about it. And my aunt's story was that Grandpa had remembered pierogies fondly from his very young years with Polish neighbors, tried to describe them to Grandma, who set about trying to invent the recipe from scratch based on what I'm sure was by then a pretty vague memory of the actual food. I don't know if she got this far and said "that's it, no more experiments" or Grandpa got tired of eating all the variants and finally said "that's good" or if he honestly thought this was close to his memory. That piece of the story, at least, I've not heard.

So much for my childhood assumption that this was some sort of traditional German food and that when I was making it, I was carrying on a long cultural tradition. At least it wasn't the other option: that we'd just managed to come up with really lazy cooks who couldn't be bothered to make pierogies correctly. Want to add to the strangeness? When I want them but am too lazy to make them, I hit IHOP and order their Swedish pancakes which are pretty close in texture and flavor.

I'm okay with the knowledge that this piece of my cultural heritage isn't so authentic. Especially now that my friend has fallen in love with pirogen. It seems strangely appropriate that my family's faux German/Polish recipe should be adopted by an Anglo/Slovak who I know will be carrying on the tradition of the recipe, since her husband, a Mexican/American, loves them too. If you'd like to try them, here's the recipe.  It's a half-recipe, since the batter amount Mom used to make for 2 adults and three growing children could feed me for better than a week. The batter will keep in the refrigerator for a day or so. If it separates, just stir it back together.

Heat oil in a frypan to medium high. Mix:
3 c flour
4 eggs
Milk--enough to make a thin batter

The batter should be thin enough that it spreads out to about 1/8" thick when it hits the hot pan. Make them about 8-10 inches in diameter. Cook til the bottom is browned and the top no longer has wet batter on it. Flip and cook the other side. If you have a larger crowd, go ahead and layer the cooked pirogen between paper towels and keep on a plate in a warm oven. If you want to try the cheese variant, sweeten small-curd cottage cheese to taste, spread on the pirogen, roll up, and place in warm oven until cheese is heated through. For those of you who, like me, can't bear the thought of the cottage cheese variant, just spread the pirogen with your favorite jam, roll up, and eat. (Using a knife and fork. These are just a little too big and flimsy to try and eat with your hands. Not to mention they should be served at a temp that would be a bit hot for your fingertips.)