I remember the first time I tasted a Pierogi. It was 1967 and I was about seven years old. One Saturday afternoon I followed my neighbor and friend, Marilyn, into her kitchen on the way to her backyard to play. I came upon a scene I’d never encountered before. Massive pots of boiling water burbled on the stove, while her mom, who was dusted in flour, was mixing what looked like vats of dough. Marilyn’s father, equally as smudged with flour, was rolling out large circles of the dough on their flour-dusted Formica kitchen table. We had played at their house nearly every day, yet I had never seen her dad actually working in the kitchen before. I sensed something special was going on.
That meant nothing to me. “You ever had a pierogi?” asked her father. Me, being mostly Irish and part German, said “no.” I thought whatever it was, with a name like “pierogi,” it must taste terrible.
“They’re making potato-cheese and prune ones now,” said Marilyn. “They’ve already made 400. Give her a potato; they’re my favorite.”
Four hundred? Who makes 400 of anything? I thought as her father scooped up two little moon-shaped pillows from another pot and put them on a saucer and drizzled some butter and fried onions over them. He set them before me with a fork. I speared one and took a bite.
Now, I love many different foods. I love chocolate and lasagna and pizza, but I can’t remember precisely the first time I tasted any of them. These pierogis were so delicious that nearly 50 years later, I can still remember vividly the day I had my first one.
A Culinary Link to Pittsburgh’s Immigrant Past
Pittsburgh was introduced to the pierogi by the immigrants who came to the area seeking work and a better life. Many Central and Eastern European nationalities enjoy pierogies. These filled dumplings are considered the national dish of Poland and are popular in other Slavic countries like Ukraine, Slovakia, Lithuania, and Russia. Sometimes they are known as pirohy or pirogi, and it is believed that the word derives from the Slavic word for “pie.” Essentially, pierogies are made from an unleavened dough similar to noodle dough, which is rolled out. Small circles are cut from the dough and stuffed with a variety of fillings. The dough is then folded in half over the filling and the ends pinched together to seal them. Then they are boiled in water until they float.
Pierogies can have either savory or sweet fillings. Some savory fillings are potato, cheese, and sauerkraut, while sweet fillings vary from prune to apricot. Savory pierogies are often served with melted butter and fried onions or bacon. They can be served as an appetizer, side dish, or entrée. Add some dessert pierogies accompanied by sour cream and sugar, and you could make an entire meal from them.
Pierogies Increase in Popularity
Once considered “peasant food,” pierogies have become more popular during the last few decades. For many years, the only way to come by a pierogi was to know someone who took the trouble to make homemade ones or to pick some up at a church festival. However, Mrs. T’s, a pierogi mass production company based in Shenandoah, Pennsylvania, began to offer their products in supermarkets. Founded by Ted Twardzik and using his mother’s pierogi recipe, he has made them more accessible to consumers. The company makes more than 13 million pierogies a week and has introduced some non-traditional fillings like spinach and feta, as well as jalapeno and cheddar.
In Search of the Homemade Style Pierogi
While supermarket pierogies are good, nothing beats a handcrafted pierogi. In 1991, Pierogies Plus opened in a converted gas station in McKees Rocks and began to make and sell pierogies like your grandma used to make. Since then the business has grown to supply restaurants and markets in the area with their authentic pierogies. They will even ship them.
Pittsburgh is Synonymous with Pierogies
Pierogies are a favorite at tailgate parties, and the Pittsburgh Pierogi Truck brings the dumplings to you. In Pittsburgh our love for pierogies is so ardent that during each Pirates game, The Great Pierogi Race, featuring pierogi mascots racing around the field, takes place to the cheers of the crowd.
For the past two years, the Pittsburgh Pierogi Festival has been held in September at Stage AE. There you can taste the pierogies from the various vendors who have blossomed over the years.
October 8 is also National Pierogi Day, and in 2014, Rivers Casino chefs set the Guinness record for the largest pierogi by creating a 123-pound version. If you would like to learn how to make your own pierogies, S&D Polish Deli in the Strip District offers Pierogi making classes.
No matter their filling, pierogies are a bit of Pittsburgh culinary paradise.