St. John's men prep for Rusyn food festival in Ambridge

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On Monday evening the Halushky Stirrer Society, or HSS -- a group of men mostly in their 40s and 50s -- gathered to prepare 500 servings of potato dumpling halushky.

In their kitchen -- made swampy by a few massive commercial pots -- they extruded a batter of water, eggs, flour, and potato into gnocchi-like, teaspoon-sized dumplings.

St. John???s men prep for Rusyn Food Festival

St. John's Orthodox Church in Ambridge is holding a Rusyn Food Festival Aug. 2-4. The men of the parish have a tradition of preparing halushky for festivagoers. (Video by Brian Batko; 8/2/2012)

Under hats and bandanas worn to contain errant hair and sweat, and behind aprons, they slid batches of dumplings into the pots, stirring occasionally to prevent sticking. When necessary, they transferred half-boiled dumplings from starchy, soup water to a cleaner pot.

When one of the men thought his batch was done, another confirmed it. They strained the dumplings through a colander and rinsed them with cold water. Excess starch makes the dumplings gummy.

For more than three hours, they extruded and boiled and strained and rinsed and enjoyed each other's company.

If you go

Rusyn Food Festival

When: 11 a.m. to 8 p.m., Aug. 2, 3 and 4

Where: St. John the Baptist Orthodox Church Parish Center, 5th Street, Ambridge

Information: 724-266-2879 or 412-749-0675

But they're far from professional cooks. Rich is a finance professional, and Earl works in public works. Tim is a project manager for an industrial kiln design and development firm. Todd is an architect and part-time musician who currently is into country rock.

All are members of St. John the Baptist Orthodox Church in Ambridge, and they've been together for 10 years, making halushky for the annual Rusyn Food Festival.

You can try their specialty at the 19th annual free fest, which runs today through Saturday, Aug. 4.

"It's an opportunity for the guys of the church to get together," said HSS member John Kirish. He is a customer supply chain manager for Pittsburgh's most famous condiment company.

"We book it six weeks in advance. That way we can make sure everyone's schedules are clear."

And they're not alone.

"There's a group that gets together and makes the stuffed cabbage; a crew that gets together and makes the pirohy," said John Righetti, president of the congregation at St. John and general chairman of the festival. "It takes several months to pull this off."

No surprise considering almost 150,000 handmade pirohy are available for sale.

Mr. Righetti started the Rusyn Food Festival almost two decades ago as both a fundraiser for the parish and a means of educating Western Pennsylvania about Carpatho-Rusyn culture.

"Even though we're so numerous here, very few Pittsburghers know about us and know much about our culture," he said.

Western Pennsylvania contains the largest Carpatho-Rusyn population in the United States, and much of the population in Europe now spans the borders of Poland, Ukraine and Slovakia. But under the Soviet Union, Rusyns were not recognized as a distinct ethnic group, Mr. Righetti said.

"It's only been with the fall of communism in 1989 that the Carpatho-Rusyn community in the United States has gotten itself solidified, as happened to our brothers and sisters in Europe."


Another dish on the festival's menu: pagach, a Rusyn pizza or stuffed flatbread containing potato and cheese or sweet cabbage. Soups include a Rusyn-style borscht -- distinct from Russian, Ukrainian and Polish borsches -- and a mushroom, bean and bacon soup. A carrot and apple, sweet and sour Rusyn summer salad also will be sold, in addition to a Carpathian slaw with cabbage and carrots and parsley.

Prices are modest -- halushky is $1.75 -- so you can try a full plate of dishes for less than $10, Mr. Righetti said.

Many of these dishes are mainstays of the festival and have been refined over the years. But new dishes are incorporated on occasion.

"I brought a recipe back from the Rusyn territory in Poland -- a sauerkraut soup with meat-filled pirohy," he said. "I'm playing around with it. Maybe we'll try that one next year."

Many baked goods are available for purchase, including Rusyn apricot tortes, paska bread, nut horns, and classic nut, apricot and poppyseed rolls. Groups like the HSS prepared some items; individuals baked others. Mr. Righetti has made palachinky, Rusyn cheese and fruit-filled crepes, and cheregi, Rusyn donuts.

This year's food festival features a display of intimate photographs of everyday Rusyn life in the Subcarpathia region, taken over 15 years -- from 1991 to 2006 -- by Prague-based photographer Dana Kyndrova.

"The purpose of it is to show how changeless life is there," said Mr. Righetti. "When you look at those pictures, you're gonna say, 'These pictures were taken 150 years, not 10 years, ago.' "

Also on display: Rusyn folk costumes and hand-carved wooden items. Parishioners will demonstrate the traditional arts of pysanky (Rusyn Easter egg decoration), lace-making, and spinning thread.

And on Saturday at 3 p.m., the Slavjane Rusyn Folk Ensemble, a group of performers ages 6 to 18, will demonstrate Carpatho-Rusyn songs and dances.

The festival includes a booth selling Rusyn carvings and embroideries. Patrons can buy "Carpatho-Rusyn and Proud" T-shirts as well as eastern Christian icons and literature.

"So if you come here, you get to eat all kinds of traditional Rusyn foods, you get all kinds of Rusyn baked goods, you can shop for Rusyn imported items, you can watch Rusyn dancing and hear singing, you can watch Rusyn arts, you can see what Rusyn life is like," said Mr. Righetti. "It's like going to Europe, but it's safe to drink the water."


Freelancer Davneet Minhas: First Published August 2, 2012 4:00 AM


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