Learning to cook Polish in Pittsburgh

As a fourth-generation American descendent of Scots-Irish and German forebears who did not pass down a single tradition from their European motherlands, I’ve long harbored a bit of jealousy toward friends whose families were more ethnically inclined. Poles, Italians, Slovaks all had their Kennywood days and better food at their cookouts, better music at their weddings and even did the seemingly impossible by making church attendance sound occasionally interesting.

So it was with that same mix of envy and interest that I approached the Polish Heritage Cooking Workshop class sponsored by the Polish Falcons and held Saturday, June 7, at their Sokol Club hall on the South Side. The workshop was conducted not by babcias in babushkas but rather by a gentleman who looked like Rob Reiner in a chef’s toque: Larry Kozlowski, a retired college professor from the North Side who is the national organization’s cultural commissioner.

“It’s a connection to where we came from,” he said of heritage cooking, noting that with each passing generation, traditions fade or become diluted, underscoring the need for the class. “Once we’re gone from here, those are the ways we live on. That’s our legacy.”

Previous workshops have been conducted in Buffalo, Cleveland and Pittsfield, Mass., but he said that Pittsburgh had the largest turnout, where roughly 70 attendees – tweens to near nonogenarians -- participated, some decked out in red and white “Proud to be Polish” and “You Wanna Pinch My Pierogie?” T-shirts. Placki (potato pancakes), Polish potato soup, apple compote, ruskie (or ‘Ruthenian’ – potato and cheese) and leniwe (or “lazy-man”) pierogies and fried dough chrusciki were all on the day’s syllabus and menu.

“I learned all this growing up and at the time, I hated it. I’d rather have been out playing baseball,” Mr. Kozlowski joked. Clearly it made an impression, as he’s written seven books on Polish and Slovak culture. He intends to lead future workshops on Polish crafts, and on Christmas and Easter traditions.

He discussed the history of the pierogie and offered these tidbits about Pittsburgh’s favorite dumpling: its Italian cousin is ravioli, the concept is believed to have come to Eastern Europe from Asia along spice trading routes and the pierogie has its own patron saint, Saint Hyacinth, whose name along with the dumpling is invoked in a Polish exclamation of disbelief – Swięty Jacek z pierogami! or “Holy Hyacinth, Pierogies!”

Once the component parts – the dough and fillings – are made, constructing a pierogie is a fairly straightforward process: Roll and knead the dough; cut it into circles; add a dollop of filling; fold and pinch the dough over it. Despite my dubious ethnic heritage, I can now say that I’ve made a pierogie – a Pittsburgh bucket-list item if ever there was one.

Irena Gorski, 22, from North Brunswick, N.J., can say the same. Ms. Gorski, who is in Pittsburgh for the summer on an internship along with her friend Troy Steiner, 23, of State College (and who claims a 1/16th Polish background), learned about the class from her father who is “super into all things Polish,” but she said she hadn’t really explored her heritage like this before. “My grandparents were of the mindset that once they were in America, they spoke English only and became Americans.”

She was guided on the finer points of making chrusciki by 88-year-old Betty Kolano of Forest Hills, who brought her granddaughters to the workshop. A Golden Legion of Honor member of the Falcons for her eight decades of service to the organization, Mrs. Kolano praised the purpose of the workshop and her young understudies: “They’re fast learners.”

Despite annually churning out 80 (!) dozen pierogies for friends and family during the holidays, seven members of the extended Bubacz clan from Overbrook, including four sisters and a niece wearing embroidered “Pierogie Crew” aprons, were there to brush up on and glean new techniques for their pierogie process.

“We’re always interested in seeing how other people do it,” Carol Bubacz said, adding that learning how to make chrusciki was new to them.

At the workshop’s end, participants feasted on the bounty they had created, and despite the wonderful smells and tastes, Mr. Kozlowski said the making and the sharing of the food is as important as the food itself.

“It’s a feast for the palate, but also for the mind. All the people you remember, they might be long gone, but they live again when you make these dishes,” he said. His eyes welled up. “It’s that special feeling you have for something special in your heart.”

Dan Gigler: dgigler@post-gazette.com and on Twitter @gigs412.


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