January 25, 2019

Current yet eternal


After more than a decade of weekend liturgies at a transit garage in Cleveland’s Tremont neighborhood, Ss. Peter and Paul Ukrainian Catholic Parish opened its doors to an actual church in 1910 to serve immigrants who had come for jobs in the industrial valley just down the street and in businesses which sprouted within walking distance:  stores, restaurants, bakeries, saloons, agencies sending money to relatives in the village back home.  

Over time, the immigrants became Americans and perforce engaged in civic affairs, serving in both world wars and lobbying for their country to welcome post-World War II refugees – a dynamic repeated in hundreds of communities, large and small.  The “Old Immigrants,” whose parents and grandparents built the churches and national homes, helped “DP” refugees find jobs and homes.  

Our own refugee family came to Cleveland in 1954, when our father got a job at a local factory and we joined Ss. Peter and Paul, dutifully attending Sunday liturgy, holy days of obligation, weddings, funerals, christenings and requiem services for fallen heroes.  

Imagine my shock a few years ago when I saw a sign:  “For Sale.”  Is this possible?  The mother church in Cleveland’s hottest real estate market?  With no discussion, no notice.  And then looking closely at the smaller print, I saw:  “Perogies, Friday from noon to 6:00.” 

Of course, perogies (or pyrohy, as we called them).  They financed construction of the church a hundred years ago and graced the table of Ukrainian families for more than a thousand.  How many billions of them have been made over the generations?  No one will ever know.  But what I do know is that in all those centuries no one made them better than my mother.  Others would disagree:  no one made them better than their mother!  Also true.  Every recipe has its subtle differences, and generations pass it down to the next in line.  

Preparing pyrohy (aka varenyky) is a demanding culinary craft, requiring just-so dough, potato, cabbage or other stuffing and then pinching the product into a delectable dumpling that has delighted palates for ages.  It’s a peasant delicacy worthy of a king and queen. 

My wife, Chrystia, and her sister Ruta learned to make perogies from their mother, who had learned it from her mother.  This past Christmas in Chicago, our daughter and son worked in assembly-line fashion with their cousins to crank out a couple of hundred for the dozen of us who met to celebrate the Solstice and the birth of Jesus.  

In Cleveland, volunteers at local churches and other institutions were also busy.  My friend Walter who helps run the Ukrainian American Youth Association (SUM) home told me they sold 1,600 dozen perogies just before new calendar Christmas.  For three days, 10 people prepared the dough and the potato and sauerkraut stuffing, donating hundreds of hours so the 48 volunteers who followed could pinch 18,600 perogies – an average of nearly 400 per person.  

CYM wasn’t the only one.  Volunteers at Ukrainian Catholic, Orthodox, Baptist, Pentacostal, etc. churches also prepared them for sale to homes around Northeast Ohio, bag after bag.  Many a church mortgage has been paid off thanks to that.  But it’s not only churches.  Rudy’s Strudel, a popular pastry shop in Parma, sells perogies, as does a stand at the historic West Side Market near downtown.  Even the mega grocery store Giant Eagle has a sign directing people to the aisle with Chinese, Mexican and Kosher food, and perogies – not as good as Mama’s but perogies nonetheless.

Pyrohy and I go way back.  I remember my mother scolding me when I was a little boy for eating raw dough and potato stuffing.  It’s been love ever since.  In the 1980s, I worked for the congresswoman from Cleveland, so I got to go home during district work periods and vacations.  Invariably driving back to D.C., I’d stop at St. Josaphat’s, Pokrova or St. Vladimir’s to pick up two dozen perogies for the freezer at my Capitol Hill apartment and then, every week or so following, enjoy half a dozen for dinner.

I’ve been home now for many years and go to Cleveland restaurants where many menus offer, guess what:  perogies?  Olesia’s Place, the Great Lakes Brewing Company, the Southside and many others – both upscale and neighborhood, more than I can list.  Like Mexican tacos, Chinese chop suey, Ethiopian, Vietnamese and Indian cuisine, perogies have entered the mainstream – at least in places like Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Chicago, Detroit, Toronto and New York.  And Brazil.  This past July, my wife and I went to Bar Baran, a Ukrainian social club/restaurant in Curitiba and enjoyed perogies, just like those in Cleveland, Kyiv or Lviv.  You can even buy them at the weekly market in Apucarana in Parana Province.  Our daughter who was teaching English and French there, sent photos of a fourth-generation Brazilian who doesn’t speak Ukrainian but sells perogies at her stand, adorned with blue and yellow flags. Is this a micro economic example of supply meeting demand, or is it the other way around?  

Christmas and Epiphany are past, and the peak season for perogies is over for the year, but demand remains.  They’re never out of season.  Now as we move into Lent and Easter another cultural tradition from time immemorial comes into play – writing and dying Easter eggs, or pysanky.  Like perogies, no one knows the origin of this art form.  We do it because our ancestors did, and we trust the next generation has already picked it up as well. And they do, with variations.  At the Ukrainian Museum-Archives Easter Bazaar in Cleveland we’ve sold intricate pysanky crafted with an electric stylus (kistka) retrofitted with a hypodermic needle to draw fine lines that elicit amazement.  Go figure.

Many of us, including me, complained that Ukrainians were defined by “trivial” matters like dances, embroidery, perogies and pysanky while literature, fine art and historical glories and tragedies were either ignored or subsumed into another culture:  “The Ukraine?  That’s part of Russia, isn’t it?” Emphatically no!  With independence and three revolutions in the last 25 years, that perception has changed.  Ukraine as a geopolitical pivot is debated in parliaments and foreign ministries around the world and that’s good.  What’s basic and eternal is culture, age-old traditions and the products which ensue.  Savor your varenyky and enjoy your pysanky.  And support Ukraine in its current trials.