By Lindsay Sterling
The last time I attempted to make Polish dumplings was a disaster. I was at our family’s Christmas Eve party. Thirty people were dipping pretzels into honey mustard, shrimp into cocktail sauce, and getting drinks from the bar. My mom was running the kitchen. The white fish was in baking dishes ready to be put in the oven. The ends of the beans were picked; the sauerkraut was bubbling. For the last seventy years my grandma had shown up to a party on Christmas Eve with pierogis, but that year dementia had set in and she was too frail cook. My mother handed me a recipe that my grandmother had dictated. “Can you make them?” I followed the recipe and ended up, horrified, with a soup of a raw egg and flour. I slipped out the back door, found some wonton wrappers at the store, sealed some cheese inside, and boiled them. At least they looked like pierogis. They weren’t bad. They served a function. Their presence softened the blow that Grandma was leaving us. But then two winters ago, Grandma left us for good.
At a farmer’s market this fall, I was in line to get some cheese when I heard another customer talking in an accent. I introduced myself. I said I’m a writer who asks immigrants for cooking lessons and reports on what happens. Her name was Izabela Lutostanska. She’d come to the United States in the early nineties on a whim, traveling with a Polish boyfriend. The boyfriend didn’t work out, but the United States did. She fell in love in particular with the clarity of American medical textbooks and continued her medical training here. She became a doctor, married an American pharmacist, and had a family. I asked her if she’d teach me how to cook a Polish dish. “Sure I would,” she said, “What would you like to learn?”
In her kitchen a couple weeks later, Izabela, her 85-year-old mother, Jadwiga, and teenage daughter, Ania, showed me how they make pierogis. Izabela mixed warm milk, egg, and flour together with her hands until it came together in a wet, rough mass. She transferred it from the bowl to the floured counter. Jadwiga took over and kneaded the dough for fifteen minutes until it became as smooth and as soft as a baby’s bottom. Then each of them grabbed a chunk, rolled it into a snake shape, chopped it into little nuggets, and used a rolling pin to turn the nuggets into discs. Each disc received a teaspoon of filling before being folded and pinched into a pretty half-moon shape with a decorated edge. Izabela boiled some for us to eat for lunch and froze the rest for another day. Their pierogis were beautiful: slippery, wobbly, with that slightly awkward charm of handmade things. The potato-onion filling was my favorite. The sweet cheese version tasted like the ones my grandma made for Christmas.
At home, I tested the recipe I’d written at Izabela’s house. Staring at my fingers clodded with wet dough, it seemed far-fetched that I would be able to transform the messy blob into a hundred pretty half moons. My heart soared when I did it.