Pallid disks of pizza sweated under heat lamps, a log of brisket desiccated on a wooden plank, and limp chunks of zucchini drowned in canola oil. As I surveyed my dining hall’s lackluster dinner options, a craving for the soft, salty dough pouches of my youth rolled over me.
I could almost taste them—lightly crisped from a quick saute in butter, garnished with caramelized onions, sprinkled with salt and pepper. Nothing sounded more appealing than a plate piled with mushroom and sauerkraut pierogi.
Not just any old freezer-case pierogi, though. I needed the real deal: babcia-crafted pierogi.
However, one babcia lived in Poland, and the other was a snowbird who’d migrated to Peoria, Arizona. My mother, who furnished us with pierogi from Andy’s Deli—or, in a pinch, Jewel—wouldn’t be of much help.
I turned to my second home and third parent, the Internet, which spat out homespun pierogi lore and hundreds of “best” recipes. In my quest for authenticity, I scorned the .com domains in favor of .pl, turning to Google Translate in instances of linguistic duress.
Recipe in hand, to the kitchen I swooped. Things began to go awry as I smashed together the dough ingredients; unlike every smooth, beautifully shaped ball of dough I had seen online, mine was lumpy, gray, and veiny. My refrigerator’s crisping drawer further dented my plans. Devoid of mushrooms and onions, it offered me a measly jalapeño, lurking among grapes.
Undeterred, I pivoted my approach and grabbed a bag of sauerkraut, expecting an essentially ready-made pierogi filling. To my surprise, it contained long, tough shreds of pickled cabbage—not exactly the cohesive, tasty mash I sought.
As the cabbage strands fizzled in a frying pan, softening, I searched through my spice shelf for the appropriate seasonings. My collection of herbs and spices lent themselves more to Indian or Mexican recipes than Polish ones. Recalling the jalapeño, a flash of inspiration struck me.
Cumin, paprika, cayenne pepper, and oregano flew off the shelf as I sprinkled the spices into the sizzling kraut. Chopped jalapeño soon joined them. As I sampled the still-fibrous mix, I realized my pride at inventing a Mexican-Polish fusion was premature—the sourness of the cabbage was deeply at odds with the hot earthiness of the spices, and the odd texture had not been softened by the saute.
I dropped handfuls of shredded cheese into the mix, expecting immediate salvation. Surely, the cheese would melt the threads of cabbage into the cohesive and gooey filling I sought. Orange streaks emerged, as did strange, piquant notes. And the mix was still brashly sour. Perhaps the dough would act as a foil to the filling.
The dough fought me as I tried to subdue it into a rectangle. I settled for an uneven square. After I dolloped filling into uneven rounds of dough and pinched them closed, I dropped them, in small batches, into a pot.
Cheese oozed out of ill-sealed corners and as the boiling water jostled pierogi against pierogi. Cabbage burst from the uneven walls of multiple dumplings. I cursed my recipe.
Collective e-wisdom had failed me. But as I peered into the bizarre mixture stewing on my stove, I realized I was chasing something bigger than a sensory experience.
The perfect pierogi wasn’t my quarry; my pursuit of the quintessential Polish comfort food masked my longing for the comfort of home. Pierogi represented sick days from my childhood—lying in my parent’s bed, my attentive mother refilling my glass of cold Sprite, my spirits uplifted by Eagle Insurance commercials. They stood for watching my grandparents get ready for church on Sunday mornings, my grandpa shaving with an antiquated silver razor and my grandma coordinating her silk blouses with gaudy clip-on earrings as Polish AM radio buzzed in the background. They channeled a time, before e-mail, when I eagerly awaited letters from my Polish cousin, written on curiously sized notepaper and accented with a Par Avion sticker.
After this realization, the boiling slop on my stove seemed less disappointing. To satisfy my craving, I decided to follow my mom’s technique. I called her as I walked home from the grocery store. “Hi, Anetka,” she answered the phone.
Although I was 1,800 miles away from her, being addressed by the diminutive of my name, the form that only my family calls me, left me with a profound sense of being home and a deep appreciation for my family—despite being a pierogi gene short.