My Grandmother lived in Toronto, but whenever she came to Winnipeg to visit, she’d
spend at least one full day cooking and baking my dad’s favourite foods. Perogies and
holupchi and borscht and those buns with the mashed up prune and apricot centres that he
loved so much. Our house would smell like Christmas for a week afterwards.
Christmas, because that is what Grandma’s house smelled like when we went to spend
the holidays with her in Ontario. Warm, inviting and full of promise: a promise of a huge
spread of Grandma’s best cooking, served on real china plates and fine wine glasses filled
with grape juice. Grampa would help me to cut my meat. He had caring, tender hands that
I never appreciated at the time, for I thought I was too old to need help.
I was twelve when she first allowed me to help pinch the Perogies. I tried hard, not just
because my Grandma wanted me to learn this skill , but because I sincerely liked to cook. I
had scrambled my first egg when I was six, and quickly moved on to more complicated
recipes. Using my ‘Carnation Milk Cooking for Kids’ cookbook, I conjured up such treats as
Hungarian Goulash (macaroni and cheese with ground beef and sour cream) and orange
sherbet, made in an ice cube tray in the freezer...
I remember the best batch of fudge I ever made was during Expo ‘67. I had just turned
seven years old. My parents were playing cards with the Thompsens - the family we were
staying with while attending the fair. They had let me play a few hands of poker with them,
but when they said that they wanted to play for real, without me, I got upset. I can’t
guarantee that it wasn’t a tantrum that I threw, but, whatever you want to call it, my mom
knew how to appease me... she sent me to the kitchen to cook. Mrs. Thompsen didn’t have
a kid’s cookbook, but I was able to find a simple recipe from her collection. It turned out
sweet and rich and smooth. I was proud of myself.
That day in the kitchen with Grandma when I was twelve was something new, however.
There were no recipes, no measuring spoons or cups. Just a thousand years of tradition
being passed down.
My weak fingers didn’t do a very good job pinching the dough, and she tried her best to
be patient with me.
“Don’t just press the sides together. You have to squeeze them. Like this.” She
enveloped my fingers and squeezed hard - it hurt. “And be careful, don’t get potato on the
edges. It won’t stick together.”
Despite my Grandmother’s instructions and demonstrations, many of my Perogies fell
apart when dropped into the boiling water. She didn’t get frustrated or discouraged by my
lack of ability that day, and neither did I. She just told me that the skill would come in time.
I never doubted her.
Even after Grandma returned home, I practised my Perogy making skills. Pinching the
dough would be my biggest challenge, but there were others. My young arms and hands
held trouble at every turn: The potatoes took a very long time to peel, and the pungent
onions were very tough on my tender little eyes. There were always bits of onion skin and
the occasional potato eye left over to mar the colour and texture of the filling. I had yet to
become a perfectionist.
The creation of the dough was a formidable task in itself. Grandma never used a
recipe, she just trained me to be aware of the density and the texture of the dough - not too
sticky, not too dry. I found that I could get the balance of ingredients right, but then I had to
knead it. It took a long time, because I’d have to stop often to rest my arms. I have to admit
that occasionally I’d slip off my shoes and socks and use my toes to knead the dough. I’m
pretty sure I washed my feet first.
Then came rolling it out to just the right thickness, and cutting it up. Grandma simply cut
the flattened dough into squares, but I wasn’t very good at judging the size. I used an empty
can as a cookie cutter. It meant I’d have to roll out the excess dough again, but I was
learning that you had to make choices in life. I chose to have uniform sized Perogies. They
still fell apart, but with diminishing frequency.
It took most of a Saturday afternoon just to make two or three dozen Perogies, and that
wasn’t including the clean up, which, I suppose, was left for my poor mother to attend to.
And even though we ate the results of my day’s labour in fifteen minutes or less, I enjoyed
the attention I got for my efforts. My mom was proud of me. My dad said he liked them, but
I’m sure that he still preferred his mom’s.
The first time that I got an outside opinion of my culinary skills came less than a year
later when, for my 13th birthday, I was given a week’s stay at a ranch in Dallas, Manitoba.
There were eight or nine kids there, including my little brother, Greg. We had a blast, riding
and grooming the horses, herding the sheep. Avoiding the goat, ‘Bone Crusher’. There
was a small above ground swimming pool, but the lake was so low that year the pump
wasn’t able to reach the water in the well. The pool stayed disappointingly dry that week.
There was very little structure to our activities. We’d make our own games, had our own fun.
One sunny afternoon was spent shooting pennies off the wooden fence with a .22 rifle.
Bob, the ranch owner, had taken us to the local store earlier in the day where we were
allowed to buy anything we could wanted and could afford: Candy, chips, soft drinks, boxes
of bullets. We set up cans along the fence in the yard, but soon found those to be too easy
to hit. So we inserted some pennies into the cracks along the log fence. Heidi, Bob’s
daughter, was the best shot by far. She could hit those pennies from as far away as twenty
five feet. Of course, she was the only one with any shooting experience. When they got
bored with the cans and pennies, most of the kids took off to the creek where they wanted to
shoot frogs. Neither I nor my brother wanted anything to do with shooting live creatures.
We went back to the ranch. Greg went to play in the ‘Clubhouse’ - an old storage shed that
we had cleaned up and decorated. I went to the kitchen.
The rancher’s wife allowed me to use her kitchen when I told her of my newly acquired
skill. She gave me an apron and showed me where the flour and potatoes were kept. She
also had to show me how to operate the stove - it ran on gas. I quickly discovered that gas
stoves had a different kind of heat, more primal and intense. It was a little bit frightening,
but somehow it made me feel more mature. More ready to be trusted.
I had to make a larger batch of perogies than usual, for there were 12 people to be fed
instead of the usual five. Heidi came in and helped me peel potatoes. She had never heard
of perogies before, and was curious. She was older than me, and I was a little surprised at
her ignorance. I thought everybody ate perogies.
I made the dough while she prepared the potatoes and chopped the onions. I decided it
wouldn’t be polite to use my feet to knead it, so I did the best I could with just my hands. We
rolled out the dough together and cut out the circles with cans. I tried to teach her to
squeeze the dough, not just press the sides together, but a lot of her perogies fell apart, just
like mine had in the beginning. At some point, Bob came into the kitchen and startled me. I
dropped the ball of dough I was working on. Years later when I ran into him on a bus in the
city he claimed that I picked up the dough, dusted it off, shrugged my shoulders and said,
“salt and pepper,” and continued kneading it. It might’ve been true, I don’t remember.
I also don’t remember if I got any positive reactions to my Perogies from the other kids,
but Bob asked me to make some more the next time I came to the ranch. I guess that was
good enough encouragement for me, because I continued making them. In the months and
years that followed, I learned how to make holupchi and borscht, too. And every time I
made them, I thought of my Grandma.
Now, over thirty years later, I am still making Perogies. I’ve mechanized the procedure: I
have a food processor to mix the dough and I use a pasta maker to roll it out. I use a little
gadget that pinches the edges of the Perogies so tight that they rarely fall apart in the
water. I’ve learned to lay them out on a giant cookie sheet and freeze them individually so
they won’t stick together in a lump. I prepare a whole range of flavours, too. Some
traditional, like Potato, onion and cheese, or blueberry, but many of my own modern day
concoctions - Cherry Cheesecake, pizza, or spinach and feta cheese. I’m trying out a couple
of new ones this year - nacho cheese and samosa.
I still think of my Grandma whenever I make them. She passed away a long time ago,
but I know that when I’m making perogies or cabbage rolls or borscht; even when I’m
attempting to make those buns with the mashed prunes or apricots in them, Grandma’s right
there with me, holding my fingers, helping to perpetuate the tradition that is being passed
down through me. I like to think that she’d approve of my labour saving gadgets. She
wasn’t that old fashioned that she couldn’t see the sense in technology. I think she’d
appreciate my new variety of flavours, too. I know my dad does.
For the last several years I’ve been selling my perogies at Christmas craft and bake
sales. I bring along my mother’s very old electric frying pan and cook up samples for
potential customers. The smell of bacon and onions frying hits them as soon as they enter
the hall. As a result, I often sell as many as a hundred and fifty dozen perogies in a single
Many times I hear a variation of the sentence, “They are very good, but not as good as
my grandmother’s.” I’m never insulted, though, because I know they’re right. They can
never as good as one’s Grandma’s.
2003 Runner up for the Winnipeg Free Press/Writer's Collective
Non Fiction Short Story Contest