When Jane Black arrived in Red Lake, a three-hour drive north of Kenora, she was pleased and surprised to find herself in the midst of perogy plenty. She was familiar with these traditional Eastern European dumplings from visits to Winnipeg, but, she says, “they weren’t something you often saw on menus. When I went to Red Lake, I realized they were everywhere!”
She soon found, she recalls, that “at the regular grocery stores, they have more types of perogies than I even knew existed. At Christmas and Easter, restaurants would have signs telling you to order your homemade perogies. At the Ukrainian church, the ladies would make them for special occasions.
“The dough is fresher — it isn’t as gummy,” she says, comparing the local offerings to perogies she’s sampled elsewhere. “They’ll have a nice little golden brown, and then they serve them with bacon and onions. You can have them boiled or fried; I usually like them fried.” And there are variations on the usual potato-and-cheese filling, like onions, chives, and ham.
“A lot of people came to Red Lake who were Polish and Ukrainian, and they worked in the mines,” says Red Lake resident Barbara Thompson (known to her family as “Bausha”). “The Polish Alliance Hall was a dance hall, and the main dishes were perogies and cabbage rolls. The Ukrainian Hall did the same thing. It sort of grew in the community, because whether you were Ukrainian or you weren’t, it became a family food.”
Thompson herself has been helping supply the town for more than half a century and makes well over a thousand every year. “I was helping my mother and my grandmother when I was 12 or 13 — that was when they brought you to the table to help pinch — and I’m 70 now,” she says.
“I worked at the Ukrainian Hall with the ladies who were a lot older than I was. We would make hundreds of dozens for sale,” she remembers. Because demand was so high, “we had to cut off the orders. It’s still the same here: if you make perogies for sale, you can’t keep up with it.”
She still supplies some to the Thirsty Moose — owned by her nephew Tyson Pitura — one of several local eateries that carry homemade perogies. “We did start out selling them,” she recalls. “The first batch, we made about 90 dozen, and they lasted about a week and a half. We kept trying to keep up, and we came to the realization that it was going to be a full-time job. Now we only make them for special parties.”
For her own family, Thompson tends to make the traditional potato-and-cheese perogies with bacon and onions in the filling, as well as some stuffed with her homemade sauerkraut. Her mother made a wider variety, including cottage cheese, blueberry, and mushroom; Thompson’s aunt was so prolific that she was nicknamed “Perogy Grandma” by the family.
What makes a great perogy? “This is something my grandmother used to tell me,” says Thompson. “Use warm water, salt, oil, and flour. She never put eggs in it, because she always said you made a tougher dough, and she always said don’t work it too much, because that will make it tough. The potato part: lots of cheese, a little bit of butter, bacon, onions, and, basically, that’s it. I like to put the cheese in until I know it’s tasty.”
Apparently, some recipes can’t be improved, as most Red Lake residents would attest. “I think it’s a great reflection of a food that belonged to a particular ethnic group that’s now shared,” says Black. “If you don’t have your perogies at Easter or Christmas, then you don’t have your meal.”
Sarah B. Hood is a freelance writer and the author of We Sure Can!: How Jams and Pickles Are Reviving the Lure and Lore of Local Food.
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