15 pounds of potatoes, 27 dozen pierogi and a whole lot of love
St. Joseph's Church in Camden has a traditional Polish Nativity display that its History Society believes is the only one of its kind in the United States. Cherry Hill Courier-Post
Every year at Grandma Jessie’s birthday party on Thanksgiving weekend, we would sing “Happy Birthday,’’ and then join in “Stolat,’’ the Polish song that traditionally calls for the celebrant to “live 100 years.’’
Last year was the final time we sang to her, and the last photo I took of her shows her glowing there among three generations of her family (including eight grandchildren and 15 great-grandchildren), her arms raised in victory like “Rocky.''
She was still well enough to enjoy that day, and she lived independently in the house my grandfather built in Little Falls, the house she raised her family in, for several more months — well into her 97th year.
So many of my food memories are from Grandma Jessie’s kitchen. She showed me how to drop dough into a boiling pot of water to make “homemade noodles,’’ a humble bowl of goodness. I admit to making homemade noodles well into my adult life, slathered with butter, when I needed a little comforting.
She also made wonderful pork chops, stuffed cabbage and holiday cookies, but it was always her pierogi we loved best.
My grandparents did not have what you’d call an easy relationship, but pierogi was something they not only always agreed on. They recognized in their bones the importance of making it and sharing it with family, channeling their own mothers and grandmothers and great grandmothers when they’d sit together working on them at their kitchen table.
I didn’t watch them do a lot of things like that, together, in harmony. It felt like a temporary blessing, this détente over eggs and flour and potatoes, and I am forever grateful for it.
Grandma taught me, my siblings and my cousin Elaine how to make pierogi before I became a mom myself, and I made them with her a few times before taking over the duty of providing them for the Christmas Eve feast.
With an Italian and Lebanese as well as Polish background, I naturally love to cook. But my style in the kitchen is more improvisational than methodical, and the massive undertaking of making even a few dozen pierogi by myself was always daunting, painful and extremely messy. I’d wind up with too many “dead soldiers,’’ blobs of unfilled dough floating at the top of the pot. And my husband would begin to dread the clean up long before I even began.
But then we would settle down to eat them (he’s half Polish, too, just like me), and we’d both know the next year I’d do it again.
And then a Christmas miracle happened.
About six years ago, one of my best friends told me she wanted to learn to make pierogi.
Mind you, this was the best possible friend to ask.
Denise Henhoeffer, who for years was a photographer and videographer at the Courier-Post, is a scratch-kitchen whiz, from a household that stuffs sausage, cans a bounty of garden produce and makes the taco shells before making the actual tacos.
I figured out well into our first Pierogi Day in 2014 that having Denise on board would mean far more pierogi, far fewer dead soldiers, far less mess and a hell of a lot more fun.
This was our sixth year spending at least nine hours rolling out dough, using my grandmother's pasta maker and her grandmother’s cookie cutter — which somehow makes the process more sacred — to create perfectly scalloped circles, stuffing them with a tablespoon of cheddar mashed potatoes (lovingly mashed by hand by my husband earlier in the week), and stocking the freezer with as many as possible til our backs give out.
I asked Denise this year what made her want to not only do this, but keep doing it at the busiest time of the year:
“You used to talk about making pierogi every year, and I’ve always loved trying new things in the kitchen, so it seemed like a natural thing to ask if I could join you for a day to learn how,’’ she told me. “Six or seven years later, it’s become one of my favorite days of the year. But not because of the pierogi that ends up in my freezer at the end of the day. I know how to make it now; I could make a considerably smaller batch. For me it’s become about the guarantee of time together.
“Even when we go through weeks without a lot of time to get together, I know that day is going to let us hang out, to talk nonstop about every and anything, to catch up,’’ she said. “I know we’ve both had people interested in joining us for the day, but I find myself feeling extremely protective of our day together, not because of the pierogi, but because of our time together.’’
Many parts of Pierogi Day are great fun. We steal spoonfuls of potatoes we can’t really spare. We play Christmas carols and then switch to Wilco or the Grateful Dead. Our conversation veers from silly to nostalgic to personal to silly again. Life is hard. This day is good medicine for us, just as it was for my frequently bickering grandparents.
The last few hours of any Pierogi Day can be brutal. The house is fogged up with steam from so many hours of boiling. The dough gets like plaster and can usually be found in our hair, on our socks, and stuck to a half dozen dish towels.
I usually coerce my teenage sons to step in and help fill a dozen just to get us over the finish line a little sooner.
This year we beat our all-time record. Denise told me to tell you we made 27 bazillion dozen.
That sounds about right.
Hanging on my Christmas tree is a golden pierogi ornament, given to me by an aunt who helped care for my Grandma Jessie through her declining years. She is German, not Polish, but she loves pierogi and she gets how they are more special than any other food that winds up on the holiday table.
When Grandma Jessie passed in July after several months in hospitals and rehab facilities, I called my husband Jeff to tell him. And then I texted Denise.
“Is there anything I can do?’’ she wanted to know, as I sat in my car, still parked in my driveway where I had been about to leave for the grocery store.
I thought of our time in the kitchen and answered her.
“You already did.''
Tammy Paolino covers restaurants, breweries, food trucks and arts events for the USA TODAY New Jersey Network. She’s an award-winning reporter and editor who has covered the Garden State for more than 30 years. Reach her at email@example.com or 856-486-2477 or on Twitter @CP_TammyPaolino. Help support local journalism with a Courier-Post subscription.