Happy National Pierogi Day, everybody!
Practically every culture has a dish where you slap something in between folded dough. The Chinese make dumplings, the Italians ravioli, and don’t forget empanadas, which you can get anywhere in my Spanish-speaking neighborhood. My family on my mom’s side is a hybrid Polish-German-Ukrainian brood. We do pierogies.
Every Friday night, everyone would show up at my grandparent’s house for freshly caught walleye and those succulent doughy pierogies. It became a competition to shout out how many you’d eaten on that particular night. “I had ten.” “Twelve was enough for me.” We were always stuffed. While Grandma preferred the potato/cottage cheese pierogies she prepared, the rest of us couldn’t get enough of Grampa’s sauerkraut ones.
Believe me when I say, sauerkraut is a way of life for my family. My cousin and I spent countless childhood summers in my grandfather’s backyard, watching him and his buddies take turns shredding head after head of leafy cabbage into a large plastic-lined vat. They’d stop every few minutes to let Grampa spread around some salt and spices before the next guy took his turn at the shredder. By day’s end, the vat was filled to the top with crunchy slaw. They’d carry the barrel to the dank, dark basement and seal up the plastic liner and go home. I don’t know how long it sat there fermenting. But you could smell it soon enough. Eventually, the sour aroma permeated every corner of the house. Some grandparents’ houses smell like mothballs or the dust of decades. Mine smelled like sauerkraut the second you walked in the door, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
The basement was set up like a laboratory—a station to fill the jars, one to boil them, and a last stop to seal the lids. Within days of canning, the jars would disappear one-by-one, mostly to my house or my aunt’s or the friends who just “dropped by to say hello to Nick,” my grandfather. Nick’s sauerkraut had a reputation as being the best anyone ever tasted. You can’t convince me otherwise. I’ve had supermarket sauerkraut and the organic raw probiotic-laden stuff you can buy at the local farmers’ market and you might as well top your hot dogs with wilted salad. I’ve often lamented that Grampa didn’t expand his sauerkraut enterprise. Surely, by now, my cousin and I could have been heralded as Sauerkraut Heiresses in the society pages.
One year, Grampa made a bad batch. How he could tell I have no idea. But it divided our family into two camps: Those who, like my grandfather, blamed it on the pickling salt, and the others, like me, who were pretty sure it was just bad cabbage.
“Naw,” he’d say, “I haven’t used that pickling salt in six years. It’s old.”
“Grampa,” I’d tell him, “salt doesn’t go bad. It’s salt. It’s been around forever. And pickling salt is the purest form of salt. It’s a preservative!”
I had Google on my side, but it wasn’t enough to convince him otherwise. I confess, though, I was terribly amused by this hilarious and heated back-and-forth with my grandfather, and I’m sure he was too.
He was in the hospital the last time I was in Minnesota, but he told me to stop by his house and take a few jars back with me. By now, he’d passed the tradition on to my cousin, who’d made the latest batches while he oversaw it. The shiny glass jars sat on the basement shelves like something out of King Tut’s tomb. I grabbed three and shipped them back, taking extra care with the bubble wrap. Once I got home, I opened a jar and inhaled. The same sweet and sour smell I remembered now filled me with a lifetime of memories and I started to swoon. Needles to say, I’d emptied out the jars within a month or two.
Grampa died last December, three days after his 88th birthday. Some days, I miss him more than I can bear. He was the sun around which my entire family orbited. My mom spent the summer in Minnesota helping my grandmother. A few weeks after she arrived, I received a box from her: Four jars of sauerkraut. Each jar shined like gold with the date “11/09” scribbled on the lid. I hugged one and cried. Two more jars came as summer ended. I haven’t opened a single one yet.
I’m sure Grampa would enjoy National Pierogi Day. (And he’d appreciate that it fell on a Friday this year.) But, ever practical, he’d say that any day was pierogi day. And I tend to agree with him. But if you haven’t made your dinner plans yet, go to the store tonight and get some. Melt a little butter with some onion in a pan and drizzle it on top (it’s fantastic!), and enjoy. And know you’ll be dewing what I’m dewing, too.